One reason why the return of the West Coast offense was so timely last year, along with the painful need to say goodbye to the Bob Bratkowski offense (am I right?), was Cincinnati's depressing production when running the football in recent seasons. In fact during the Marvin Lewis era, the Cincinnati Bengals rushing offense has breached the top-ten within major rushing statistics (yards, average, touchdowns) only once (2,056 yards rushing in 2009). Theoretically speaking, the West Coast offers a substituted -- or at the very least, a supplement -- alternative to a focused rushing offense with short timing routes.
Before this iteration of the team's personnel, a radical shift that started last year, Cincinnati relied on running backs like Rudi Johnson, Chris Perry and Cedric Benson -- along with a few spot starts from guys like Kenny Watson and Bernard Scott. Though Johnson is perhaps the best of the bunch, largely with the support of one of the league's best offensive lines, Cincinnati's rushing offense has always been designed as a unit that protects the lead (by consuming the clock) and not a focused effort to dictate the offense early in the game. Even so things declined.
It's not necessarily a matter of philosophy -- rather personnel. When players like Willie Anderson, Levi Jones, Rich Braham and Eric Steinbach, aged, declined in health or signed big deals elsewhere, the Bengals conducted a half-measured response to rebuild the offensive line in successive years. Rather than rebuilding, they groomed mid-round draft picks or promoted undrafted free agents to fill the gaps of decline. Bobbie Williams was the anchor and Andrew Whitworth was the developing left tackle prospect drafted in the 2006 NFL Draft, with a pit stop at left guard for a time. It's been a musical chairs situation at right tackle, the center position experienced a degradation of overall production and left guard was sported by an average undrafted free agent that the Bengals never seriously considered upgrading, despite the need to do so.
Predictably the team's average yards gained on the ground ranked 28, 30, 19, last and 26 in the past five seasons respectively.
When last year concluded in Houston, the quiet months of offseason epiphanies shifted into stabilized plans. Realizing the need to overhaul the rushing offense, instead of filling the gaps, they designed a rebuilding project.
The team signed expected starting left guard Travelle Wharton from the Carolina Panthers and running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis. They drafted first-round pick, guard Kevin Zeitler and sealed backup tackle Anthony Collins to a two-year deal. Andre Smith, last year's right tackle, actually added stability to the position while himself continuing personal ambitions to redevelop himself into a healthier and more athletic tackle by reducing his weight and adding a seriousness that, once lacking, has only grown stronger over the past year.
There still remains the concern regarding personnel at running back. Despite BenJarvus Green-Ellis being a quality goalline back (24 touchdowns in previous 32 games played) that's never fumbled (hopefully we're not jinxing him here), he's never been part of an offense that cared much for the run and like Cincinnati in recent years, was used in New England's offense to protect the lead and consume clock. Perhaps that's the shifting league philosophy and the Bengals are simply following trends. Yet how will an eventual transformation as a primary running back change his style and can he handle the load?
At the same time the Bengals have promoted a running back by committee philosophy, combining Green-Ellis with fourth-year back Bernard Scott. Jay Gruden has also argued that if someone gets hot, they'll get a majority of the carries. Our overall feeling is that the offense won't be using the run to protect the lead, as it will be to supplement the passing offense.
Beyond that the team's overall running back roster maintains a certain status quo. Brian Leonard has made impressive third-down moves that generates first downs. Yet most of his yards are typically generated during long to-go situations on draw plays where the defense is protecting the deep pass. Cedric Peerman and Daniel Herron will battle for special teams and won't factor in the team's overall offensive philosophy, save for injuries.
One of the encouraging signs of Cincinnati's continuing growth was their offseason focus to rebuild the offensive line, favoring the rushing offense as a means for production. Fans shouldn't expect one of the league's best rushing units, explosive touchdowns or 2,000 yards rushing. A unit that compliments the passing offense is all that's really needed. And that appears exactly where it's headed.