AFC North: BenJarvus Green-Ellis

CINCINNATI -- By now, you probably are well aware of the Cincinnati Bengals' push to run the ball and to design their offense to thrive off physicality, not finesse.

Head coach Marvin Lewis has spoken often about it. Offensive coordinator Hue Jackson has, too. Some Bengals players have also spoken out in support of the change in offensive philosophy, including most recently, new backup quarterback Jason Campbell.

"I don't care how good you throw the football," Campbell said, "you still have to be able to run the football."

While all of that ought to help balance the Bengals' offense and make the team more successful overall, there's still something I'm a little curious about. With plans for using their backs more extensively, how much will the Bengals use them in the passing game?

If Jackson's time as an offensive coordinator is any indication, a physical offense features running backs who can catch, too.

In his two seasons with the Oakland Raiders (he was the offensive coordinator in 2010 and the head coach in 2011), Jackson's running backs ranked seventh in the league in receptions, catching more than 90 passes both years. They combined to catch 93 in 2010 and had 90 in 2011.

As the article linked above indicates, Campbell started at quarterback for Oakland both seasons. He and other Raiders quarterbacks spread those completions around to five tailbacks and fullbacks in each year.

Cincinnati's starting quarterback, Andy Dalton, completed passes to only two of his running backs last season. BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Giovani Bernard combined to have just 60 receptions during the regular season. The year before, Green-Ellis and three others caught 37 passes.

The Bengals' 60 running back receptions in 2013 ranked 24th in the league. When it came to passing to their receivers, though, they ranked ninth, completing 215 passes to their wideouts. Even with Bernard in their backfield, the Bengals were more apt than most other teams to let their passing game rely on A.J. Green and the rest of the Bengals' receivers.

NFL teams in 2013 averaged 177 passes to receivers and 75 to running backs. That means backs across the league caught 29.8 percent of their team's passes last year, while Bengals backs caught only 21.8 percent of theirs.

As the Bengals begin shifting to an offensive scheme that's designed to incorporate more runs and play actions than in recent years, they have good reason to modify their passing game.

Teams typically counter prolific rushing attacks by stacking the line of scrimmage with so many defenders that a back's running lanes vanish. Occasional blitzes can negatively effect some running plays, as well as put pressure on the quarterback when in passing situations. The best way to overcome those blitzes are to get running backs and receivers involved in the passing game by throwing them screens or flares. As defenders sprint into the backfield, running backs running those routes can slip past the over-pursuit and catch balls that can put them into space where they can run untouched for several yards.

When the back has the speed and elusiveness of Bernard, those gains can be even bigger. Darren McFadden, Michael Bush and Marcel Reece were all different runners for Jackson in Oakland, but made a habit of catching passes and generating big gains after them in 2010 and 2011.

The time Jackson spent with those three seems proof enough that even for a team dedicated to running the ball -- the Raiders, by the way, finished second in rushing in 2010 -- a simple pass out of the backfield can be just as important.

This all started with Hue Jackson.

The day the Cincinnati Bengals' position coach was formally elevated to offensive coordinator, the Bengals planted the seed of their forthcoming physicality. After the Bengals struggled to find an offensive identity at times in 2013, Jackson was determined to make sure they found one long before a down was played in 2014.

"We know we need to run the football. We want to run the football," Jackson told reporters the January day he was promoted.

He added, "What I need to do is unleash these guys."

If that last statement doesn't convince you of Jackson's plans to force-feed defenses a ground game that can open up timely passing opportunities, I don't know what will. Not only does he want to run more, but he wants to run more efficiently. If he wants to see his running backs' yards-per-carry average increase from its 3.65 mark that ranked 28th in the league in 2013, Jackson will need to incorporate plays that not only better allow his offensive linemen to push around defenders at the line of scrimmage but also get receivers and tight ends blocking deep downfield on edge rushes that can turn into the types of big gains he routinely saw as a coordinator and head coach in Oakland.

Jackson's theory is that the more a team runs and the better it runs, the better and more effective it can be in the play-action and deep-passing games. Lanes open downfield when linebackers and safeties start rushing up to stack the box against the run, setting up other big plays. For that to happen, though, his offense has to be physical from the first snap.

[+] EnlargeCincinnati's Giovani Bernard
Mike Ehrmann/Getty ImagesRunning back Giovani Bernard averaged 4.1 yards per carry last season.
Just how physical have the Bengals been, though? Specifically, I'm curious about the running backs. Do Giovani Bernard and BenJarvus Green-Ellis need to be more physical to match Jackson's desires?

Of course, a player's physicality can't be objectively quantified. There is no such metric. The only way we can see how physically a running back runs is by looking at his yards after contact. Was he good at making defenders miss? Did he have a good stiff-arm? Does he often break tackles? The yards after contact statistic won't answer those questions fully, but it can provide some evidence as to just how well the running back can carry a pile.

When it comes to the yards-after-contact eyeball test, Bernard and Green-Ellis passed with flying colors last season. It was common for Bernard to juke multiple defenders out of their shoes as he ripped off big gains. His 35-yard touchdown run at Miami on Halloween was the perfect example of that. He broke a tackle near the line of scrimmage, slipped another, spun around, reversed course, dodged another tackle as he ran horizontally across the field before cutting up a sideline and using his blockers to weave around the Dolphins' defense. He punctuated the run with a flip into the end zone.

Green-Ellis' speed doesn't make him quite an elusive runner, but he did carry multiple piles for additional yards after being hit last season. Because he's more of a short-yardage back, contact is exactly what the veteran seeks. So, yes, just by looking at them, the two backs look like physical runners.

But if we use yards after contact as a way of measuring their physical play, we see that Bernard and Green-Ellis weren't as physical as some of their counterparts in other cities.

Overall, the Bengals ran for 708 yards after contact last season, good enough for 14th in the NFL. Their average of 1.47 yards after contact per carry ranked 27th.

By looking at short-yardage, third-down and goal-line statistics, we can also see how physically a team runs. The numbers show that when it came to converting third downs, the Bengals weren't all that good. Overall, they ranked 24th in third-down conversion, turning only 43.9 percent of their third downs into first downs. That low figure primarily can be explained by the high rate of third-and-longs the Bengals had. Of their 225 third-down chances last season, 164 came with them needing 4 or more yards to reach the first-down marker.

As poorly as the Bengals were at converting third downs, they really weren't very good when using the run to get first downs. They ranked 24th in converting third-and-longs with the run, doing so only 19.2 percent of the time. When needing 3 yards or fewer on third downs, they used the run to get first downs 64.5 percent of the time. They ranked 19th in doing that.

