September 16, 2014

Offense: Do You Believe?

Has your proverbial “gas tank” of Bengals optimism resembled mine over the past year?

Scrolling back a year, it was nearly full. Coming off the sweep of the division and having a top 5 defense, like most of us (except for those lovable die-hard pessimists), I felt like 2010 would be another good AFC North brawl. But 30 minutes into the season, I knew something was wrong. The offense could muster nothing, and the defense got shredded. The needle dipped slightly, settled briefly with a couple of ugly wins over Baltimore and Carolina, then began dropping as the “L”s piled up, gaining speed with the comeback win comeback loss in Atlanta and fully bottoming out with the meltdown against the Bills. Two late wins barely moved the needle at all.

Then came the mother of all press conference disasters, followed immediately by the news of Carson’s trade demand. I didn’t know until then that the needle could go below “E”. A solid draft got me up over “E” again, but not a lot. The pessimist in me has been preaching for months now that expecting anything more than 3-4 wins this season is foolishness. Keep the hopes low and maybe be pleasantly surprised if the football gods are kind.

But I have to admit, reading the write-up from Geoff Hobson from Saturday’s Mock Game, as well as some of the camp updates from Joe Reedy, are challenging my resolve. Optimism, so vital to survival as a Bengals fan, is trying to make a break for it. Take this for example:

There has been no problem with the vision thing. The goal is clear. Dalton doesn’t have a big-stand-in-the-pocket howitzer, but he’s smart, mobile, quick, and Gruden plans to use his accuracy to first-down-you-to-death with tight ends, formations, and the running game before cutting you deep with Green, Jerome Simpson or tight end Jermaine Gresham. The backs and tight ends are getting more passes now and there is a buffet line mentality for whom might get the ball next. Even if it’s a three-yard flip.

Smart. Quick. Accurate. (Hallelujah!) Reedy keeps using the word “solid”. And I’ll add versatile. Those are all words I like. A lot. But I want to maintain a realistic perspective instead of just turning the fan dial all the way to 11. So let’s take a look at some of the factors that will effect this season.

Easier Schedule: Rather than playing the Patriots (14-2) and the Chiefs (10-6), the Bengals’ 4th place finish leaves them playing the Bills (4-12) and the Broncos (4-12). They also face all of the NFC West this year which went a combined 25-39, a far cry from playing the NFC South which had 3 teams combine to go 34-14.

The first quarter of the season goes: @CLE, @DEN, SF, BUF. Of those teams, San Fran won 6 games last year, Cleveland won 5, while Denver and Buffalo won 4. I have not been impressed with the improvements made by Cleveland or Buffalo, and Denver is a mess right now. If Dalton starts the season, you could not ask for much better than this to get things going.

The next quarter bring games @JAX, IND, @SEA, @TEN. Unless Manning’s neck keeps him off the field until mid-Oct, forget the Colts game. The rest is a step up from the first four, but not a huge step. But it is the third quarter of the season that will be the meat-grinder: PIT, @BAL, CLE, @PIT. If the previous month doesn’t go well, this will be a long month. At least they have 8 games to get ready for it.

The final quarter sets up like this: HOU, @STL, AZ, BAL. I think the Rams will be beatable because I don’t buy into Blaine Gabbert. Houston and Baltimore will be tough, as will Arizona if Kolb is as advertised. But with most of the season to gel, I am not calling any of the un-winnable. Even Baltimore, who has a track record of losing games to the Bengals that they shouldn’t.

Special Teams: This phase of the game was a disaster for much of last year, although the seemed to finally settle in around November. This phase of the game has to be solid from Day 1 if the Bengals want to surprise NFL talking heads. Struggles here will mean another high draft pick.

Defense: After ranking #4 overall in 2009, Zimmer’s boys slipped to #15 last year. (Honestly, until I looked it up, I thought they were lower than #15.) A return to the top 10 will take pressure off of the young offense. With Zimmer at the helm and an easier schedule, I won’t rule that out. Losing JJ doesn’t help that cause, and an upgrade at safety would have made me feel better about it. But I like what they have done at LB and look forward to the return of the Fisher Price package.

Offense: Of the skill players, only Benson and Scaife are true veterans, followed next by Caldwell. Even Gradkowski, who appears destined for the job of Chief Clipboard Holder, only has 20 starts. But what they lack in experience, they make up for in potential. Green (reports on him are glowing), Simpson (a 4th-year rookie in my book), Shipley and Gresham have more upside than nearly any quartet of options out there. Getting those 4 on the field might be just enough speed and athletic prowess to frustrate defenses like those in Pittsburgh and Baltimore. (But for this year? I don’t know.)

As for QB, I am one of those who likes Dalton and am glad they passed on Mallett, Gabbert, etc. And they do not need to win the “Andrew Luck Sweepstakes” to have a good offense for years to come. If you need more, see the adjectives I listed above that are being used with him. He may struggle this year, but he will be all right in the NFL.

While inexperience is a concern, I worry more for the offensive line. Reedy mentioned that false starts were an issue at the Mock Game, as they have been for the last two years. Those can’t happen when it counts. Dalton’s job will be hard enough without the line making it harder. And coaches need to be using the right guys. Collins has been a good RT when needed, and he should start until “Moobs” Smith can do better. LG still needs an overhaul/upgrade.

Bottom line, is something better than another 4-12 season ahead? Stranger things have happened in the NFL. I’m not convinced yet, but I see more possibility than I did a few weeks ago. We will know more after Friday.