BY GEOFF HOBSON
Ken Anderson might as well be Rod Serling this offseason. He is trying to decipher what strange forces turn the Bengals' offense into a mush of mystery once it ventures inside the opponents' 20-yard line. They call it the Red Zone, but for the Bengals it has been The Twilight Zone.
Anderson, the Bengals' offensive coordinator, has watched every NFL snap that took place from the 5-yard line and closer last year on film as he tries to explain this statistical believe-it-or-not:
The Bengals had the ball in the red zone 54 times in 1999, exactly two fewer times than the Super Bowl champion St. Louis Rams. The Rams scored 526 points, the third most of all time. The Bengals scored 283 points, one of their 10 lowest scoring seasons since the advent of the 16-game schedule in 1978.
"The difference is the Rams scored touchdowns two-thirds of the time while we did it less than half," Anderson said. "What's that tell you? It means we can move the ball down the field with anybody, but we've got to be more effective the closer we get. Look what the good teams do. They finish off their drives."
The only AFC teams that had more red zone shots than Cincinnati were teams that won home-field advantage in the playoffs (the Jaguars with 63 and the Colts with 61) and an 8-8 team in the Raiders with 57. St. Louis was second in the NFC with 56. Minnesota led with 59, but the Vikings barely cashed 50 percent for touchdowns while the Rams scored six points 66 percent of the time.
"You pick up ideas from the teams that are doing well and put it in with what you're trying to improve on," Anderson said. "You're just trying to find a way to translate what you do in the last few yards that got you down the field in the first place."
Do the Bengals run inside too much? Do they spread the field too much? Not enough? Did they rely too much on the alley-oop to wide receiver Carl Pickens? Anderson is hesitant to say what he's discovered because he doesn't want to tip off his foes.
But what we do know is that the Bengals scored 23 touchdowns in the red zone for a touchdown percentage of 42.6 percent. A total of 14 came off passes, nine on runs. From Week 2 to Week 12, a Bengals running back didn't score a touchdown.
"There's more of a crowd down there," Anderson said. "It's tighter. We've tried to expand our packages to find things that work. We've spread it out at times, but not every time. We did lose some speed down there when we lost Ki-Jana."
The Bengals cut running back Ki-Jana Carter last week as he recovers from yet another knee surgery. But they know when he was healthy in 1996 and 1997, his speed gave them an outside threat they didn't have when he missed all but four games the past two seasons. In '96-97, he scored 15 rushing touchdowns, mainly in goal-line situations. The Bengals' 23 rushing TDs in '97 led the NFL during a 7-9 season.