If we go by the numbers alone, we see the Bengals weren't very physical in third-down conversion scenarios. On the goal line, however, they were. They ranked second in goal-to-go efficiency, ending up with touchdowns on 22 of their 25 goal-to-go drives. They ran the ball during each scoring drive and finished 10 of those drives with running plays.

One of the biggest keys to a running game's success is blocking. At times last season, the Bengals did it well at every level; from backs blocking for backs to receivers setting the edges to linemen opening holes. At times they didn't. How well a team blocks can directly affect how well it runs and, in turn, how physical the running backs are.

When the Bengals set out to improve upon their yards-per-carry average from last season, they will need to make blocking their primary point of emphasis. Jackson's past comments seem to suggest he's thinking along those lines, too. For as hard as it may have looked like Bernard and Green-Ellis ran last season, the numbers show that they could have had even greater production. Fewer third-and-longs also could put them in more advantageous running scenarios, allowing them to get unleashed in just the way their offensive coordinator wants.
Good Saturday morning to you.

After taking a week off last weekend due to a busy couple of days at the NFL combine in Indianapolis, we're back with another Cincinnati Bengals mailbag. And because we got such a great rush of questions on Twitter this week, we'll be splitting this mailbag up into two separate posts. Here is Part 1. Come back Sunday morning to check out Part 2.

This edition of the weekend's Bengals mailbag is devoted primarily to free agency (although, a couple of free agency questions will sneak into Sunday's post, as well). Are there free agents the Bengals could go after, including their own 14 unrestricted and restricted players? Who might some of those targets be? Is Oakland running back Darren McFadden one of them?

We try to answer some of these questions below:

Combine countdown rewind: Bengals RBs

February, 24, 2014
Feb 24
Last week, in the days leading up to the start of on-field workouts at the NFL combine, we counted down five of the top position needs for a Cincinnati Bengals team that will go into May's draft looking to build depth instead of trying to find immediate starters.

As part of the countdown, I listed three players from each position who I said I would have my eyes on during the interview and testing portions of the event. Now that the combine is concluding, wrapping up Monday and Tuesday with all defensive workouts, I figured this would be a good time to go back and look at the numbers posted by the players who were part of the countdown. Each day this week, we'll be doing a rewind of the countdown, analyzing how well the players who were in it worked out.

Up first: Running back

The Bengals have shown over the years that they are more apt to adding impact players through the draft over free agency, but could that change this year? Last month new Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson, the one-time head coach of the Oakland Raiders, made waves when he gushed about Raiders running back Darren McFadden to a San Francisco Bay Area radio station. McFadden is up for free agency starting next month, opening the door for the Bengals to maybe consider signing him.

Not saying it'll happen, but as the Bengals think about shoring up a physical running game that they want to use to pace the balance of the offense, we still may want to keep him in mind as the next two months play out.

Whether McFadden gets brought to Cincinnati or not, the Bengals still have to think a little about the running back position from a depth standpoint. BenJarvus Green-Ellis will be 29 when training camp opens for the final season on his current contract. His production was down in 2013, too, raising some concern about his longer term future in Cincinnati. So even if McFadden comes in to form a three-headed monster at running back, the Bengals may want to add another young rusher to pair with Giovani Bernard, and to groom for the coming years when McFadden and Green-Ellis won't be there.

The three running backs I highlighted last week -- James Wilder Jr. (Florida State), Antonio Andrews (Western Kentucky) and David Fluellen (Toledo) -- are all physical runners who are likely to be selected in the middle-to-late rounds. A taller, upright runner with good balance, Wilder actually reminds me of McFadden. Wilder measured at 6-foot-3, 232 pounds last week. McFadden is listed at 6-1, 218.

Here are numbers (per from the trio's workout Sunday:

James Wilder Jr. (Florida State)
40-yard dash: 4.86 seconds
Bench: 18 reps (at 225 pounds)
Vertical: 35 inches
Broad jump: 121 inches
3-cone drill: 6.92 seconds

-- Wilder didn't test well Sunday. His 40-yard time was the third worst among running backs, and his bench-press numbers were in the lower tier, too. The bench might be explained by the shoulder injuries he battled in college, but the speed tests were a bit of an anomaly for a player who previously had been recorded running a 4.55 40. His vertical and broad-jump numbers were strong for a player his size and reflected the athleticism he routinely showcased on his longer runs.

Antonio Andrews (Western Kentucky)
40-yard dash: 4.82 seconds
Bench: 20 reps (at 225 pounds)
Vertical: 29.5 inches
Broad jump: 106 inches
3-cone drill: 7.24 seconds

-- Andrews had a tough time with the drills that tested his speed, too. Although a shade faster than Wilder, the 5-10, 225-pound back still was looking to test a little better in those exercises. Per ESPN Insider, he previously ran a 4.6 40. During the receiving drills, Andrews performed considerably better, drawing audible praise from coaches on the NFL Network telecast of the session. As the first running back to begin the drills -- drills are done in alphabetical order -- he had the unenviable task of setting the tone for everyone else.

David Fluellen (Toledo)
40-yard dash: 4.72 seconds
Vertical: 36.5 inches
Broad jump: 120 inches
3-cone drill: 6.9 seconds

-- Fluellen could be drafted the lowest of the players in this group, but his athleticism should end up making him attractive to some team. Like Wilder, his three-cone drill numbers indicate a measure of agility and quick feet. His vertical and broad-jump distances show some explosive ability, as well. At 5-11, 224 pounds, he and Andrews are similar sizes.
Bernard Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesBengals running back Giovani Bernard impressed his coaches with his toughness in his rookie season.

CINCINNATI -- A week of training camp had barely passed, but Cincinnati Bengals assistant coach Hue Jackson was already becoming convinced his rookie running back had the internal mettle to compete in the NFL.

Of course, this time of year there is a natural expectation that coaches and executives will be honing in on players with such potential before they even get drafted. That's a large part of the reason events like the combine and the Senior Bowl exist. But until a first-year player actually puts on the pads with his new professional teammates and gets tested by them, no one can really tell just how said rookie will get along with the personalities previously assembled.

That was the case early in Bengals training camp last July and August when Jackson, the current offensive coordinator who at that time was Cincinnati's running backs coach, witnessed Giovani Bernard getting pounded in practices by his defense. As bad as that pounding was, though, it showed Jackson that Bernard was ready for the next level, and that he needed to be a big part of the Bengals' offensive attack.

