Sports on Earth's NFL writers Mike Tanier, Dan Pompei, Russ Lande and Robert Weintraub will be providing an offseason assessment of all 32 NFL teams -- identifying the most pressing problems facing each one and proposing the best solutions. Click here for links to every entry in the series.
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By Robert Weintraub
If you leave out the month of January, the Cincinnati Bengals are among the NFL's model franchises (I know, it took me a second to digest that one, too). Over the last three seasons, the team has won 30 games, improving each year. The success has been keyed by tremendous drafting and personnel evaluation, led by the team's unofficial GM, pro personnel director Duke Tobin. The Bengals have a solid and deep roster, with few gaping holes, while also being well under the salary cap.
Alas, the year's first month is kind of important, and the annual bloopers in the playoffs, personified by quarterback Andy Dalton's ineptitude, erode the respect for operations elsewhere. In the wake of the crushing loss to San Diego, once again the Bengals are attempting to put aside postseason disappointment and get to the unemotional business of building the 2014 team.
This time they will do it without the coordinators who have done so much to make the last three seasons happen. Jay Gruden is in Washington, while beloved defensive guru Mike Zimmer is in Minnesota. Cincy promoted from within to replace the departed coaches, another sign of the franchise's strength. Still, the uncertainty about the new coordinators looms over the offseason, so let's start there.
Problem: Both coordinators are now head coaches elsewhere.
Solution: Let the replacements be themselves.
New offensive coordinator Hue Jackson has already distanced himself from the endless love of the forward pass shown by Gruden (see below), and while this has brought him some blowback, he's clearly correct. Improving the rushing attack can only make Andy Dalton better.
Many fans wondered why the Bengals kept slamming away up the gut with the plodding BenJarvus Green-Ellis instead of giving sensational rookie Giovani Bernard more action. It's understandable that the team wanted to pace the compact Bernard's touches in his first year, but look for Gio to take over the lion's share of the work next season. Law Firm is still handy in short yardage, but he created too many second-and-eights for a play-caller already inclined to chuck it. One interesting possibility is a reunification of Hue with Darren McFadden, who had success and rare health under Jackson in Oakland. Bringing McFadden in would bolster the depth, though also create a situation where BJGE may want out.
Meanwhile, the bigger issue is on defense. It sounds simple, but when you lose the Michael Jordan of defensive coordinators, as some Bengals hyperbolized in the wake of his hiring by the Vikings, the temptation will be strong to adhere to the Zimmer Way. New DC Paul Guenther was linebackers coach under Zimmer, "attached to his hip" in the words of Marvin Lewis, and is well-respected in league circles. In fact, the Bengals had to fend off several teams (including Zimmer's Vikings) to keep him.
But constantly asking himself "WWMZD?" is no way to go through a season. Unlike his mentor, Guenther is quiet, calm and doesn't consider the f-word as a guiding principle upon to which to build every sentence. Carving out his own persona and relationships with his players is paramount.
Fortunately, this quote from his introductory press conference was telling: "My job is to get the other team off the field, whether I spin on my head and spit nickels or start yelling and screaming," Guenther said. "One way or another, I've got to be myself, I've got to run the job like I know how to run it. Guys get in these positions as head coaches and coordinators and then all of a sudden they change their personalities and say, 'I'm going to be this, that or the other,' and players see through that."
Cincy did pull an under-the-radar coup in replacing a different Zimmer -- Adam, Mike's son, who assisted coaching defensive backs and is leaving with his old man. In his stead comes Vance Joseph, a top mind in honing cornerbacks. Joseph won't merely be assistant DB coach under Mark Carrier; he will be coach the corners directly, with Carrier handling the safeties.
Problem: The Red Rifle's misfires.
Solution: Reduce his attempts.
Tough as it may be for Bengals fans to look past those 30 awful minutes against San Diego, let's remember that Dalton wasn't exactly Christian Ponder out there for most of the season. Only Manning and Brees threw more touchdown passes in 2013, only six quarterbacks threw for more yards, he was the Offensive Player of the Month in October, etc.
But for a player regarded as having more brains than arm talent, Red made plenty of mistakes in judgment over the season. His 20 picks are 20 picks, regardless of whether or not some of those were his receivers' fault.
