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Identity and the Bengals: Who Are We and What Should We Do (to be something better)?

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I’m confused, Bengals fans. All the talking heads think that the 21st pick in the 2010 NFL Draft is going to be a tight end. Particularly, I’ve seen ESPN, Draft Countdown, and Chad Reuter talk about Oklahoma product Jermaine Gresham. We’ve talked about it at length here at CincyJungle. But this is not entirely about the draft, this is about the identity of the football team we’ve grown to love. Given, the talking heads have not accurately projected a Bengals first round pick in recent memory, but it’s the off-season and since some people here seem to think that a new toy for the passing game is the way to go, it’s worth talking about. But, why would we draft a tight end (or as some others suggest, a receiver) in the first round of the NFL draft if we’re such a run-heavy team?

We already signed Matt Jones, whose combination of size and speed automatically makes him a candidate for the #2 receiver spot. We drafted a tight end in the third round last year. You might also remember that Andre Caldwell and Jerome Simpson were drafted two years back. Chad Ochocinco is still a Pro Bowl wide receiver. Since we’re a run-oriented offense, isn’t that enough?

A few days ago, James Walker asked the question: "Is the AFC North outdated?" In this blogpost, Walker rightfully asserts that the passing game is king in the NFL. The rules are trending toward protecting quarterbacks and wide receivers; it’s easier to complete a pass today in the NFL than it was even two years ago. The entire NFL playoffs this year featured only two (three if you count Baltimore) teams that like to run the ball and play defense. Only one of them, by the grace of god, made it to the conference championship round, and they were thoroughly dispatched by the 2nd (or maybe 3rd) best team in the NFL, the pass-happy Indianapolis Colts. There is an argument to be made that the best teams in the NFL this year were: New Orleans, Minnesota, Indianapolis, Arizona, Green Bay, Dallas, Baltimore, New England, Philadelphia, New York Jets, and Cincinnati, in that order. Baltimore proved highly capable of passing the ball, and unlike Cincinnati, their running back is always a threat to score. In response to James Walker, I would say:  it’s more like the Bengals are outdated. At least Pittsburgh and Baltimore are adapting and learning to throw the damn ball.

This brings me back to the draft, free agency, and the future. The lack of Bengals coaching staff changes does not inspire hope that the offense will learn how to throw the ball in 2009. Football Outsiders pointed out in a recent article that when the Bengals tried to learn to pass, the team "totally lost its ability to stretch the field, and in a league that prizes throwing the ball downfield more than ever, that's not a long-term growth strategy." I’m inclined to agree, and this is my primary cause for concern for the future. "Palmer was sacked only 29 times, but the team totally reined in its five- and seven-step drop-back packages. By season's end, the Bengals were more conservative than Barry Goldwater. If the team is to build on its 2009 rebound, it must upgrade personnel on the flanks, get some speed in the lineup, and return to within shouting distance of its old, high-flying self."

If the Bengals draft a pass-catching TE (he probably won’t get out of training camp) or a Wide Receiver, they’re shooting themselves in the foot one way or another. Yes, the Bengals need to learn how to pass the ball again. Yes, the Bengals need to add new players in order to accomplish that goal. But a few problems stand in the way. Receivers drafted in the first (or two) round rarely work out (see Peter Warrick, Matt Jones, Charles Rogers, Mike Williams, Jerome Simpson… the list goes on). There are no surefire receivers in this year’s draft class that I’m convinced will be solid, consistent contributors in the NFL outside of Mardy Gilyard, and that’s just a homerism. The second problem is that if the play-calling is the same or even similar, new weapons like Gilyard or Gresham won’t even have the chance to develop. Furthermore, without an offensive lineman that knows how to create a pocket, defensive backs will be able to sit on quick routes because their pass rush will reach Carson before anything more elaborate has a chance to develop.

This begs the question, what should the Bengals do? From this fan’s point of view, the future is kind of bleak. Even if we add the tools we need, assuming they are a good fit with team and smart enough to learn an NFL playbook, will the coaches adjust the way they need to? What if the coaches adjust and the players don’t work out?

The Bengals have to build the offense from the offensive line outward. Right now, a couple of pass-blocking offensive guards would go a long way in giving Bob "The Devil" Bratkowski a little more freedom in calling long-developing pass plays. It would also make a 1st round TE like Gresham make a little more sense. The Bengals face a conundrum. First round pass catchers rarely develop into NFL stars because their projections are far too often derived from physical tools that don’t always translate to success. The offensive line is not correctly built to allow a great receiver to flourish in the first place. The coaches are adamant about running the football too much with a power back that’s just too slow to hit a home run.

To fix these problems, the front office absolutely must spend draft picks or money on interior offensive linemen (and/or a left tackle that would allow Whitworth to move inside) that can give Carson and his receivers more time to get open. A tight end might add some flexibility to the passing game, but it certainly won’t open up the whole offense. When the offensive line is shored up, we can add some glue-handed receiving talent (Gilyard, please, Mr. Brown). Attention should also be devoted to the defensive line and safety position—another problem, hopefully we get all those third round compensatory picks we were talking about.