"He wanted more of it," Jackson said at the scouting combine in Indianapolis this weekend. "It was me who was trying to get those guys to pull up because we didn't want to get anybody hurt. But that's the beautiful part of it, in my mind. That was like them saying, 'OK, you're here and you're supposed to help us win? Let's find out.'

"And he passed the test."

The physical abuse of Bernard by linebackers like Vontaze Burfict and James Harrison did cause Jackson and other offensive assistants to beg the defenders to pull up when the young running back came their way in practices. After all, he was the Bengals' second-round pick and the first running back taken in the 2013 draft. The franchise needed to keep him as healthy as possible.

Cameras from the HBO "Hark Knocks" film crew caught coaches in one practice admonishing the defenders for the tackles, particularly one hard hit that Burfict delivered. Bernard didn't take kindly to it and started to retaliate. Burfict ended up getting warned and Bernard was cautioned by then-offensive coordinator Jay Gruden to avoid scuffling with him.

"Don't get in a fight with Burfict, he'll kick your [butt]," Gruden said to Bernard on the first episode of the television show last summer.

Bernard responded: "That's OK, it's only going to make me tough."

Toughness is exactly what Jackson saw from Bernard all of training camp. He wasn't the only one who did, either.

"I remember those guys on defense coming up to me one day in stretch," Jackson began. "There was Rey Maualuga, we're talking about Vontaze Burfict, and even some of the defensive linemen. They were all saying, 'Hey, Coach. That guy can play.'"

Aside from the near-fight with Burfict, Bernard didn't seem to show that he was upset with the physical abuse the defenders put him through. He didn't show that he felt singled out, Jackson said. As Bernard's position coach, that understanding of his surroundings showed Jackson that his rookie was even more mature than he previously believed.

"To me, that did more for me because you still don't know those things when you first get to play," Jackson said. "You think you know those things, but until you see it? You don't know it."

With nearly a third of the 335 prospects at this year's combine having left college early, "maturity" will end up being a big buzzword between now and the end of the draft May 10. Teams are looking for underclassmen -- like Bernard, who was a redshirt sophomore at North Carolina when he declared last year -- who have a capacity for understanding the mental side of football.

Only if they let them, young players can allow the type of on-field hazing the Bengals' defenders put Bernard through to be a sort of mind game. When veterans see that the rookies aren't letting those actions affect them, they start showing them more respect. More respect leads to added urgency by teammates to help out and stand up for their rookie stars.

It all seemed to work out well for Bernard and the Bengals. He ranked third among all rookies in total yards in 2013, and drew consideration for the league's offensive rookie of the year award. While sharing carries with veteran BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Bernard rushed for 695 yards and caught 56 passes for another 512. He had eight total touchdowns and a series of highlight-reel runs that showcased his electrifying speed and knack for breaking and bouncing off tacklers.

He also had two fumbles during his first year, including one in the Bengals' wild-card round playoff loss to San Diego. The untimely turnover came after he caught a pass and had it stripped as he closed in on the goal line just before halftime. Even though the Bengals eventually kicked a field goal to take a three-point lead into halftime, without Bernard's fumble, they had a chance to go up by seven, instead.

Still, a little bad has a tough time outshining most of the good. Even after sustaining a rib injury Week 9 in Miami, he appeared in all 16 games.

"Here's a young man who played last year -- and I'm not trying to brag on him -- but he played hurt," Jackson said. "The guy didn't shy away from me. There were times when I said, 'Is this guy going to play?' And he didn't blink. He played as hard and as well as any young player I've been around with as much as we asked him to do."

Jackson wouldn't give any indication as to how Bernard's role might change in 2014, but he did say that he would have his share of carries in an offense that the new coordinator says will be better committed to running the ball.

"He's going to have a lot," Jackson said, smiling. "I can promise you."
INDIANAPOLIS -- At the mere mention of a question about run blocking, Dakota Dozier's eyes grew wide, and his speech quickened.

"I get chill bumps thinking about doing it," the NFL hopeful and offensive lineman said.

He wasn't the only one. John Urschel, another fresh-out-of-college prospect hoping to land with a professional franchise, also felt a swell of personal pride and positive emotion at the NFL combine Thursday when he was asked about how an aggressive offense differs from a passive one for an offensive lineman.

[+] EnlargeAndrew Whitworth
AP Photo/Paul SpinelliStar offensive lineman Andrew Whitworth said he wants to see the Bengals run the ball in a "violent" manner in 2014.
"I'm an aggressive guy. I like getting after it," Urschel, a Penn State product, said, smiling. "I like getting after defensive linemen. That's why I play the game. I love hitting people."

So does Hue Jackson, the Cincinnati Bengals' new offensive coordinator who vowed the day after he was promoted to implement a more physical, punch-first type of offense that will respect the run and the finer details that can make a solid running game a true difference-maker.

Details like attitude, that one hard-to-fully-define trait that some believe can separate good offenses from great ones, and teams that simply appear in the playoffs from ones that reach the Super Bowl. If the Bengals want to be the latter in both cases, they will need serious attitude on offense this season.

A good offensive line can be the perfect starting point for creating just the type of attitude adjustment the Bengals are seeking.

"A lot of times with respect to more physical offenses, we blow it up into running versus passing and all this kind of stuff," Bengals Pro Bowl left tackle Andrew Whitworth said to earlier this offseason. "But the real truth is that it's more about an attitude and a confidence and about imposing your will on another team. That could be done in the air or on the ground. That's more of what [Jackson] is talking about. He knows that to be able to do that, you're going to have to run the ball successfully."

Which is why it seemed logical to ask a few of the draft hopefuls here to share their thoughts about blocking in the running game.

"We want to get down and nasty with people and show people we can move them out of the way," said Dozier, a prospect from Furman. "We don't get a whole lot of glory as an offensive lineman, so when that running back rushes for over 100 yards, that's when we feel good."

All of this run and attitude talk is important with respect to the Bengals for several reasons. For starters, they do have a back in Giovani Bernard who has the ability to rush for more than 100 yards several times in a given season. In fact, when he and BenJarvus Green-Ellis are playing well, they could consistently top 150 yards combined. Another reason stems from free agency, where tackle Anthony Collins' possible departure could leave the Bengals looking for a new lineman who can bring the type of attitude that will match what Jackson wants. Players like Urschel, a guard, and Dozier, a tackle likely switching to guard, are some examples of physical linemen who could potentially help fill Collins' massive shoes.