Perhaps the most important of Dalton's stats to consider then are his attempts. He threw it 586 times, eighth-most in the NFL. Generally speaking, throwing it so often isn't a good thing, unless it is Manning or Brees doing the tossing. Teams supposedly built on strong defenses and running games, like the Bengals are (they keep telling us that anyway), shouldn't throw it anywhere near 600 times if they are successful. Russell Wilson had a mere 407 attempts in '13, Colin Kaepernick 416, Cam Newton 473. The Bengals would be far better served to get less pass-wacky, shore up the running game and cut Dalton's load in the pocket. While the old saw "three things can happen when you pass, and two of them are bad" is a relic of the Eisenhower Administration, the Bengals need to embrace their inner Ike.
Problem: Uncertainty in the secondary.
Solution: Draft a corner -- or two.
The secondary was Zimmer's stage to repeatedly perform his magic, turning other team's refuse into quality starters. It is open to question whether players like Terence Newman and Adam Jones will thrive as they did under Zimmer. Regardless, Newman will be 36 come opening day, and Jones turns 31 a few weeks later. And what of Chris Crocker, the lifeboat who annually floats in to provide depth and leadership in the defensive backfield? Will he now reroute his flight from his couch to Minneapolis instead of Cincinnati?
Meanwhile, the team's best corner, Leon Hall, is coming off his second Achilles tendon tear in three seasons. His status as shutdown slot man is certainly open to debate. With Dre Kirkpatrick, the team's top choice in 2012, only beginning to show flashes of that status, the team could use another prime athlete to develop into a starter, ideally alongside Kirkpatrick in 2015, while providing some depth now.
Picking 24th, the Bengals will cross their tiger paws and hope the top corner prospects fall. That means Darqueze Dennard of Michigan State, a physical, borderline angry player, or Justin Gilbert of Oklahoma State, who didn't play much press coverage in college but possesses elite talent (and figures to be a dangerous kick returner as well). Should both be gone, that could leave the Bengals looking at TCU's Jason Verrett, a slight but cat-quick ballhawk in the mold of the artist formerly known as Pacman. He goes against the physical type ideally preferred by Lewis -- long and lean like Kirkpatrick -- but Verrett was extremely physical for his size in college. A similar player who could be on the Bengals radar is Lamarcus Joyner of Florida State, who gets extra points for his versatility.
The Bengals could easily double-dip at the position, targeting someone like Missouri's E.J. Gaines at the head of Day Three.
Problem: Tackle Anthony Collins is a free agent.
Solution: Re-sign him.
The offensive line was at its best late in the season, when injuries forced starting left tackle Andrew Whitworth inside to guard, and Collins came off the bench to excel in Whitworth's place. Keeping that set up, with Andre Smith and Kevin Zeitler on the other side of center, is optimal, providing power and athleticism in equal measure.
Alas, life in the NFL isn't that simple. Collins is an unrestricted free agent who is sure to receive rich offers to become some other team's starting left tackle. If he stays in Cincy, he would start, meaning the team would be paying Whitworth left tackle money to play guard. Even though the Bengals can afford to do so if necessary, Mike Brown would sooner hire a full-time GM than overpay for certain positions, even for Whitworth, a wildly popular player inside and outside the locker room.
But the notoriously parsimonious Brown should be cheered by the report that the salary cap is being boosted again, by roughly $7 million (a windfall that could allow the team to also keep defensive end Michael Johnson, a player everyone assumed would be too expensive to keep). That could allow the Bengals to more easily keep Collins while not erasing the cap flexibility the team prizes. It may also allow the Bengals to re-sign valued backup Mike Pollak, who played well off the bench late in the season.
Given the line depth in the draft, Cincinnati will almost assuredly add a big ugly in May. Anthony Steen of Alabama fits the team's preferred profile -- he can play guard or center, and went to an SEC school. Assuming his injured shoulder checks out, he will be on Cincy's big board. Clemson's Brandon Thomas will be as well.
Now if only there was a combine to determine what players would excel in January ...
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Robert Weintraub is the author of the books The Victory Season and The House That Ruth Built. He writes regularly for the New York Times, ESPN.com, Football Outsiders, CJR, Slate and many others. Follow him on Twitter @robwein.