How often have we heard this statement: "(insert Bengals offensive coordinator) doesn't know how to use a tight end"? Too many to count. It's a truthful statement though, and it unfortunately carried weight through the Bob Bratkowski era and into the Jay Gruden era. More accurately, it can be called an excuse.
The Bengals' offensive heyday in the Marvin Lewis era was in the 2003-2006 seasons and hit its low point in the 2008-2010 seasons. It has since had a rebirth under Gruden, though there have been growing pains with an incredibly young unit. Again, more accurately, there have been a plethora of excuses as to the why's and how's of their shortcomings.
There were major problems at guard, particularly on the left side, prior to 2012. The running game was one-dimensional and didn't have any pop or sizzle. Nobody was helping A.J. Green. The tight end unit behind Jermaine Gresham was weak. Andy Dalton can't throw the deep ball with any consistency. We (fans, critics and the media) gave ourselves line after line of reasons why the young guns on offense weren't getting it done.
Furthermore, we created a "chicken or the egg" conundrum, of sorts. We had to ask ourselves if the coordinators were truly to blame for the shortcomings, or if they just didn't have the correct personnel. The West Coast Offense requires specific players at specific positions to do specific things. Having multiple athletic tight ends that are able to assist in various aspects and running backs that can catch are must-haves. Prior to 2012, many of these pieces weren't readily available.
Let's take a look at where the offense is now and see if we can start disallowing these excuses.
Multiple Athletic Tight Ends
For all of his faults surrounding inconsistency, the Bengals still have a solid tight end in two-time Pro Bowler (via being an alternate for both years) in Jermaine Gresham. He has great size and has slowly improved his blocking skills over the past few years. He will be in Cincinnati through the 2014 season and will head a suddenly deep tight end group.
The funny thing is, Gresham might not be the best tight end that they have on the roster. For the second time four years, the Bengals used a first-round pick on a tight end in Notre Dame's Tyler Eifert. The former Irish standout brings height, speed and great athleticism to the offense and we project him to play dual roles as a tight end and split out wide as a receiver. It's going to be interesting to see how Eifert is used in the coming years and if his skill set does indeed translate well to the NFL.
Then you have two other solid players at the position in second-year man Orson Charles and this year's free agent acquisition in Alex Smith. Charles flashed when given an opportunity last year and lined up as a fullback after Chris Pressley went down with a season-ending injury. Smith has lined up in the same capacity before in his career and has the benefit of having familiarity with Gruden from their Tampa Bay Buccaneers days. There is also Richard Quinn, a player that the Bengals picked up last year and he'll be grinding for a spot.
The Bengals typically don't carry four tight ends on their 53-man roster, but we can see it happening this year with the loads of talent that they have at the position. Tight ends are usually called "security blankets" and/or "a young quarterback's best friend" and this group would definitely provide that with Andy Dalton. The West Coast Offense best thrives with talented tight ends and that's what the Bengals have in 2013 and beyond.
Running Backs With Diverse Skill Sets
The Bengals coaching staff loves BenJarvus Green-Ellis--period. And, really, if you look at it from a coach's perspective, he's a likeable guy. Productive, doesn't pout, good locker room guy, rarely fumbles and picks up the tough yards. On the other hand, he isn't flashy and won't break a long touchdown run and many call him one of the lower-ranked starting backs in the NFL. Say what you want, but Green-Ellis did exactly what he was asked to do in this offense in moving the sticks, cracking 1,000 yards rushing and having over four yards per carry for 2012. It was what was(n't), behind him that hurt the offense.
Enter Giovani Bernard, the rookie out of North Carolina, courtesy of the Oakland Raiders and Carson Palmer. Bernard is a little small, but runs bigger than his size and brings many dimensions to an offense. The biggest of those has to be the ability to catch the football. Many backs bring the speed that Bernard possesses, but his hands out of the backfield are something that this offense has sorely lacked and is a key component for the West Coast Offense and the aiding of a young quarterback. The consensus opinion is that Bernard is the key player of the Bengals' 2013 draft class.
Behind those two are a small handful of players looking to cling to roster spots. Cedric Peerman seems to have a spot tied to his name because of his special teams ability and slashing running style. Some have discredited his 2012 rushing average due to it coming on a couple of long runs off of fake punts, but there were other games that Peerman helped out on the ground, especially after Bernard Scott went down with an injury. Speaking of Scott, he's back on a prove-it deal with the club to see how his knee holds up. There's a distinct possibility that the Bengals hold onto him as an insurance policy and/or he lands on the PUP List to begin the year.