It's also important to look back at last season when highlighting the importance of establishing the run and creating attitude. In some clutch situations last season, the Bengals ran little and didn't have a consistent attitude. It arguably led to them coming up short in the postseason. As has been rehashed often since their first-round playoff loss to San Diego, the Bengals' decision to go away from the run hurt. During a fourth quarter the Bengals entered trailing by just seven points, quarterback Andy Dalton ended up throwing 31 passes.

That high rate of passing attempts also came in a second half that saw Dalton throw two interceptions and fumble the ball as he dived reaching for more yards at the end of a first-down scramble.

The Bengals' departure from running the ball -- Green-Ellis and Bernard finished with a combined 20 carries for 87 yards that day -- played a key role in the team's third straight first-round exit. The defeat also showed one other troubling trend: The Bengals might run the ball in the regular season, but they don't like keeping it on the ground once the playoffs begin. Their two previous playoff losses had similar poor rushing trends.

As Jackson hopes to implement his bruising style of offensive play, he has to turn to his offensive line. As long as linemen are setting the tone for aggressiveness and not getting popped in the mouth themselves, a certain tenor will be set that opposing defenses could struggle to meet play after play for 60 minutes. That same tone ought to not only lead to wider holes for running backs, but it also should lead to more open opportunities for Dalton in the passing game, play-action included.

Last season, the Bengals had issues with adequately running the ball and demonstrating the full attitude of their line, Whitworth admitted. It was part of the identity issues the team had in 2013 -- concerns it hopes to address long before training camp breaks.

"Attitude doesn't mean you'll have to run the ball every play, but it means when you do run it, you're going to have to run it in a violent way," Whitworth said. "I think any offensive lineman that plays in a system like that has a whole lot of fun."

That said, whether it gets tweaked through the draft or not, the Bengals' offensive line would be well served to bring on the violence, bring on the nastiness and to play with a whole lot of attitude.

Countdown to combine: Bengals RBs

February, 17, 2014
Feb 17
With the NFL combine starting Feb. 22, we're taking a look at positions of need and who the Cincinnati Bengals might be looking at during the combine at those positions.

Position of need: Running back

You'll hear the following repeated often this week: the Bengals have relatively few draft needs. It's true. Unlike some teams that are looking for immediate starting help at specific spots, the Bengals are primarily in depth-building mode. They're on the hunt for young players who could be talented backups in the short term and groomed into potential all-stars in the long term. Even their greatest need -- cornerback -- isn't that big of a concern because of the number of experienced players they have. To that end, it's kind of a reach to consider running back a true area of need, but it is a spot the Bengals could focus on if they feel the right players are available. With a greater emphasis on being physical on offense, Cincinnati might want to explore bringing in another running back to ease the workload from Giovani Bernard and BenJarvus Green-Ellis. Of course, Cedric Peerman, Rex Burkhead and Orson Charles are already on the roster to do just that, but another physical running back could help in the event injuries occur. With Green-Ellis nearing the end of his contract and approaching 30, the Bengals might decide to use this draft to prepare for a future without him. Since the position isn't a major need, Cincinnati likely would look at adding a back in the middle to later rounds if it decided to pick one.

Three players the Bengals might be targeting (all three are expected to be at the combine)

James Wilder Jr. (RB), Florida State: At 6-foot-2 and 229 pounds, Wilder packs the type of physical punch that could make for a good counter to the more shifty, speedy Bernard in future seasons. The son of former Buccaneers tailback James Wilder, the FSU product also has the type of speed that can make him an open-field threat. He's coming to the combine having previously been timed at 4.55 seconds in the 40-yard dash. He also isn't foreign to the multiback scheme the Bengals likely will be implementing under new offensive coordinator Hue Jackson. Wilder was the power back in a college offense that featured the speedy Devonta Freeman and the hybrid Karlos Williams. His combination of size, strength and speed should make him an early-round pick, but questions about the three-year player's maturity could make him slip below the third round.

Antonio Andrews (RB), Western Kentucky: Again, don't expect the Bengals to make a splash with an early-round running back like Ohio State's Carlos Hyde, even if he matches some of the physical tools they might seek at the position. With other positions likely getting picked before they select a running back, the Bengals' later round search may end up taking them to Andrews. Not quite as big as Wilder, Andrews (at 5-foot-10, 225 pounds) still has a physical style of running. He also has shown a knack for being featured in the passing game, as demonstrated by his 41 receptions in 2013. While his hands are good enough to catch passes, his hands also are one of his weaknesses. He had six of the Hilltoppers' 26 fumbles last season.

David Fluellen (RB), Toledo: It wouldn't be surprising to see the Bengals stay close to home when it came to making a potential running back pick. Along with the southern Kentucky native Andrews, Toledo's Fluellen possesses some of what the Bengals could be looking for in a hard-running back. He's 5-foot-11 and 226 pounds with a pre-combine 4.66 40-yard dash time. He might not be the quickest runner, but his six-straight 100-yard rushing performances last season indicate Fluellen's ability to continue picking up yards as he's given carries.
CINCINNATI -- The season was barely a week over before Hue Jackson, in his new role as the Cincinnati Bengals' offensive coordinator, made it known he had plans for the Bengals to run and run some more.

Physicality ought to be the name of the game, and at crucial times last season, Cincinnati's offense lacked it.

But it wasn't just last season. Too often in some of the bigger games the Bengals played during the three seasons that new Washington head coach Jay Gruden spent as the team's offensive coordinator, the play calling inexplicably got too conservative, and the execution struggled as a result.

[+] EnlargeCincinnati's BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Giovani Bernard
AP Photo/Joe RobbinsGiovani Bernard and BenJarvus Green-Ellis will be the cornerstones of the Bengals' rushing attack for new offensive coordinator Hue Jackson.
Naturally Jackson, who spent 2013 as Cincinnati's running backs coach, won't publicly agree with such specific charges, but he will admit that assertive, physical play escaped the offense at key moments during the year. That's why he felt it important to emphasize that style of play during his introductory news conference the day after Gruden left.

"What I need to do is unleash these guys," Jackson said. "We're going to try and create an environment for these guys to be great. That's what [head coach] Marvin [Lewis] is all about. We know we need to run the football. We want to run the football. That's where it starts. That's what he preaches."

It's statements like those that have made the Bengals' proposed expanded rushing attack a matter of conversation in quarters outside Paul Brown Stadium. The debates have been so fierce that we decided to devote this week's Bengals poll to asking readers how often they thought the team's running backs ought to run the ball under Jackson. Last season, Cincinnati's running backs averaged 24.9 carries per game. The Bengals' overall rushes per game average was higher, at 30.1, when rushes from quarterback Andy Dalton and receivers were added to the mix.

