"You can't win if you can't run the ball". Remember that tried and true NFL adage? Heck, the new offensive coordinator of the Cincinnati Bengals, Hue Jackson, just said it this weekend at the NFL Combine. It has lost some luster in recent years with the devaluation of the running back position and the emphasis on having a quarterback that can throw his way to a potential Super Bowl. Look closely, however, and one can still see the value in the phrase.
The Cincinnati Bengals haven't had a dominant running game in their offensive arsenal since 2006 and a truly solid one hasn't arguably been seen since 2009. Since Andy Dalton has taken over at quarterback, the team has hovered just above a No.20 overall ranking in rushing offense, which has undoubtedly made things a bit more difficult in his brief career.
Even with the team investing two picks in the running back position last season and the excitement that second round selection Giovani Bernard brought to the mix, the team still plodded to a No.18 overall ranking. A variety of factors contributed to that, including inconsistent offensive line play and a lack of a true blocking fullback, but a glaring problem is the lack of a player capable of making the big plays outside of Bernard.
It's possible that the Bengals already have some players on the roster who can make some big plays. BenJarvus Green-Ellis has had some nice moments for the club, and with new offensive coordinator Hue Jackson re-committing to the run and liking the idea of a fullback, The Law Firm could see an improvement in 2014. Still $3 million for a player that had a 3.4 yards per carry average doesn't seem to quite add up, does it?
There is Cedric Peerman, who has impressed in very limited opportunities and remains a special teams ace, as well as the enigmatic Rex Burkhead. The former Nebraska Cornhusker has a unique skill set and dominated in last year's preseason, but that was against competition that was largely comprised of third-string fringe roster players.
So, what do the Bengals currently have to really support the notion that the running game will near top-ten status in 2014? There is a question mark at fullback and three others at running back behind Bernard, making it seem as if offseason acquisitions are a must.
When one looks at teams who have had success in the past few seasons, a trend emerges. That trend is having two, sometimes three backs that are able to tote the rock and carry the offense that may or may not have limitations at other positions. For instance, eight of the twelve playoff teams from 2013 were ranked in the top-fifteen in rushing offense, with six being in the top-ten. Let's have a look at some recent examples of strong running games leading the way:
- 2013 New England Patriots: LeGarrette Blount, Shane Vereen and Stevan Ridley combined for 2,065 rushing yards and a No.9 ranking in rushing offense. They had 4.4 yards per carry on the year.
- 2013 San Francisco 49ers: Frank Gore, Colin Kaepernick, Kendall Hunter and others combined for 2,201 yards, 18 touchdowns and a 4.4 yards per carry average. They were the No.3 rushing offense in 2013.
- 2010 Oakland Raiders: Darren McFadden and Michael Bush paved the way to a surprising 8-8 season. They had the No.2 ranked rushing offense in the NFL with almost 2,500 yards and had 19 touchdowns. It's was a breakout year for the oft-injured McFadden.
- 2011 Oakland Raiders: Bush and McFadden once again helped a very limited Raiders team to an 8-8 record behind 2,110 rushing yards, 16 touchdowns and 4.5 yards per carry and a No.7 ranking in rushing offense. Bush was the featured back this time around.
- 2007 and 2008 New York Giants: Though most rightfully credit improved play from Eli Manning and a dominant defensive line for two consecutive solid seasons, including a Super Bowl win, there was a three-headed rushing monster to deal with. Brandon Jacobs, Derrick Ward and Ahmad Bradshaw were dominant forces and helped lead the way to success. In both seasons, all three backs averaged right around five yards per carry and had significant touches.
Options In Free Agency:
Blount, who was a big part of the three-headed monster in New England, is headed to free agency and could be a replacement for Green-Ellis. Another North-South runner that could fit the bill is Rashad Jennings, formerly of the Oakland Raiders. These two would fit the bill of the tough AFC North style runner.
If the Bengals choose to keep Green-Ellis, a roll of the dice on guys like Knowshon Moreno or Darren McFadden could be a nice addition to the group. Though both of these players have had injury issues, they have also had seasons where their first round talent showed and could thrive in a new atmosphere conducive to their strengths.
Inexpensive Options In The Draft:
There will be some backs available in the middle rounds of the draft who could round out the running back corps and/or replace ineffective incumbents. If you want north/south, one cut runners then Boston College's Andre Williams, Stanford's Tyler Gaffney, or USC's Silas Redd. Though there is a bit of a gamble on what you can get out of a rookie, they are a much cheaper option than an outside free agent who may be proven, or other veterans on the roster who are viewed as not earning their keep.
The number of highly-ranked rushing offenses that were featured in the playoffs just can't be overlooked. Three of the four teams in the 2013 Conference Championships had great success all year on the ground and the fourth, the Denver Broncos, didn't have a slouchy one either. Yes, the quarterback plays a huge role in the overall success of a team, but leaning on a competent running game pays huge dividends.
The Bengals would be wise to evaluate their running back situation this year. Personally, I am of the opinion that the more competition that they bring in at the group, the better. Still, they may opt to keep things as they are for another year to see if the current pieces show improvement in Jackson's new system.