Exit Interview: Running Backs

John Rieger-US PRESSWIRE

The Law Firm works quietly at his craft, but more noise is needed to get opposing defenses' attention.

It is understood that reputable law firms do not advertise. The same could be said for BenJarvus Green-Ellis. He is a quiet workhorse that goes about his business stoically and steadily. One is not meant to be amazed at his talents-he is without flare and gusto-but he is as steady as boulder and at the end of the day, the job has been done. He does not seek out the approval of others nor draw attention to his craft. If you need his labor, you give him the ball and see the thing through. Otherwise, you forget he is even on the team.

That isn't to say that no one doubted the move to bring him in early on. Most knew of his reputation as a reliable back with physical limitations. The idea of the Bengals management was that he was safe: a sentiment valued by both the head coach and the owner. A year earlier, Cedric Benson developed a bad case of the fumbles and allowed his attitude and public opinions to become overtly grizzled, rankling the men who signed his checks. He was cold-shouldered by Cincinnati during free agency and was effectively replaced by Green-Ellis. The thinking by most observers outside of the organization was that he was to be a compliment to the team's other backs and that his load would be lighter than his predecessor's. The Bengals had other horses in their stable and Bennie-as he came to be known by his comrades-was only there for certain situations.

Once the season began, though, it became evident that he would be used more than most of us thought. Then, once Bernard Scott was lost for the year thanks to an injured knee, his abilities became the cornerstone of the running game and the team hitched their playoff hopes upon his thick legs.

In the first quarter of the season, his production was dreadful. It appeared that he was blind to running holes and he showed a disappointing propensity to break tackles. Worse yet, is that he experienced a rare rash of fumbles, coughing it up three times in two games after never having fumbled in his career previously. Once the ball began hitting the turf, we fans worried that his best attribute as a supreme caretaker of the football was a myth and that we'd been duped into buying a useless back. The team started to lose games and the yards-per-carry were precariously low.

Then, after the bye week, a change was made to the offensive line, installing the young and unproven Trevor Robinson at center, in for the old and useless veteran Jeff Faine. This switch breathed fresh air into the running attack and suddenly not only was Green-Ellis effective, he became explosive. Never before had teams needed to worry about the Law Firm ripping off huge yardage on the ground, but there it was happening seemingly once a game. The offense purred during this stretch of the season and the wins came free and easy.

Bennie returned to Earth against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 16, but the poor performance was deemed permissible against the league's top-ranked defense. He, like the other starters, was used sparingly in the season finale in order to rest up for the first round of the playoffs. In that Wild-Card game, the Texans dressed two backup middle linebackers who struggled stopping Green-Ellis when he got his chances. Sadly for Bennie and his team, the running attack was abandoned throughout the course of the game, and despite gaining more than five yards per carry, his impact on the game was minimalized by his own play-caller.

The season was a strange ride for Green-Ellis. Fans weren't all that excited to hear he had signed. Then they (and myself) wrote off his acquisition as a failed experiment after a half season of underwhelming results. Then the line improved, and Green-Ellis showed us things we didn't think possible of him. Once he could relax in his arm chair and rest his weary legs upon the season's conclusion, he could be proud that he'd set new personal highs in carries and yardage. He'd fumbled three times, but got that act together before nasty labels were applied to him. He converted all but one third-down attempt when he was given the chance. In the end, he'd been the back that the Bengals had paid for and no one could feel they'd been cheated.

There are some things Green-Ellis will never be. He will never break any speed records, and his size is fixed at "moderate". He will not learn the arts of the juke move or learn to be a great receiver. But what he does well-and has done well since entering the league-will not change. There are no surprises to this man. His potential has been reached. What you see is what you get.

The only surprise about him is the regularity of his carries. In New England, he was the feature back, but that feature was never all that prominent compared to that team's other offensive facets. They had Tom Brady behind center who could make magic with his arm all by himself, and they never needed Bennie to do much more than not fumble and run clock.

Many figured a similar role would be used by Cincinnati, but a very different philosophy is enacted within the Bengals organization. No matter what the team's brain trust says aloud about splitting carries and getting their youngsters more of a chance, they remain a one-horse team. Bernard Scott faced a critical "contract year" in 2012 and had hoped to up his value and responsibility to the team by seeing more carries. The coaches said they were on board to get him more involved, but never committed to that sentiment. Scott's chances were brief, and against Miami when he finally started to show some life, he hurt his knee and was lost for the year. Now he is a jobless backup running back that hasn't proven anything to anyone. He will always have the big play lurking somewhere in his arsenal, but his inability to stay healthy has frustrated too many important men who decide his fate. I would imagine that his days in Cincinnati are over and that he will be viewed as an embodiment of unfulfilled greatness.

Without Scott, the Bengals were down to two complimentary backs in Cedric Peerman and Brian Leonard.

Like Scott, Peerman had youth and promise swirling about his scouting report and had shown flashes of brilliance in the past. But also like Scott, he chances were like crumbs on the plate and no one got a true sense of his role on the team. Peerman has serviceable football instincts and shows value on special teams. I have always felt that if given more opportunity, Peerman could demonstrate a richer skill-set to the world. There seems to be a trust issue working against Peerman. Perhaps he fumbles in practice-who knows?-but it feels more like the offensive coaches would like to use him more but can't allow themselves to trust him enough to pull that trigger. He has shown the team enough on special teams to remain on the roster for the foreseeable future, but one can only wonder what more he has to do to be a more viable piece to the offense.

Brian Leonard on the other hand, may be out of chances. It was clear that he was the true backup to Green-Ellis by midseason, despite never showing off his big-play ability we've seen in the past. Perhaps it is a matter of age. Leonard, who is not that old even in football standards, for whatever reason feels too old. He used to video-game his way around the field, hurdling defenders here and spin moving there, but now he runs straight ahead until someone tackles him easily. A three-yard gain became a good play of Leonard, which means we severely lowered our expectations of the man. His moments in subsequent years had been positively glorious, coming through in the clutch unlike any other Bengal, but 2012 produced nothing but the mundane and mediocre. His place on the team should be endangered after such a blasé season.

Finally Dan "Boom" Herron was the fourth back used this year, and really only made a name for himself as a kick-blocker. In the one carry I can remember him getting, he appeared very quick and rather explosive hitting the hole. Boom is not a large man which may have affected his draft position, but he certainly plays with spirit and may someday become serviceable in the running game.

Until the Bengals acquire new legs at the position, one can only assume to see more heavy doses of the Law Firm next season. We've learned how much Marvin Lewis craves safety, consistency and reliability when handling the football, and no one embodies these traits more than Green-Ellis. He has not proven himself to be an injury concern. He takes on the same mileage other backs do without the apparent wear-and-tear of his body. Still, the team needs something more than the ho-hum if they want their offense to really turn heads. Offensive coordinator, Jay Gruden, has admitted he wants the home-run hitting speed back seen on other teams in order to jazz up the attack and add a new element to the rush. I would suspect that Peerman returns to add to the position's depth chart, but the others future with the team is very much in doubt. I think most would agree with Gruden about the need for a more effective compliment to Green-Ellis, and I think the team could stand with a bit more pizazz when running the ball. So while the Law Firm may continue to work steadily and quietly, an Advertisement Firm may be needed to make the right kind of noise for a Super Bowl run.

Mojokong-the horse whisperer.

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