Dalton also attempted 36.6 passes per game, the eighth-highest average among quarterbacks with 10 or more starts.

Most who voted in that poll believed the Bengals ought to barely tweak their rushing production as it pertained to the running backs. By 2 p.m. ET, 42 percent of the nearly 600 people who voted said Cincinnati's backs ought to run the football 30 times per game under Jackson. Another 37 percent thought the running backs should have 35 carries a game, while 11 percent wanted 40 carries a contest. Only eight percent believed the Bengals' 2013 average of 25 carries per game should stick in 2014, while just two percent believed fewer than 25 carries a game ought to be an option.

Again, all of those numbers suggest a good portion of readers believe very little should change with respect to the Bengals' running back load.

The ones who picked the 30-carry average had it right. Twenty-five carries is too low, 35 is too many and 40 is unnecessarily astronomical.

It's clear something has to change with respect to the Bengals' run-game production, but ballooning carries won't do it. Efficiency, not bulk, will be the key to getting the type of general physicality that Jackson seeks.

The Bengals have to pick their moments better. On so many occasions early in ballgames this past season, they got into rushing routines. It was all but a given that BenJarvus Green-Ellis would open a series with a first-down run between the tackles.

There were other times when the Bengals would abandon the run altogether far too early, pinning their hopes on Dalton's right arm to either hold a lead or bring them through a comeback. That was especially true in Cincinnati's last three playoff games, ones the Bengals lost despite either leading or trailing by one score at halftime. Even though they were well in each of those games at the start of the second halves, they averaged just 20 rushes as a team in each of those games.

What made the decision to go away from the run in those games doubly alarming was the fact the Bengals averaged four or more yards per carry in all three of them. In the closest of the three, they averaged 5.0 yards on 16 carries. A 29-yard run in that game and a 19-yard touchdown in another, provided temporary sparks, too.

During the 2013 regular season, running efficiency was an issue as the Bengals compiled a modest 3.7 yards per rush average. Only four teams had worse averages.

Such difficulty made it easy to go away from the ground game early in down sequences, often leading to longer third downs that required passes. Those struggles also made it easy to completely dismiss the rushing attack and doubt the overall value in exploiting it more often. But that's where the modified bulk comes in. Under Jackson, don't expect the Bengals to completely abandon the run if it doesn't work early.

At about 30 carries per game, Cincinnati's tandem of Green-Ellis and Giovani Bernard will average roughly 15 touches. In the games this past season in which at least one of the two players ran the ball 15 times, the Bengals were 6-1. Including the playoff loss to San Diego, they were 5-5 in all other contests.

With both rushers and their contrasting styles averaging so many carries, one has to imagine that chunk plays will come. One also has to imagine that those 30 running back carries will translate to more effective offensive balance that will better free up Dalton in the passing game. His pass attempt numbers won't decrease dramatically with a more emphasized running game, but his efficiency should increase because defenses will have to better respect his running game and the threat of play-action passes.

The bulk of a rushing load can be important, but a more efficient running game is the real difference here. It can lead to a more efficient quarterback, which in turn can lead to an even better offense, and with this defense, ought to make Cincinnati contend for a repeat division title.
On this, the final day of the 2013 season, it only makes sense to do a little peeking ahead at what the next 365 days could have in store for one of the NFL's Super Bowl starved franchises.

It has been 25 years since the Cincinnati Bengals played on football's grandest stage, the same one the Denver Broncos and Seattle Seahawks will share in a matter of hours. The last time the Bengals appeared there, many of their current players were barely out of diapers. Some were not even born yet.

It might very well be another 25 years before the Bengals see another Super Bowl, but for the sake of this exercise, let's assume next year is the year the drought ends. What must happen in order for the Bengals to see next year's Super Bowl? These five things:

1. Maintain an aggressive defense. New defensive coordinator Paul Guenther has already said he plans to retain many of the pressures the Bengals had when Mike Zimmer led the defense before moving on to Minnesota for his first head-coaching opportunity. In fact, the Bengals may end up blitzing more than they did under Zimmer, and they may do so in more creative ways. Among Cincinnati's staple blitzes were those from the safety positions. At times late this season, the Bengals would send both Chris Crocker and Reggie Nelson at the same time to confuse opposing quarterbacks. They'll need to keep that pressure up next season. As the league's No. 3 total defense, they showed just how far good, consistent pressure can take a defense. When rushing five or more players this year, the Bengals led the league in third-down defense and yards allowed per play. Quarterbacks had a 21.7 QBR when the Bengals applied that much pressure.

2. Keep Andrew Whitworth at guard; re-sign Anthony Collins. OK, if you're a Bengals fan, this is actually more of a dream scenario than anything. It's fairly unlikely that these two events will happen, but if they do, you have to believe Cincinnati will greatly increase its chances of going further in the postseason than it has the last three seasons. With Whitworth at left guard most of the last five games of the regular season, the Bengals solved some of their rushing woes and blocked more aggressively than they had most of the season. In addition to having Whitworth on the interior following Clint Boling's ACL tear, Collins was also more permanently inserted into the starting rotation at left tackle, giving the Bengals a slightly more athletic left side of the line than they previously had. It's unlikely Whitworth and Collins will be paired side-by-side in 2014 because the latter stands to receive a major pay raise when free agency starts next month. That pay raise may not come from the Bengals, either. If Cincinnati is able to somehow get Collins to stay, though, arguably their best offensive unit from 2013 comes back poised for an even better next season.

3. Run more in the playoffs. We've repeated this point often in the month since Cincinnati was knocked out of the playoffs with a first-round loss to San Diego. So we won't belabor it, but quite simply, the Bengals have to run in the postseason to be successful. After showing how much of a passing league the NFL was in the regular season -- teams averaged 235.6 passing yards -- teams started running the ball more in the postseason. They still threw a lot, too, averaging 239.5 yards of passing offense. But entering the Super Bowl, they ran for 128.2 yards per game in the playoffs. That was more than 16 yards per game for all 32 teams in the regular season. After combining for 34 carries in the Week 13 meeting against the Chargers, Bengals running backs BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Giovani Bernard had just 20 carries between them in the playoff game. If quarterback Andy Dalton has shown anything it's that his shoulders can't carry the full weight of a playoff game. The weight has to be shared, and having a good running game is one way for it to be.

