By Robert Weintraub
In OTAs (Offseason Talk & Analysis) all through June, the Sports on Earth NFL team will break down each team's offseason transactions, boldest moves and burning questions as they prepare for training camp. So far we've featured the Falcons, Cardinals, Ravens, Bills, Panthers and Bears.
It's a regular rite of summer now, right there with the smell of Coppertone or the increase in crime rates. The Cincinnati Bengals gather for OTAs and minicamps and attempt to pick up the pieces and regroup after yet another crushing first-round playoff exit. This time around, there is a sense that 2014 is a crossroads season. Will Cincy regress and miss the playoffs, or can it continue its slow and steady build to the heights of the AFC totem pole?
Sure, the Ginger-haired Sword of Damocles that is Andy Dalton hangs over the franchise. Will he step up and become a truly reliable quarterback? How much should the team spend on his coming contract extension? How does he feel about a dye job? However, in the meantime there are other doings in Cincy to examine.
Biggest Offseason Move: Embracing the Hue-Tang Clan
The offseason personnel maneuvering in the Queen City was limited, as usual. However, there were a couple of draft selections that reflected a larger tactical shift that is in the offing. From 2011-13, with Jay Gruden as offensive coordinator, the Bengals passed more than they ran by an average of 99 times per season. Now Gruden is off to D.C. to let Robert Griffin III wing it that much, if not more. In his place at OC comes Hue Jackson, who is much more old-school than Gruden, and is itching to establish a mucho macho ground game at Paul Brown Stadium. When Jackson called the shots for the Raiders offense in 2010, the run/pass split actually tilted toward the ground attack, 504-491. That team didn't have A.J. Green, among other major differences in personnel, but it's a revealing window into Jackson's mindset.
Jackson has been outspoken (as he always is) about desiring a different shade of offense, one that emphasizes the run, especially between the tackles, while also taking responsibility off of Dalton's plate. To that end, the Bengals surprised some draftniks by taking Jeremy Hill, a banger with plenty of tread left on his tires, out of LSU with the 55th overall pick. He will kick aside the swiftly decomposing BenJarvus Green-Ellis to become the lead power back in the Bengals backfield, leaving the Law Firm free to catch up on back episodes of The Practice. Cincy then grabbed mauler Russell Bodine in the fourth round to add muscle to the interior line (more on him below).
Jackson said in May that he saw "spectacular" things from his quarterback, but with Dalton, less is certainly more. A more efficient run game (Cincy was 20th in rushing DVOA per Football Outsiders) and a more balanced attack can only help the Red Rifle, and keep him from his regular self-inflicted wounds. Hill and second-year dynamo Gio Bernard could be a dynamic duo, a striped version of the 2010 Raiders combo of Darren McFadden and Michael Bush, who combined for 1,812 yards and 15 touchdowns. Even that team's quarterback, Jason Campbell, is on hand, the newly signed insurance policy in case Dalton spontaneously combusts.
Of course, seeking to emulate an 8-8 team may not be the best way to go. But give Jackson credit -- from fired disgrace to influential offensive coordinator in just three seasons isn't a bad rebound.
Biggest Offseason Gamble: Cutting loose the starting center
This is the riskiest move of Jackson's offensive coup. Kyle Cook was agile, tough and particularly adept at sorting out complex pass protections. Unfortunately, injuries to his lower body suffered in 2012 leeched away much of his power, and he was routinely plowed over by the 3-4 noseguards in the AFC North. The Bengals ran for a paltry 3.27 yards per carry against divisional opponents, highlighting their struggles against the likes of Haloti Ngata and Phil Taylor.
Still, it came as a surprise when the Bengals cut the well-liked veteran in March, opening a competition for the spot among several unproven players. The aforementioned Bodine is being groomed for the spot, no two ways about it. The Bengals hadn't traded up in the draft since 2002 (and are still singed by the Ki-Jana Carter disaster), but moved up to grab Bodine, which are all the tea leaves you need to read. Bodine is a weight room All-Pro, having benched 42 reps at the combine, way more than anyone else, and will solve the beef problem up front. But at North Carolina he struggled with line calls against complex blitzes, and in getting to the second level on runs. He may in the end be better suited for guard.
If that's the case, the Bengals quiet re-signing of Mike Pollak looks prescient. A versatile and very tough player himself, Pollak is a more natural guard, but the team likes his ability at center too. And Trevor Robinson, a third-year undrafted free agent who played well in Cook's place back in '12, is still presuming the job is his, and entered OTAs atop the depth chart, for what that's worth. But Robinson isn't the power specimen that Bodine is and Jackson apparently wants.
Cutting Cook was a way of (over)committing to the new OC. Without a definitive replacement, however, it was a dicey call.
The fact that Cook remains without a team, however, indicates that perhaps the Bengals were on to something by looking elsewhere.
Biggest 2014 Question: Can Mike Zimmer be replaced?
When the "Michael Jordan of defensive coordinators," as safety Chris Crocker dubbed Mike Zimmer, leaves your team, it usually finds itself trying to compete with replacements like Hersey Hawkins or Fred Hoiberg. Former linebackers coach Paul Guenther surely has the tactical acumen to handle coordinator duties, or he would not have been such a hot commodity in the offseason (Cincy beat back several suitors, including the Vikings and Zimmer himself, to retain Guenther).
Filling the position in-house is good for continuity, and it would be a surprise if the Bengals do anything notably different than they did under Zim. But replacing the legend with his understudy seldom turns out well. Last year, the Bengals defense not only survived the loss of its two top players, Geno Atkins and Leon Hall, it thrived. Zimmer left his fingerprints all over the unit's effort, strong tackling and sticky coverage in the season's second half.
The Cincy defense isn't a group of elite talents, since only Hall and middle linebacker Rey Maualuga were Bengals first-rounders. The unit is more deep than overwhelming, more coached-up than ability-oozing. Guenther's charge will not only be to maintain the intensity that Zimmer elicited from his guys, but to find a way to go up a gear in the playoffs. Dalton's postseason flopsweat has been gathered up in a pail and analyzed under an electron microscope, thus granting a pass to the defense, which crumbled against the Chargers like it did against the Texans in 2011.
That's assuming Cincinnati plays January football for a fourth straight year. If it does, Guenther will have mostly stepped out of Zimmer's considerable shadow.
A promising season comes undone in a brutal (and resolutely unfair) three-game stretch in late-November, when the Bengals visit the Superdome in New Orleans, Reliant Stadium in Houston and Raymond James Stadium in Tampa on consecutive Sundays. Even if Cincy improves on offense this season, or maintains a Zimmerian defensive excellence, its first place and ill-constructed schedule may just unravel the progress. The Bengals have a very early bye, taking the weekend off after merely three games. Then, after hosting three in a row, they travel to a trio of southern cities just when bitter winds start to howl off the Ohio River. That long roadie leads into a final month that includes both games against the Steelers, a trip to (Johnny) Cleveland, and a prime time encounter with Peyton Manning. If Cincinnati can survive that gauntlet, a fourth straight playoff berth is surely in the offing.
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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.