Then there's the wild card in sixth-rounder Rex Burkhead. This is another guy that is easy to love and just plays the game hard--as a runner, receiver and blocker. Some nagging injuries hurt his draft stock this year, but he looks to be locking in on a role on third downs and special teams. A personal favorite, Brian Leonard, left via free agency and Burkhead is trying to fill the shoes there.
In short, a lot of intriguing options in the backfield and now there are a couple of players that bring the ability to catch.
Options At Wide Receiver
Let's just come out and say it: A.J. Green has predictably become one of the most dominant players at his position. The scary part is that he's just now entering what's considered "the prime of his career". As long as the Bengals keep winning, remain competitive, feed Green the ball (even in the postseason), and pay him well, the team will hang onto one of the best players that they have ever drafted.
Still, Green needs help. The Bengals had plenty of opportunities to grab another receiver, be it early in the draft or spend some bucks on one in free agency. They didn't. They like what they have in Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones and they look to have increased roles in 2013, if they can stay healthy. Big if. Sanu looks to have the spot opposite Green with his name on it and if his college skill set rings true, he'll make the tough catches and move the sticks. He did it for a nice little stretch last season.
There's also the team's gadget player in Andrew "Baby Hawk" Hawkins. He's a guy that amazes with his speed and shiftiness, as well as the ability to line up in the backfield for a shovel pass play. Like the rest of the young receiver group, consistency is the issue with Hawkins. He has long dry spells and we're not sure if it's his doing, Dalton's fault, or Gruden's, but we suspect that it's a mixture of all of that. He's still an exciting and valuable guy to the group and will be used in a variety of ways next year.
The Bengals also used a sixth-round selection on another intriguing player in Arkansas' Cobi Hamilton. He brings good size and speed to the group and we could see him making the squad as a project player. Aside from him, we're going to throw Eifert in this category as well because we foresee many formations where he is split out wide as a wide receiver and that should help the red zone and third down woes from last season.
If they're healthy and consistent, this could be one of the better receiver units in the NFL.
A Solid Offensive Line
The Bengals have done an outstanding job assembling and coaching-up their current offensive line. The first order of business in 2013 was to re-sign Andre Smith to anchor the right side and both sides finally got the deal done on the second day of the draft. He was rated as one of the top right tackles in the NFL last year by Pro Football Focus, particularly as a run blocker. It seems as if the big guy has turned the corner from maturity, weight and injury issues--let's hope that a multi-year deal pays off.
Speaking of the right side of the line, how good of a draft pick was Kevin Zeitler? He teamed with Smith to open huge holes for Green-Ellis and Co., and was a consensus All-Rookie selection. We barely heard Zeilter's name called last year, and as an offensive lineman, that's a great thing. We expect more of the same next year with the former Wisconsin Badger and foresee Pro Bowls in his future.
There's also the mainstay on the left with veteran and team captain, Andrew Whitworth. Though we've maybe seen a tiny bit of decline over the past couple of seasons, he's still one of the better left tackles in the game and is a valuable locker room guy. The team may need to think about looking for his replacement in the next couple of years, but we expect more solid play from Whitworth.
Clint Boling stepped in nicely for Travelle Wharton last year and with the exception of a couple of hiccups, we liked what we saw. Perhaps with a full-year under his belt and a little extra time in the weight room, Boling will continue to be a good starter for the Bengals. If not, the team still has Wharton under contract and could plug him in there. Center remains a mystery, but we expect some form of improvement, be it from a fully healthy Kyle Cook or an improved second-year man in Trevor Robinson.
Even though they've added two major rookies in Eifert and Bernard, each one of the other players is a year further in their NFL career. The most important players at the critical third year is Dalton and Green. Many are stating that this is a make-or-break year of sorts for Dalton, even though he set career highs in many statistical categories last year.that might be the case, but only time will tell.
Regardless, the whole offensive unit is a year older and wiser. Many of these players have had significant growing pains and have felt the sting of losing in back-to-back playoff appearances. The hope is that they have adjusted to the speed of the pro game and have learned what it takes, in terms of preparation, to be a NFL player.
It's not just the players who have done some growing up, either. Gruden sounds as if he's learned from some mistakes and had a say in bringing in some of these key pieces over the past two or three seasons. Aside from that, he now has Hue Jackson to lean on as his running backs coach and the former Raiders head coach is now back to a more comfortable role with the offensive unit after spending last year as an assistant on special teams and with the defensive backs.
Take a look at that list. Though it might paint a bit rosier of a picture than some would like to admit, the Bengals are in a good place, offensively speaking--at least on paper. The additions of Eifert and Bernard should be huge and the continued development of young players should pay dividends this year.
The excuses can't be used anymore. It's time for this team to take the next step. We already know that the defense will be it's normal, stout self. Now, it's the offense's turn to catch up. It looks like they should be headed there.