4. Go undefeated at home. For as long as Marvin Lewis is the head coach, this will remain one of the team's yearly goals. This year, the Bengals finally accomplished it, going 8-0 at Paul Brown Stadium in the regular season. But that can't be enough, apparently. The Bengals have to carry this mantra into the postseason. An eight-win showing at home should be enough, combined with other wins, to get a team into the playoffs and maybe even give it home-field advantage. From there, the team simply has to win when given those favorable odds. Cincinnati didn't do that this year, when it finally hosted a playoff game for the first time since 2009. They lost that one, too. By going undefeated at home next year, the Bengals could generate serious momentum for the postseason. It would mean they had wins over the Broncos, Panthers, Falcons, Jaguars and the rest of the AFC North.

5. Win a first-round playoff game. Speaking of breeding confidence and generating momentum, by simply winning a wild-card game, the Bengals could actually set themselves up for a Super Bowl run next year. It's now been 23 years since they won a playoff game, meaning relative pandemonium could occur in Cincinnati when it finally happens. By accomplishing something an entire generation hasn't seen, that added dose of magic or luck or whatever it is that their last couple of talented teams have been missing, might be enough to make a once-perceived improbable playoff run possible.
CINCINNATI -- Hue Jackson's "introductory" news conference Friday morning had barely ended before I started getting bombarded with tweets from those curious about the possibility the newly promoted offensive coordinator might want to bring one of his old players to the Cincinnati Bengals.

At the time, I wasn't so sure the Bengals would be interested in bringing in an injury hobbled Darren McFadden to join their already dynamic two-man running back tandem of Giovani Bernard and BenJarvus Green-Ellis. I even wrote as much in the first question of a Twitter mailbag that ran Saturday morning.

Well, it looks like the gag may be on me.

Comments Jackson gave a San Francisco Bay Area radio station late Friday would seem to suggest the coach isn't just interested in exploring the possibility of putting McFadden in his backfield, but he might strap on the six-year veteran's helmet, tie his shoelaces and tape his wrists, too.

[+] EnlargeDarren McFadden
Pat Lovell/USA TODAY SportsOakland running back Darren McFadden will become a free agent in March.
One thing is clear from Jackson's interview -- which comes here courtesy of colleague Paul Gutierrez -- he loves some Darren McFadden.

"He's still one of my favorite players," Jackson told the ESPN affiliate. "What a tremendous talent."

Jackson, who was McFadden's offensive coordinator in Oakland in 2010 and head coach in 2011, went on to add that he still thought McFadden is "a downhill runner." He still believes McFadden can make a difference not only in gaining chunk yards on the ground, but by catching screens and taking them those long distances, too.

"Somebody's going to get a really good football player here in the future if he doesn't stay there in Oakland and I just wish him the best," Jackson said.

McFadden's contract has come to an end, and he'll be entering free agency if the Raiders don't re-sign him by March 8. That date has some significance because it's the last day the Raiders hold exclusive negotiations rights with McFadden. Until that time, no representative from another team can make "any public or private statement of interest, qualified or unqualified, in another club's player or to that player's agent or representative, or to a member of the news media," according to the NFL's anti-tampering policy.

So, having said that, the Bengals could have another issue on their hands with respect to the Jackson-McFadden affair, depending upon how the NFL interprets the interview and depending upon whether the Raiders believe any measure of tampering has occurred with their player.

OK, with all of that background out of the way, let's get back to how we started this post: me arguing against a McFadden sighting in the Bengals' running back rotation.

There's a chance Jackson just purely admires the player and wishes he had a spot on the roster for him, but doesn't. There's also a chance Jackson was trying to help prop up one of his former players so that another team might be interested in giving him a try after March 8. There's also a chance that Jackson really does want McFadden and will figure out a way to squeeze him in this offseason.

If you parse Jackson's words, it sounds just he might be thinking the latter.

He shouldn't, in my most humble opinion.

You'll often see these words from me: "If it ain't broke ..."

In this case, the Bengals' running game doesn't need fixing. All it needs is life. If Cincinnati ran as often during this past season as it appears it will next season, the Bengals could have had two 800-yard rushers, and might still be competing in the playoffs.

From a talent perspective, they're set. Green-Ellis is the team's steady veteran and straight-ahead, pile-moving power rusher. He's the workhorse. As the young, flashy -- in play only -- speedy, shifty and entertaining finesse runner, Bernard is Cincinnati's show horse. In most backfields, there's room for only two such horses, unless a third, a pure blocker, gets added to the mix. The Bengals do need one of those, but it would be hard for any team to convince a back like McFadden to pick up and move some 2,400 miles just to be a fullback.

Between their slew of receivers and backs, the Bengals have enough show and workhorses to go around. Another playmaker like McFadden would add to the complications of figuring out just who all deserved to be fed the ball.

I just don't see where McFadden factors into Jackson's plans.

Bernard, who was drafted by Jackson and head coach Marvin Lewis last April, rushed for 695 yards in the regular season and had a hand in seven total touchdowns, certainly appears to be a heavy part of the Bengals' game plan going forward. For now, Green-Ellis does, too, although it will be interesting to track his contract negotiations after next season. He'll be turning 30. McFadden is two years his junior, and could make for a logical replacement for Green-Ellis if the Bengals are committed to developing Bernard and bringing along a bigger veteran to pair with him.

To me, that's about the only reason you bring in a rusher like McFadden next year. But even that's a shaky argument, to me.

So, to answer the question (could McFadden fit into the Bengals' running-back rotation?) I say "no." Maybe at a different time. And maybe also if the circumstances involving the Bengals' current backfield setup were slightly altered. But for now, the Bengals appear to be doing just fine with their two-back scheme.

If it ain't broke, Hue ...
CINCINNATI -- Now that he has officially taken over as the Cincinnati Bengals' new offensive coordinator, Hue Jackson has vowed to help get the team back to a physical, run-filled brand of football.

But will the Bengals actually exhibit such an identity?

The statistics show that if Jackson's previous stops as an offensive coordinator or head coach are any indication, the Bengals might not really run any more than they did the past three seasons under Jay Gruden, who vacated his post as offensive coordinator Thursday to become Washington's new head coach.

[+] EnlargeCincinnati's Giovani Bernard
Mike Ehrmann/Getty ImagesSigns point to an efficient ground game for Giovani Bernard and the Bengals under Hue Jackson.
Those stats do also show that if past trends continue, the Bengals will pass a little less than they have recently, while also rushing for a higher yard-per-carry average.

"We know we need to run the football. We want to run the football," Jackson said during a news conference Friday. "That's where it starts."

Before arriving in Cincinnati as a defensive backs coach in 2012, Jackson spent time coaching Bengals receivers from 2004-06. He also was an offensive coordinator at Washington (2003), Atlanta (2007) and Oakland (2010). In 2011, the Raiders promoted him to head coach before firing him at the close of the regular season. This past season, he was Cincinnati's running backs coach.

