Tuesday, May 20, 2014
Best Bengals offseason move? Moving Hue
By Coley Harvey
Hue Jackson has vowed to make the running game a bigger part of the Cincinnati Bengals' offense.
CINCINNATI -- The Bengals' window of opportunity was closing fast.
But thanks to one key offseason move, it opened again, if ever so slightly, making now the best time for them to go on their deepest postseason run in a generation. Waiting for next year might be too late.
Naturally, the Bengals will say otherwise, and puff their chests about how they have built a team for the long haul; one that will not only finally win one playoff game, but one that will win enough to make return trips to the Super Bowl.
The reality, though, is that they are aging at certain positions and have a slew of upcoming free agents who likely won't all get re-signed next offseason. With so many massive, salary-cap sucking contracts on the books next season, it could be hard bringing everyone back. Carlos Dunlap and Geno Atkins won't be alone anymore. Vontaze Burfict figures to have a big contract next year. So could A.J. Green and Andy Dalton.
So as the window of opportunity continues closing, what is keeping it open just long enough for the Bengals to be legitimate contenders again this year? Hue Jackson's promotion as offensive coordinator. It was the most important move the Bengals made this offseason.
Had it not been for outside interest in Jay Gruden and his decision to leave when Washington offered him its head-coaching job in January, the broader conversation about the Bengals might be going differently this offseason. With Jackson now in control, there are compelling reasons why the Bengals have a real shot at getting over the postseason hump that has vexed them since 1991. They have a real shot at finally winning a playoff game.
With a top-three defense that lost little -- primarily only its defensive coordinator and a key pass-disrupting veteran lineman -- the Bengals didn't have many wholesale changes to make this offseason. Even their offense was good overall under Gruden, ranking 10th last year. Only their rushing offense, one that ranked 18th last year, needed real attention, and Jackson vowed to immediately address it when he took over. One look at Cincinnati's draft-weekend decisions and it's clear he's trying to make good on his word.
Along with taking physical running back Jeremy Hill in the second round, the Bengals traded up in the fourth for Russell Bodine, a center praised for his strength. Cincinnati also signed as undrafted free agents two running backs, three offensive linemen and a pair of fullbacks, including one who is a converted defensive tackle.
This Bengals draft was as much about running the ball as anything else.
Last season's mediocre rushing ranking wasn't the only one the Bengals had under Gruden. They also ranked 18th in 2012 and 19th in 2011, Gruden's first season as coordinator. Gruden's passing emphasis was understandable, though. The year he arrived, the Bengals drafted Green and Dalton. A former quarterback himself, Gruden wanted to use often the first- and second-round toys he had been given. He wanted to prove he could mold a young quarterback into a star.
He mostly did that. Dalton started right away and enjoyed real regular-season success. Through his first three seasons, Dalton has won 30 games and been to the playoffs each year. He's also passed for more than 3,000 yards in each season, joining Peyton Manning and Cam Newton as the only quarterbacks in league history to accomplish such a feat at the start of a career.
Dalton and Gruden were a big reason Cincinnati's overall offense the past three years was good. But in crucial moments, both tried too hard to take over. They neglected the run.
Those decisions have been costly.
The Bengals' No. 18 rushing ranking last season stood in stark contrast to their No. 10 total offense ranking, No. 8 passing ranking and No. 6 scoring ranking. But it wasn't surprising. After all, in the past three playoff games, the Bengals have handed the football to their running backs on just 25 percent of those games' plays. In January's wild-card round game against San Diego, for example, one they trailed by only four at halftime, the Bengals ran just nine times in the final two quarters. BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who ran six times for 27 yards in the first half, touched the ball twice in the third and fourth quarters. Those two runs, which came on the first two plays of the third quarter, gained 15 yards.
Abandoned with the run were the Bengals' comeback hopes. They lost the game 27-10.
Less than a week later, Gruden left and Jackson was elevated from running backs coach. The day his promotion was made official, he promised to run more and to bring the same toughness that helped him turn the once-lowly Raiders into near-playoff contenders in 2010 and 2011. Oakland hadn't had a .500 or better season in the seven years before Jackson arrived. It went 8-8 both years he was there.
The Bengals appear to have moved beyond the losing ways that so long defined them. Now their chief concerns revolve around not only winning playoff games, but getting back to the Super Bowl.
This season looks like their best and maybe last chance for a spell at making a first-in-a-generation trip. Who knows what the team will look like a year from now. Jackson could easily parlay any success his offense has this season into a return to head coaching elsewhere. Depending upon what happens with his contract situation this offseason, Dalton could be on his way out. Green-Ellis, Jermaine Gresham, Clint Boling, Terence Newman, Mike Nugent and Rey Maualuga, among others, could be finding employment somewhere else, too.
Cincinnati for so long was able to avoid experiencing much turnover. After 2010's 4-12 season, they built a solid core of character and talent that fueled the three straight playoff berths. In the next two seasons, that unit will disintegrate, taking with it the team's window that had been open for so long.
That's why now is the Bengals' best chance to reverse their postseason curse. If they do, some praise should go to rush-minded Jackson.