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Bengals hope pass catches run

Carson Palmer

While wide receiver Chad Ochocinco has been Dancing With The Stars, Bob Bratkowski has been grappling with the Xs and Os. And the reality is when the Bengals offensive coordinator has gone back to the blackboard, there has been some beautiful music.

After Bratkowski went into the cutting room to dissect his scheme last offseason, he emerged with an award-winning running game that helped cook up an AFC North title. He can only hope the final product from this offseason's editing of the pass offense is just as compelling.

He finally gets all the pieces in place off the blackboard next week when The Ocho checks in for the first time and participates in the mandatory minicamp Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday that closes the Bengals until the opening of training camp in late July.

"He'll be behind; he'll pick some of the stuff up," Bratkowski said of The Ocho, the Bengals' all-time leading receiver. "Some of it is just named a little differently. Some of the formations are called a little differently. He'll pick it up quick enough."

The revamped running game went from No. 29 in 2008 to No. 9 in the NFL last season and if the Bengals can get a similar rise from last year's seventh worst pass offense, quarterback Carson Palmer is going to be a happy man.

After Thursday's last voluntary practice of the spring, Palmer said he's still adjusting to the revised passing playbook. Although he called it the biggest offseason change to the passing game in his six seasons as the starter, Palmer said Bratkowski didn't completely overhaul it. But because the running game is the smaller portion of the scheme, there has been more of a mental burden this offseason because the passing game is so extensive.

Palmer says The Ocho is going to be looking at a batch of new bits ("he'll have a lot to learn"), but he also knows the opener in New England is 94 days away. 

"We put in a number of new concepts, new terms. The playbook has changed quite a bit," Palmer said. "I'm still learning, still progressing in it. We've got plenty of time to keep working on it and when he gets back in shape and gets back in the flow of things, we'll still have enough time to be ready for the season opener."

Palmer didn't have The Ocho in last year's camps, either, and while Ochocinco didn't have his usual 1,400-yard season, the passing game also didn't have the emphasis it had in years past or in this one, or T.J. Houshmandzadeh and the late Chris Henry, hurt for half the season. Ochocinco still had nine touchdowns and his seventh 1,000-yard season with 1,045 yards.

"It's one thing to jog and run around. Until you run routes against a defense, it takes awhile," Palmer said. "He's a veteran guy. He'll get the rust off and be ready to roll when he's ready to roll."

Palmer admitted it would be nice for the new pass offense to have had Ochocinco here for the 12 OTAs simply because there is no clear-cut No. 1 without him here.

"Maybe they're trying to find a new No. 1 receiver," said Palmer of the workouts that don't have The Ocho.  

Free agent Antonio Bryant has been learning the offense as well as adjusting to playing different positions. Little-used third-year receiver Jerome Simpson has been playing The Ocho's X spot on the weak side like Henry did last spring. Third-year man Andre Caldwell and rookie Jordan Shipley are getting a lot of snaps in the slot while working with Palmer.

"It's hard to work your offense without (Ohcocinco)," Palmer said. "Antonio has been playing some spots. Shipley has been making some plays in some spots. It's hard to say because we're looking for our No. 2 and No. 3 receivers without our No. 1 receiver."

But Palmer says the Bengals are in better shape passing than they were last year at this time when they went into the mandatory minicamp. He called '09 "a mess" in a spring Houshmandzadeh was gone, the little-used Simpson and the free-agent Laveranues Coles struggled, and Henry worked at a spot he didn't play during the season.  

Palmer has been pleased with what he sees from the rookies Shipley and tight end Jermaine Gresham, two guys that will be as scrutinized as The Ocho next week. Also under the microscope is another free-agent receiver in Matt Jones, a guy that has impressed Palmer with his speed.

Palmer also continues to be high on Gresham.

"I don't know if there is anything that any tight end in this league does that he can't potentially do," Palmer said. "Not that he's mastered anything yet. Not that he's got everything down. But I don't see a weakness. If he had to play in Pittsburgh's offense and block a guy every single time and run little quick seam routes, out routes, he could do that. If he played in Denver's offense and got to run a lot of routes, he could do that.

"The sky's the limit for him. God has given him the natural physical tools and ability to do anything in this league. He's given a lot of guys that. The next step is those guys maximize their physical potential and that's all in the heard and in the heart. And if he's got that, which I think he does, then the sky's the limit."

But Palmer was also very quick to underscore just how hard it is to evaluate anyone while not wearing pads. And just how far away this season truly is.

"There are no pads yet; he hasn't played in a game yet," he said of Gresham. "A lot of guys look great. I think he'll be a great player. He's got all the potential in the world. (But) we've got a long way to go before our minds are made up on anybody. We've got the preseason, minicamp and training camp."

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