The Bengals' season is over after Wild Card Weekend... again.
Three straight seasons, three straight early exits from the postseason, but this one was the most painful. A home game... where Cincinnati hadn't lost all season and they fell to the visiting Chargers. Cincinnati's offense had been unstoppable at home before putting up 10 points against a Chargers defense that was rather putrid all season, ranked 23rd in total yards allowed per game by season's end.
Andy Dalton continued his unfortunate playoff legacy in the 27-10 loss with three turnovers in the second half while San Diego scored 20 unanswered. Dalton was 29 of 51 for 334 passing yards, one touchdown, two awful interceptions, a fumble and was sacked three times. Without those three second half turnovers, we may be having a much different conversation, but the fact of the matter is that the Bengals offense was, once again, stymied in the playoffs. So, with three straight years of terrible playoff exits, the Bengals are faced with one of their more delicate offseasons in recent memory. I can assure you though... it's going to be okay.
Gruden, the prized Cincinnati offensive coordinator for the duration of Dalton's career, was just announced as the Washington Redskins' new head coach this past week. Gruden has been credited with making the Bengals' offense wildly explosive, using a lot of West Coast offensive principals to maximize Dalton's skill set and get Cincinnati's offense ranked 10th in the NFL this season. He is a creative play-caller, who found interesting ways of getting the ball to the litany of Bengal playmakers who now riddle the roster. That said... Bengals fans should be excited for the new offensive coordinator: Hue Jackson.
Jackson's track record as an offensive coach speaks for itself. He is most remembered for the Carson Palmer trade when he was the Raiders' head coach in 2011, but in 2010 he was the offensive coordinator for the Raiders where Oakland finished second in the NFL in rushing yards, averaging 155.9 yards per game. In 2011, the Raiders were seventh in the league in rushing. Jackson also spent two years tutoring Baltimore's Joe Flacco in 2008 and 2009 helping Flacco and the Ravens advance into the playoffs. Bengals fans will mostly remember Jackson from his stint as wide receivers coach with Cincinnati during the heyday of Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh, before Jackson left in 2007.
While Gruden is a creative play-caller, I believe Jackson will be able to truly maximize Dalton's potential. Gruden was known as a guy who would bring along Dalton and sort of stroke his ego (not holding him accountable for mistakes), even when things weren't going well, but Jackson is a different type of coach, who will push Dalton and pressure him to succeed. After all, Jackson was in Cincinnati with Chad Johnson and got Johnson's best seasons under his watch, which has to count for something, right?
While I respect Gruden's play-calling, as it was mostly creative, I oftentimes felt like it wasn't enough. There were games where I felt like Gruden was calling a conservative game to protect Dalton. For example, the Pittsburgh game, at Pittsburgh this season, was one where the play-calling was not unique, but rather basic. It seemed to be simplified as if "to keep Cincinnati in the game" and then let Dalton play when he was comfortable. A great NFL quarterback should need protection in that sense. They should be able to control and command the offense, and by extension, the game. It is those sorts of games that appeared all too often throughout Gruden's three season stint, that make me think that Jackson is the perfect fit for Cincinnati. He is aggressive, creative and seems able to bring the best out of his players (Flacco, Darren McFadden, Johnson, Houshmandzadeh...etc.) Also, a quarterback's best friend is a run game and Jackson brings that, based on his resume. I believe he is just as unique in how he approaches the passing game, which makes A.J. Green, who I don't believe should ever be completely shut out as he has been on a couple occasions over the last season or two, and those young receivers, like the impressive Marvin Jones, even more dangerous. I'm happy for Gruden and the opportunity he has, but Jackson's presence should be welcomed. He will make Cincinnati's offense better, more explosive and harder to predict.
