This off-season has had a different feel for the Cincinnati Bengals. Coming off a season where they won only their third division title in the last twenty years, the Bengals spent the winter and early spring filling a few holes in their roster and bolstering their depth chart.
One of the focuses of the off-season was improving a pass offense which ranked No. 26 in the NFL last season in yards per game.
Numbers wise, quarterback Carson Palmer didn’t have a bad season. He passed for 3,094 yards, completed 61 percent of his passes, and threw for 21 touchdowns. However, it was an average year (by his standards) and by the end of the season it was clear the team needed to add more talented pass-catchers around their franchise quarterback.
And that’s exactly what coach Marvin Lewis and the Bengals front office did.
In March, Cincinnati inked free agent wide receiver Antonio Bryant. The 29-year-old Bryant, who signed a four-year deal worth $28 million, was bothered by knee pain much of last season. However, in 2008 he had a career-high 83 catches for 1,248 yards and seven touchdowns.
Bengals.com editor Geoff Hobson believes Bryant and the Bengals may be a match made in football heaven.
“He can be that type of player to open the other half of the field and take the double-teams away from Chad [Ochocinco],” Hobson said. “He’s never had a quarterback like Carson Palmer and he’s had eight different offensive coordinators in his eight years in the league.”
Though Bryant is not physically imposing at 6'1" and a touch over 200 pounds, Cincinnati Enquirer Bengals beat writer Joe Reedy sees the University of Pittsburgh product adding a unique dimension to the Bengals’ wide receiving corps.
“Bryant is a different type of receiver than Chad [Ochocinco]; he’s a guy who loves contact in the middle of the field. He loves getting dirty and getting tough catches,” Reedy said. “He’s also one of few wide receivers who love to run block, which is essential to the success of the Bengals offense.”
The Bengals didn’t stop with Bryant. They drafted two wide receivers and a tight end in the April NFL draft, including using their first-round pick on Oklahoma tight end Jermaine Gresham. Gresham, who stands at 6'6" and weighs 260 pounds, was only the second tight end the Bengals have drafted in the first round in franchise history.
“Gresham is a lot further ahead than what the coaching staff could have been most optimistic about,” Reedy said. “As long as there’s not a holdout I think you could almost write it in pen that he’s going to be the starter.”
Although there are some concerns about whether Gresham can handle the blocking responsibilities in the Bengals run-heavy offense, Hobson believes the rookie gives the Bengals an instant red zone weapon, and Palmer a huge target over the middle of the field.
“He’s just a big ass guy. He gives them pretty immediate help in the passing game,” Hobson said. “It’s hard to know about his blocking, but he has the physical skills to do it.”
Of course, the success of the offense begins and ends with Palmer. If the Bengals are to again be a well-oiled offensive machine, Palmer has to pick up his play.
“I expect a lot more out of him, there are no excuses this year for Carson Palmer,” Reedy said. “He’s got the tools, he’s got the weapons, and he says he’s healthy. We just won’t know until he’s on the field.”
Although Palmer looked like more of game manager than Pro Bowl MVP quarterback last season, Hobson thinks No. 9 has plenty left in the tank and that the team’s lack of receiving talent last season crippled the former Heisman Trophy winner.
“He had seven drives at the end of games last year that either tied the game or put the Bengals ahead, so he’s a crunch time guy. Sure, he had a [bad] playoff game, but the passing game shriveled up at the end of the season.” Hobson said. “He hasn’t had this many weapons around him since 2005. I think he’s capable of firing up a quarterback rating of 94, 95 and putting up MVP-type numbers.”
Cincinnati already has an experienced offensive line and a No. 9 ranked running game on offense. If the Who Dey air attack can regain its form, the Bengals could be lighting up the scoreboard in the fall.
Look for Part Two on the defense tomorrow.