Along with harping on the need to run the football, Jackson admitted that he wasn't planning to get away from the pass, citing the need to avoid running a predictable one-dimensional system in today's NFL.

"We have some very talented players on the outside," Jackson continued. "We have to give them opportunities to make plays. We're not going to shy away from having to throw it when we need to. But in order to win and be a very good offensive football team, you have to be able to run the ball, and that's going to be a starting point for us."

Let's take a look back at Jackson's past run-pass balance as a play-caller at his earlier stops, and compare it to where the Bengals are coming from these past three seasons under Gruden. Specifically, we're looking at the rushes per game, passing attempts per game, and yards per carry.

First, here are Jackson's combined numbers in those statistical areas in his first two offensive coordinator stints. In two years leading the Washington (2003) and Atlanta (2007) offenses, his teams totaled:

Pass attempts per game: 33.8
Rushes per game: 25.2
Rushing yards per carry: 3.9

Next, the totals in those categories from Jackson's two Oakland (2010-11) teams:

Pass attempts per game: 31.7
Rushes per game: 30.3
Rushing yards per carry: 4.7

Next, and perhaps most importantly for this exercise, the totals from all four of those seasons (2003, 2007, 2010-11):

Pass attempts per game: 32.8
Rushes per game: 27.8
Rushing yards per carry: 4.3

Finally, a look at what the Bengals did under Gruden in the same categories the past three regular seasons (2011-13). Also included (in parenthesis), Cincinnati's averages in passing attempts, rushing attempts and rushing average per carry during the 2013 season. The Bengals this past regular season passed for nearly six plays more than they ran per game. They also ran nearly two times more per game this season compared to their three-year average:

Pass attempts per game: 34.0 (in 2013: 36.7)
Rushes per game: 28.5 (in 2013: 30.1)
Rushing yards per carry: 3.86 (in 2013: 3.6)

So, to summarize, if trends from Jackson's play-calling past continue, expect the Bengals to run slightly fewer times per game under Jackson as compared to this season. Also, don't be surprised if they have runs that have more impact under jackson than what they did under Gruden. There seems to be a better chance in Jackson's system to have more long runs than the Bengals have been accustomed to seeing.

Consider this. In Darren McFadden's third season, Jackson's lone year as the Raiders' offensive coordinator, he rushed for 20 yards or more 14 times. The next year, through just seven games before an injury sidelined him, McFadden had eight rushes of 20 or more yards.

In 2013, BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Giovani Bernard combined for four such carries. Moral of the story? Even if the Bengals run a time or two less under Jackson, they will be more efficient in the ground game, having more explosive plays than they have had recently.
A few quick observations from Thursday's news that offensive coordinator Jay Gruden is leaving the Cincinnati Bengals to become head coach of the Washington Redskins, and that he will be replaced as OC by Hue Jackson:
  1. With respect to Jackson being promoted, I like this move.
  2. Jackson
    I like this move so much that, as you can see in this particular blog, I believe the Bengals' entire offense will benefit from the switch. It was clear after a third straight postseason failure that some change needed to come. In my opinion, personnel wasn't the issue. The scheme, mainly when it came to the postseason, was the issue. While Gruden had good game plans for the regular season, he just didn't draft up the same blueprints -- or have enough confidence in them, at least -- for the postseason. That really was the Bengals' only offensive problem. In some cases, the type of offensive ineptitude the Bengals showed in their past three playoff appearances would lead to calls for the head coach or offensive coordinator to be fired. (Actually, those calls have come anyway.) With owner Mike Brown in control, though, you knew head coach Marvin Lewis wouldn't be let go. But if a change needed to occur, Gruden might have made for the perfect scapegoat to get fired. For that reason, think of this particular offensive coordinator switch as a much cleaner change than the alternative.
  3. This change ought to promote an added emphasis on the run. In the past three playoff games, the Bengals handed off to their running backs on just 25 percent of their plays. That is far from balance. During this past regular season they were closer, running the ball with their running backs on 36.3 percent of all plays. With Jackson's reputation as a coach who likes to run, and another season of BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Giovani Bernard playing together, expect Cincinnati to get back, in both the regular and postseasons, to the running game.
  4. It was smart for the Bengals to promote from within. As is the case with any type of coaching change, the Bengals will need a little time to adapt to a new system. The good thing for them, though, is that with a coach who was already on staff, the terminology shouldn't need changing. The same types of calls and checks that were used under Gruden can remain under Jackson. Even though some things will get tweaked, the foundation of what the Bengals will try to get done shouldn't.
  5. Another reason it was smart to promote from within and to do it so quickly: Cincinnati could be losing a second assistant in the coming days or weeks, defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer. The longtime assistant could be headed to Minnesota or Tennessee as a head coach, and you have to imagine the Bengals would rather hire from outside for one position and not two. By adding Jackson right now, it gives them a chance to fully focus on Zimmer's replacement if and when that time comes.
  6. Lastly, I must say this about Jay. I like him. A lot. He's one of the calmest, funniest, most even-keeled personalities I've met in my brief time covering the NFL. Don't get me wrong, he can be an intense guy -- that's a gene that football coaches are apparently born with -- but he's not his brother. You'll see Jay Gruden get angry, but you won't see that same glare that former Tampa Bay and Oakland coach (and current ESPN analyst) Jon Gruden often had. I also genuinely believe Jay Gruden is a good coach. One of the things he'll have to do in Washington is make sure to trust his gut and instincts. The moment he second-guesses himself or starts overthinking, he's in trouble. It will be interesting following this chapter in his coaching career. I wish him all the best.

CINCINNATI -- Well, Cincinnati Bengals fans, you wanted it. Now you've got it.

The changing of the offensive guard has begun.

With news Thursday that offensive coordinator Jay Gruden was leaving the franchise to become Washington's new head coach, the Bengals are now in position to alter their offensive philosophy in a way that will benefit the entire unit. Yes, that specifically includes quarterback Andy Dalton, and it most certainly includes the likes of running backs Giovani Bernard and BenJarvus Green-Ellis.

Expect true balance to come to Cincinnati.

Farewell to the days of passing in the playoffs on third-and-1s. Say sayonara to deep routes on fourth-and-3.

Gruden's departure created a domino effect that has already had ripples throughout the Bengals' locker room. According to ESPN's Adam Schefter, who broke the news about Gruden leaving, the Bengals are expected to promote running backs coach Hue Jackson to Gruden's old post. This will be the fourth different title Jackson has held with the Bengals, and it will be the fourth time he has served as an offensive coordinator in the NFL.

