GEORGETOWN, Ky. - The Bengals, who won the AFC North last year with a staid, one-dimensional offense, now suddenly have weapons as diverse as their personalities.
If wide receivers Chad Ochocinco and Terrell Owens are Ochocinco and Ochouno, then No. 32, running back Cedric Benson, is as simple as 3 plus 2. His idea of reality TV is the Discovery Channel, the National Geographic Channel and Animal Planet. While The Ocho and T.O. were going network this offseason, Benson was hunting for the first time in his life on the solitude set of his Texas ranch.
Benson had shot at birds with BBs, but never something mammal and when a deer wandered into view and his friend raised his gun, Benson told him not to shoot.
"I know they do it as a sport. I know they feed deer outside deer season to get them to come around," Benson mused before Friday's practice, still amazed at himself. "For some reason, when it came down to it, I couldn't do it. I thought, 'This is a deer. They eat your flowers. It's not like they contribute to the whole ecosystem or anything like that.' "
And that's what offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski is preaching in the days after the Bengals signed Owens, giving them a Hall of Fame wide receiver, the team's all-time receiver in The Ocho, and a former franchise player with two 1,000-yard seasons in Antonio Bryant.
But Bratkowski knows that Benson and a running game that finished ninth in the league in rushing was at the top of the food chain last year. It shortened the wins in Pittsburgh and both wins over Baltimore to take the game of attrition. It kept the Bengals close enough to survive meager offensive outputs at home by the 26th-ranked passing offense against the Browns and Chiefs. It almost pulled out the playoff game.
But Bratkowski knows in order to win a playoff game, his ecosystem of formations and the evolution of his playcalling must be balanced.
"If we get in the top 10 in both running and passing," Bratkowski said, "then we've got something. I'd like to see how many teams have done that and how they ended up."
It doesn't happen every day. Elias Sports Bureau says three teams have done it in the last three seasons. Last year the Cowboys and Saints did it. Before that, it was the Eagles in 2007. The Saints won it all. The Cowboys won their first playoff game in more than a decade. That Eagles team finished last in the NFC East at 8-8.
It doesn't guarantee anything, but most of the time it has meant big things in Bengals history, too. Since the 1970 merger, the Bengals have finished in the top 10 in both running and passing four times. They only made the playoffs once (1973), but their one losing season with it was that aberration called the 1987 strike. The '86 team won 10 games but missed the playoffs and the '89 team went 8-8 and missed the playoffs on the last day.
Balance. You have to score, too.
But Bratkowski will say that a lot of three wide-receiver sets isn't the best thing for the running game. You can get a healthy debate going. Can a team committed as much to the running game as the Bengals are be a three-receiver team like the Cincinnati team that won the 2005 AFC North and missed the 2006 playoffs on the last day?
"You can't have a steady diet of it, but it's going to be a part of what we do. It's always been a part of what we do. Some years more than others and we've done quite a bit of it," Bratkowski said. "Yet in the run game, when you're committed to the run, very few of the top running teams are one back, three wides. You don't see that very often. We'll still do our fair share."
Even though the Bengals may have their three most accomplished and veteran receivers in history, it is hard to see them running as much three-receiver sets as they did in '05, when they nearly cracked the top 10 in both (11th rushing, fifth passing) in winning the AFC North. The reason they didn't repeat in '06? Besides a defense that continually gave up the big play? A running game that fell hard to earth to No. 26 and dragged down a No. 6 pass offense.
"Now it's the opposite and we're going for balance," Bratkowski said.
You can get a chicken-and-egg debate going there, too, Were the Bengals so lousy running the ball because they weren't committed or were they not committed because the strength of their team was lining up The Ocho, T.J. Houshmandzadeh and Chris Henry?
As far as Benson knows, they are still the '09 Bengals and committed to the run even in the wake of the fanfare of the Owens deal. It is looking more and more like a team that will use three wides, but it won't be its signature like those days.
"Brat has no doubt in his mind," Benson said. "I never questioned it. They're going to have to show me otherwise to make me think we're not going to be a running team from what I understand. We dominated in the running game. I would expect it to be the same way this year."
The '05-07 Bengals got ripped for not having an identity on offense since the team was unable to hang the proverbial hat on any one part of the game. Benson wasn't here and doesn't sense that now.
"Brat is a smart man. He's a smart coordinator. He's seen a lot of football," Benson said. "It's clear that teams that win in the playoffs, except the Colts, get there running the football. I think Brat knows that. I think he knows what's best for this team."
For Bratkowski, that has always been knowing his team's strengths. The second thing he said after the T.O signing is his club was still a big, physical, running team. And now with Bryant nursing his knee problem and rookie tight end Jermaine Gresham expected to be a factor at some point blocking, double tight ends and two-back sets make sense.
Just ask running backs coach Jim Anderson, dean of NFL position coaches. Back in the late '80s when the Bengals were known as the league's most explosive pass offense with a strong-armed quarterback, two sprinter receivers, and Pro Bowl-like receivers at running back and tight end, they were quietly one of the most devastating running teams in history. The '86 team was third in passing, but second running. The '88 team that set a club record for points was just 11th in passing, but led the NFL in rushing.
"When you have weapons on the outside, it makes you a better running team," said Anderson of the three-receiver debate. "It depends what the diet is. How much do you use it? You have to be selective, but you can be committed to what you do. We didn't do much three-receiver (in '88). We had (Mike Martin) in the slot, but we had all kinds of formations. Three tight ends, two tight ends, a fullback. We mixed it up. That's what you do and that's what we're trying to. Be multiple and keep the offense off balance."
Gresham. A pass catcher out of the backfield in second-year back Bernard Scott. The coaches think they've got more multiple weapons than they had five years ago. But don't think it is not possible to run out of three wides. Benson set an NFL record for yards against his old team last year when he shredded the Bears for 189 yards on 37 carries behind mostly three wides.
And Owens and Bryant are known as big, tough and good blockers while The Ocho seemed to try and get in the way last year.
"At the same time, if you're going to do that, the offensive line has to be ready to kick some butt that day," Benson said. "And I think it's possible … I definitely think we can be successful running out of it. What it really does is it brings that extra guy (linebacker) out and guarantees you four or five yards a carry."
Balance. Benson has not only found it on the field in Cincinnati, but also off the field after his tumultuous three seasons in Chicago. After word came Friday that he wouldn't be suspended by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell for an assault charge, Benson talked about how comfortable be is playing for the Bengals and Cincinnati.
Maybe because he's more Discovery Channel than VH1. He had to laugh at all the cheers Owens got when he simply caught a ball in warmups.
"Maybe one day they'll give me a cheer when I'm stretching," he said. "You know me. I'm just a football player."
So it's not surprising that Benson had never met Owens or seen his TV show. But they seem to have a lot in common like a lot of the guys on this team. Many of them rejected and spurned, convinced they have been misunderstood, bitten by a sound bite era in the perception game.
"TV is fake anyway," he said. "I don't want to formulate an opinion based on TV."
When Owens checked into the huddle for the first time Thursday, there was no big deal. Just a welcome and here we go.
"He was just one of the guys; you know how it is here," Benson said. "A lot of us all come from the same things. We've all been involved in similar situations. So nobody holds one man greater than the other."