A little over a year ago the Cincinnati Bengals’ offense found itself in a state of purgatory after coming to grips with the future loss of a franchise quarterback and receiver. Add in the loss of an offensive coordinator and the future was bleak at best.
To begin rebuilding the offense the team turned its focus to the 2011 NFL Draft. The team selected wide receiver A.J. Green with the fourth overall pick. The selection was a no-brainer, and one draft analysts had been predicting from the beginning.
With the 35th overall pick the Bengals selected TCU quarterback Andy Dalton. Many analysts didn't expect Dalton to fall to the second round, with the only knock on him being his perceived lack of arm strength. However, most Bengals fans were thrilled to see Dalton fall.
Despite Dalton being a four-year starter at the collegiate level with a multitude of awards and Green being an athletic freak with his own accolades, many experts doomed the Bengals season from the beginning. Most were inclined to predict with their innate wisdom that the team would be in the hunt for another quarterback in the 2012 draft.
They couldn’t have been more wrong.
Fast forward to present day: The Bengals are in playoff contention at 8-6 in the toughest division in football. Dalton has broken three franchise rookie records: touchdowns (18), yards in a game (373 at Baltimore) and yards (3,012). Dalton's rating stands at 81 percent, outstanding for a rookie.
Despite a rookie quarterback, Green is four yards shy of breaking Cris Collinsworth’s rookie receiving record. Green has 61 receptions for 1,006 yards and seven touchdowns. Green has also surpassed the rookie seasons of Larry Fitzgerald, Greg Jennings, Calvin Johnson and Andre Johnson, to name a few.
Both Dalton and Green find themselves in the running for the Rookie of the Year Award. Head coach Marvin Lewis has been especially exuberant in his praise of Green: “He’s the best first-round draft pick that I’ve ever been around.”
The most incredible aspect of the duo’s success is the fact they accomplished it without a normal offseason thanks to the lockout. The players were allowed to have no interaction with coaches until the dispute was resolved, then were immediately thrown into the fire of preseason games.
None of this is to say Dalton and Green have done it alone. Dalton is protected by a veteran line including the vastly underrated Andrew Whitworth protecting his blindside. Second-year tight end Jermaine Gresham is a huge target for Dalton and takes pressure off of Green. Workhorse running back Cedric Benson is on his way to another 1,000 yard season, and receivers Jerome Simpson and Andrew Hawkins have come up huge in key situations.
New offensive coordinator Jay Gruden is responsible for the young unit’s success. Gruden developed a simplistic offense for the young players to digest while slowly adding more pieces as the season progressed. The team doesn’t have eye-popping statistics or rankings, but Gruden has allowed them to do enough to compete in the AFC North and potentially in the postseason.
Looking ahead to next season, it’s easy to be optimistic about the offense. Key players will return from injury such as Jordan Shipley. Shipley is one of the best slot receivers in the NFL. Dalton will have had a complete season of experience that allowed him to adapt to the speed of the league.
Not to mention the team can add a plethora of talent via free agency and the draft. The Bengals have two first round picks thanks to the trade of Carson Palmer. Benson’s return is in doubt, mainly because of big-names such as Alabama’s Trent Richardson potentially declaring for the draft.
The progression of the offense as a whole should be drastic with there being no lockout to impede the team from practicing and learning together. A full offseason under a more experienced coordinator in Gruden will allow Dalton and the offense to develop into an elite unit.
Regardless of the outcome of this season, Bengals fans should be ecstatic about the future. For the first time in a long time, the forecast for the future is bright in Cincinnati. The culture change provided by Dalton and Gruden has created a contender for years to come.
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