In 2005 the Cincinnati Bengals made it to the NFL playoffs for the first time since 1990 on the arm of Carson Palmer. In 2009 they were carried in by the legs of Cedric Benson. With both players' returns in question, what will it take for them to get to the playoffs in 2011?
Following a disappointing, yet almost accustomed, losing campaign the Bengals saw their season end early. In an ugly year that featured in-fighting, a lack of offensive creativity and a promising but lackluster defense, fans tried to look away from the wreckage but couldn't.
You could blame it on the No. 1 schedule, on Palmer's turnover happy nature, a musical chair rotation of defensive and offensive lineman week to week or the plethora of injuries to key players. One could go for days, but the good news is that season is in the books and it's time to look ahead to 2011.
In 2011 the Bengals will need to follow a specific blue print to get back into playoff contention. Could it happen in a year? Sure, the NFL is a crazy league filled with plenty of parody (see: Chiefs and Bucs 2010).
The Bengals and Marvin Lewis will need to follow six steps to find themselves at the top if the AFC North once again.
Step 1: Start Fast, Finish Strong
An old football adage is that the game is 60 minutes if you play one less than that you lose. It seems simple but the Bengals were outscored in the first and fourth quarters and compounded that with a 10-game losing streak in the middle of the season.
In 2011, the Bengals need to start games with more fire and intensity. They must score early, hit hard and play fast to the end of the game. If they win critical situations and set the tone for the game, “don't mess with us,” this team has all the talent to compete for 21 weeks of football.
During the season they will need to avoid long losing streaks and focus on stringing together a few good winning streaks. With a more favorable schedule, their first five against non-playoff teams and three out of the last four at home, they have the opportunity to create such win streaks.
Step 2: Sack the Quarterback
Another seemingly simple step, but the Bengals managed only 27 sacks last season giving them the 27th ranking in the NFL; only four from the league-low Denver Broncos. Of those sacks, 12.5 came from rookies; 9.5 by Carlos Dunlap and three by Geno Atkins.
Where's the veteran leadership? Where are the overpaid Antwan Odom and Robert Geathers? The only idea remotely promising about that is they will have some young players who know how to get after the quarterback. With the third-round selection rookie Dontay Moch, who amassed 30 career sacks at Nevada, the defense will do a better job pressuring the quarterback and forcing interceptions or generating more fumbles. This leads to the next step.
Step 3: Win the Turnover Battle
In 2010, the Bengals were minus-eight in the turnover category. Offensively protecting the ball should be a high priority. Between Carson Palmer's 20 interceptions and the losing 14 of 21 fumbles as a team, turnovers and lost opportunities became a major deterrent.
Palmer completed a respectable 62 percent of his passes, but at times forced the ball into windows that simply didn't exist. Whoever assumes the quarterback reigns in 2011, the addition by subtraction will help. Losing team leading receiver Terrell Owens will greatly help the team spread the ball out and put selfishness aside. Oh yeah, the addition of AJ Green helps a little too. The bright, albeit delayed, emergence of Jerome Simpson is much-anticipated.
Defensively, if they do well on the first step, it should create more opportunities for the secondary to make plays. With a dignified 16 interceptions in 2010, this group could flourish and move into the top five in 2011.
Along with the added pass rush, forced fumbles should increase dramatically with sack strips and hopefully big hits in the backfield. The motto of this D should be “opportunistic."
Step 4: Find an Offense Identity
First they were smash mouthed, then they signed TO and they were a pass heavy explosion. That didn't work so it's back to the run. That failed because everyone knew they couldn’t throw. Finally, in the last two games something clicked (no TO and Ocho?) and the offense wasn't such a train wreck.
After the much needed and long overdue firing of Bob Bratkowski, Jon Gruden…wait, who? Seriously? Okay. Check that JAY Gruden takes charge of the lethargic 20th-ranked offense. It's been stated that Gruden will run a West Coast offense, which should tug at fans' heartstrings after seeing West Coast offense God Bill Walsh snubbed for the head-coaching gig after years of being an assistant. We all know how that turned out, thanks.