Jackson previously was the offensive coordinator in Washington (2003), Atlanta (2007) and Oakland (2010). Before joining the Bengals' staff in 2012, Jackson had been promoted to head coach of the Raiders in 2011 before getting fired that following January.

[+] EnlargeJay Gruden
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsJay Gruden's play calling has come into question during the postseason, including during Cincinnati's home loss to the Chargers this past Sunday.
With the Bengals, he has served as a receivers coach -- during an earlier stint that preceded his tours with the Falcons and Raiders -- a defensive backs coach, and most recently as a running backs coach. Under his watch this past season, Bernard and Green-Ellis rushed for more than 1,400 yards combined. A speedy, shifty playmaker, Bernard racked up 1,209 total yards of offense as both a running back and pass-catcher in Gruden's scheme.

While the Bengals were mostly successful under Gruden the past three seasons, posting a combined 30-18 regular-season record and watching Dalton enjoy some of the best passing numbers of any quarterback through his first three seasons, there was one glaring issue: They weren't very good in the postseason.

Sunday's 27-10 loss in the wild-card round of the AFC playoffs was the perfect display of the coaching ills that Bengals fans believed Gruden possessed. In a second half that was marred primarily by three Dalton turnovers and some poor decision-making on the part of the signal-caller, the playcaller had his issues, as well. He requested one fourth-quarter play that required receiver Marvin Jones to sprint deep on fourth down when he really didn't need to go so far. The Bengals only needed to convert 3 yards for the first down. With other receiving options covered, Dalton threw to his most open target -- Jones. He was too pumped up on the difficult deep throw and sailed it over Jones' head.

Also questioned after the game were Gruden's decisions to pass 31 times in a fourth quarter that his team entered trailing by just seven points.

Then there was that curious third-and-1 call near midfield in the first half when he brought in bruising defensive tackle Domata Peko as an extra blocker, only to call for a 7-yard pass that resulted in an incompletion.

As he had twice before, Gruden got conservative in a playoff game and failed to trust his running backs. As Green-Ellis would later lament, that wasn't "playoff football."

Gruden admitted during a local radio interview Monday night that he has a tendency to overthink certain game situations and plays.

"Sometimes maybe I give [defensive] coordinators too much credit like, 'OK, this play worked a couple times, no way it's going to work again,'" Gruden said to ESPN 1530 AM's Lance McAlister and former Bengal and team radio personality Dave Lapham. "You outthink yourself, and that's the whole thing you go through as a coordinator is how to attack.

"The big thing for us is trying to keep teams off balance. I don't think we're good enough to be one-dimensional as far as throwing the ball or as far as running the ball."

Under Jackson, expect the Bengals to get back to more of that true offensive balance, particularly in the postseason. In all three of Cincinnati's playoff games with Gruden coaching, the Bengals handed the ball to their running backs on just 25 percent of the overall plays. That's far from balance.

That gap ought to close under Jackson, who was a sort of running back savant at Oakland. While there, the Raiders had a rushing attack that featured a young Darren McFadden. The University of Arkansas product rushed for more than 1,100 yards his third season. He also had 14 carries of 20 yards or more that year. Through seven games in 2011, his fourth season in the league, McFadden averaged 5.4 yards per carry and had eight carries of 20 yards or more before a serious foot injury sidelined him the latter half of that year. He hasn't been the same since.

Now that Jackson is leading the Bengals' offense, Cincinnati has a coach who won't be afraid to run the ball in an effort of helping take pressure off Dalton. Against the Chargers on Sunday, the Bengals probably should have stuck with the run, in part, to relieve some of the pressure that piled itself upon Dalton's shoulders like two-ton boulders.

"With the atmosphere of the playoffs, the little things can get a lot bigger than they really are," Dalton said. "You get down two scores but still have so much time it might feel like you are down three scores, four scores. It's about being able to manage the emotion of the game."

Gruden's departure and Jackson's expected promotion ought to help Dalton control those emotions better. A more balanced offense means Dalton has a very real chance he needs to seize at being "Good Andy" more times than not.
Arrow indicates direction team is trending.

Final power ranking: 7
Preseason power ranking: 9

Biggest surprise: Giovani Bernard. When the Bengals drafted Bernard in the second round of April's NFL draft, there was a belief that -- in time -- he would be the answer to the franchise's long-documented playmaking troubles. It had been decades since the Bengals had a dynamic player who had fans buzzing the instant he touched the football. That's who Bernard was this season. While the hope was that the shifty, speedy ball carrier would be an adequate counter to BenJarvus Green-Ellis' bruising style, few anticipated just how much he would take over. He had more than 1,200 total yards to go along with eight touchdowns. He was tied for second in scores among rookie running backs. Also a surprise? Bernard's ball insecurity. After fumbling just once in the regular season, he was stripped near the goal line on a pivotal reception late in the first half of Sunday's AFC playoff loss.

Biggest disappointment: The entire team. Once again, the Bengals couldn't close out a playoff appearance with a playoff win, thereby extending their postseason victory drought to 23 years. They had a real chance to snap that streak this year, too. The talent was there. The coaching, for the most part, was there. The schemes were there. The buzz was there. The internal confidence seemed to be there, as well. But when the lights got bright and the stage got big again, the Bengals, like so many times before, simply couldn't get it done. Even though they went 11-5 and won the AFC North, this was supposed to be a Super Bowl season, not another one-and-done year.

Biggest need: Aggressive postseason play calling. For the third consecutive playoff game, the Bengals ran the ball significantly fewer times than their preseason average. Yes, late in games when a team is trailing by wide margins, it has to pass. But Cincinnati was only down four at the start of the third quarter in Sunday's game against a team it had been successful running against in the previous six quarters (the Bengals and Chargers had met just 35 days before). The Bengals got too conservative too early, and it arguably cost them the game. Other than that, they still have the pieces in place for true success. Even with possible losses in free agency or in the coaching ranks, they have the talent to be great next year. They just need to make sure they stay aggressive and hungry when they get back in the playoffs.

Team MVP: Vontaze Burfict. The linebacker led the league in tackles with 171, and contributed to a series of turnovers throughout the year. A fearless defender who rarely took plays off, Burfict's passion spilled over into the rest of the defense. While others may have been more vocal than the second-year linebacker, he was the unquestioned on-field leader of the NFL's No. 3 defensive unit. Not only did he call plays, but he was part of virtually every one, it seemed.