The biggest question mark heading into the offseason has to the the "Red Rifle". Dalton's struggles in the postseason are well-documented and are, frankly, getting old, but there is more to this than what meets the eye. Dalton is the true enigma of the NFL right now. He is the epitome of inconsistency and in a very real sense, holds back one of the most talented rosters in the NFL from competing for, at the very least, Conference Championships. Those two interceptions against San Diego were pitiful, terrible decisions that can't be made in a preseason game, much less a one-and-done situation at home. His fumble, while maybe not as egregious, was still something that shouldn't happen at this level. In games against good defensive coordinators/defenses, who shut down Green, he struggles mightily (see games against Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Houston) and even in close games against opponents they should beat, he doesn't take over the game and carry the offense, oftentimes turning the ball over and making the situation worse. Maybe it's a psychological thing, maybe it's something with the coaching style, but whatever it is... it is a problem.
On the other hand, Dalton set the team record for passing yards and touchdowns in a season in 2013 - only his third season - breaking 2005 Carson Palmer's records. Impressive, no doubt. However, watching Palmer that season was magical as he was widely considered the next great quarterback on his way to join the names of Brady and Manning as NFL elite. Watching Dalton this season, break all Palmer's team passing records, was more like screaming into a pillow and cringing every time he threw the ball until the TV cameras turned to follow the ball and either showed the ball land perfectly in the hands of a Bengal... or an opponent.
Nonetheless, Dalton was prolific this season, so what do you do if you are Cincinnati? You can't expect a rookie to come in and play as well as an "above-average Dalton", or even an "average Dalton" and you may not be able to stick with Dalton because of just how bad he can play on an off day. Heck, everyone sees that Dalton's best performances are actually very, very good. When he has a great game, you can't dispute the potential there as he looks the part of a franchise quarterback. No rookie is going to instantly start playing that well consistently.
So, Cincinnati needs to take a different approach.
With Jackson as offensive coordinator, Dalton has a new coach, who will push him and hold him accountable. That's a great start as I think the "change of scenery" of Gruden's departure is a necessary step for Dalton. Him and the Bengals need something to change for a psychological standpoint, if for no other reason, to believe that things will be different. I would then look to use a third or fourth round pick on a quarterback. If you take a guy in the first-round, you are officially moving on from Dalton, his confidence is shot and you have a rookie now holding back this talented Bengals team. You could hit the jackpot and find the next Andrew Luck with the Bengals' late first-round pick (don't kid yourself... they aren't trading up), but be careful what you wish for in terms of moving on from Dalton so quickly. Dalton is a less polished version of Tony Romo in that it is going to be very difficult to quickly find somebody better, but the inconsistency could make Dalton/Romo so difficult to win with, that you feel you need to move on. Romo is better, but you get the point. That said, if Cincinnati looks to the the early middle rounds, they could find someone like a Russell Wilson or Kirk Cousins-type talent who isn't too much risk and has a high-ceiling that would, at the very least, push Dalton. Cincinnati is loaded with talent, only desperately needing secondary help, so the Bengals will be in a position to draft "best available" throughout the draft. This would allow them to use their top picks on playmaking talent at other spots on their roster and then take a quarterback in the middle rounds. With a quick glance at the draft board, I would be excited to see Cincinnati take one of the two, high-potential, currently injured quarterback prospects: Aaron Murray out of Georgia or LSU product Zach Mettenberger. They wouldn't warrant a first or even second-round pick and with their injuries, they could drop into the third, maybe fourth-round making them prime candidates for Cincinnati, despite both being perceived, at one point, as potential first-round talents.
I think the key here for Cincinnati is to prepare for life without Dalton, but stick with him. He is still young and with a new offensive coordinator, we will either clearly see that Dalton is the future or know once and for all that he can't take Cincinnati deep into the playoffs. We know Dalton doesn't need more weapons, Green (who should be paid big money this offseason in preparation for his looming free agency in 2015), Marvin Jones, Mohamed Sanu, Andrew Hawkins (if he is resigned - he should be), Giovani Bernard and the tight ends make one of the most talented offensive units in the NFL. Now we just need to see the consistency from the quarterback position.
I believe that Cincinnati will be better off with Gruden gone and I believe that Bengals fans should optimistically look at Dalton's future with Cincinnati. However, if Jackson can't get consistency from Dalton, Cincinnati needs to have a plan for life without him before this roster, loaded with talent, simply wastes away, sitting and watching the Super Bowl from home every February.Back to the Cincinnati Bengals Newsfeed