Not only is implementing a new offense a daunting task, but the lockout and the uncertainty of Carson Palmer and Cedric Benson make it difficult to put a finger on what exactly is going on. So let's go with what we do know.
Stability and good health on the offensive line with Andrew Whitworth and a (pray to God in shape) No. 6 overall Andre Smith is a good start. The addition of Clint Boling and the continuing progress of Anthony Collins will go a long way for the team to be successful on offense. The Bengals are loaded with explosive young talent like Bernard Scott, Jordan Shipley, Jermaine Gresham and Andre Caldwell. Throwing former Georgia standout A.J. Green into the mix only makes this strong nucleus of talent that more daunting.
The matter of who throws or who runs is imperative to determine what exactly they “are.” If Carson Palmer comes back, then the team will be able to find a very nice balance between run and pass. If the more obvious plays out and the older Palmer finds himself no longer in Cincinnati, it will be vital that Cedric Benson remains a Bengal.
With what Benson recently said about Carson Palmer’s return, his return to the Queen City sounds very hopeful. If Benson does come back, regardless of whoever plays quarterback, he needs 350-plus rushes. They need to be physical, dominating and wear teams out.
I also feel getting Bernard Scott around 200 touches between rushing, receiving and returns will be beneficial to the team. He is a game breaker who can create plays by himself. On the outside I don’t see any problems with that group hauling in 30 touchdown passes this season with even myself behind center.
To be honest I like Jordan Palmer or Andy Dalton at quarterback. I think Jordan Palmer has shown a great deal of maturity and leadership this offseason to hold workouts for the receivers and backs. I think he has earned the chance to win the starting job. Whether Dalton, Palmer, LeFevour or anyone else, they must know their roles in the offense and know specifically how the West Coast offense runs and runs efficiently.
Step 5: Get Special Teams Points
Zero touchdown returns and 77 percent field-goal percentage. That is a mathematically a lot of points left off the board. I'm not looking for another Dante Hall or Billy “White Shoes” Johnson. I don't even expect Devin Hester or DeSean Jackson, but come on! A 7.2 yard average on punt return and a 21-yard average on kick return just doesn't cut it in my humble opinion.
The Bengals need a spark and explosion on returns to ignite the entire team. The momentum shift of housing a return is epic. Opening kickoff, answering a scoring drive, holding on third down, those are the moments that fire up a team and crowd.
As far as the kicking game, find one and make them. Enough said. You know what I mean.
Step 6: Win on Third Down
The Bengals were 87–224 on third-down conversions in 2010. The 39 percent ranked 17th in the NFL, that isn't horrible, but I remember too many three and outs and drives stopped or stalled by penalties or poor Palmer decisions. By improving just 6 percent to 45 percent, the Bengals would have sustained 13 more drives and could have won how many more games? In 2011, a big key to Bengal success will be keeping the offense in rhythm and moving the chains.
Same thing to the defense, allowing 38 percent of third-down attempts isn't awful, but must be improved upon. Making big plays and forcing teams into long second downs will go a long way into dropping that conversion rate.
To do the same theory I did for the offense, let's drop the defense’s conversion rate to 35 percent, a mere three percent. If the defense stopped three percent more conversions, they would have stopped six more drives. How many were scoring drives that could have been potentially stopped? When you lose eight games by an average of five points every stop counts.
These are the six steps the Cincinnati Bengals must take to return to the Promised Land. If the team can accomplish these six steps they will prove to the NFL that they are true sleeper team to make the playoffs.
These steps may seem easy and logical or even mundane, but if you look at the good teams, they do the easy, the logical and the mundane very, very well. Coming out of the gates, sacking the quarterback and creating turnovers will win ballgames. Having an established offense that can stay on the field, a defense that can off it, while adding the dimension of a dynamic special teams group putting points on the board, is a recipe for success in the Jungle. Who Dey.