Without an offseason of meetings and practices, Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden watched quarterback Andy Dalton and wide receiver A.J. Green put up rookie of the year numbers in a system that often deferred to defense and field position.
Now in their sophomore seasons that includes their first years of spring ball, Gruden not only thinks the Bengals have to open it up some but he thinks his young players are capable of taking the next step in an effort to use more of the versatile West Coast playbook.
"There are going to be times we have to branch off and open things up and we're going to have to do more. And we can. I really think we can," Gruden says as he prepares to scout the next crop at this week's NFL scouting combine.
He says it took time for the Bengals to adjust to the loss of slot receiver Jordan Shipley (knee) in the second game of the season ("We were very vanilla," he said), but once Green and the other rookie receivers, Andrew Hawkins and Ryan Whalen, got their feet on the ground and second-year tight end Jermaine Gresham got more snaps in a new offense, the offense was able to get more sophisticated as the season went along and Gruden expects to be able to do more with the extra spring practice time.
Particularly with Dalton.
"He better get better or he won't be good enough," Gruden says. "You have to be great at that position and we think he can be great. That's why we drafted him where we did and he had a remarkable rookie season, no doubt about it. Knowing the kind of kid he is and how he works, I know he'll get better. That's why I like our offense. All our guys are like that."
Conventional wisdom is that the Bengals head to the combine seeking a running mate for Green at the other starting wide receiver and a No. 1 running back, but Gruden isn't throwing out any absolutes.
"I'm not ready to kick guys off the team if we don't have guys that can replace them," Gruden said. "I'd like to have all our guys back."
But Gruden realizes the look of his offense depends on who is back. With No. 1 running back Cedric Benson, starting wide receiver Jerome Simpson, starting guards as well as the backup tight end all free agents, the philosophy is more set than the depth chart.
"The beauty of this offense is that we were in the middle of the pack statistically, but we were middle of the pack in both," says Gruden of an offense that was 19th rushing and 20th passing. "We had balance. We want to move up in both categories, but I don't think we were necessarily predictable in what we were doing. That's the big thing. You have to have the ability to do both … I'm greedy. Maybe it's not realistic, but I want to be able to do both."
Gruden has been spending the offseason looking at the NFL's two most prolific offenses, Green Bay and New Orleans, as well as the team that won it all, the Giants.
Maybe the most telling sequence of the season was the last one in the Super Bowl, when the Giants were out of tight ends because of injury and ended up executing the winning drive against the Patriots with sets they had rarely used late in the season.
"You need that ability to run a lot of formations," Gruden says.
The signing of former Lions running back Aaron Brown on Friday as Cincinnati's first foray into free agency has contributed to the buzz the Bengals are going to make a change. But Gruden says Benson is still an attractive player, although he's also convinced no one can be a bell cow in this day and age.
"Having one running back and giving it to him 400 times in a year isn't realistic in 2012," he says. "In 1985, yes. But in this day and age with the pounding they take … I think Cedric is that rare individual that still has the body that can handle that type of punishment, which is a great argument for re-signing Cedric.
"On the flip side, if you have two or three guys that can do a little bit of everything and share the load, which isn't bad, keep them fresh; keep them from getting pounded on. It's just a matter of who we bring back. We can go either way."
Looking back on it, Gruden thinks the Bengals mixed it up pretty well. "We handed the ball off a lot," he said. "Cedric may argue we didn't, but he was probably one of the top guys that carried the ball and he missed a game and a half."
Benson carried the ball 273 times, seventh most in the league last season and tied with Eagles Pro Bowler LeSean McCoy.
If you watch a lot of Saints tape, you can't help but fall in love with one of their three backs, Darren Sproles, and Gruden has because he loves how "he's a matchup nightmare for defenses."
Gruden has also been watching the same concept with the Patriots and tight end Rob Gronkowski. In Gresham, Gruden believes the Bengals have a guy that can become one of the NFL's best tight ends. Gresham just needs more time in the offense and Gruden thinks the spring is really going to help him after a year his 56 catches and six touchdowns were the most by a Bengals tight end in nearly 20 years.
Gruden likes what veteran Donald Lee provided behind Gresham despite not getting here until early in the season. Not spectacular, but solid in both blocking and catching and he'd be a good guy to keep in free agency.
"This is all new to him," Gruden says of Gresham. "He's got to be able to see coverages as he's running downfield and get more comfortable in the offense because he's got a chance to be a great one. He's got all the tools.
"Gronkowski is a great, great, great football player as far as instinctive route running. How to set up receivers. Knowing if it's a safety, or corner, or a linebacker, getting into the holes. It's just not about being 6-5 and running fast. It's setting up guys, sticking them, getting them on their toes. Crossing face, reading coverages. Jermaine has unique abilities. He's a very good run blocker. He's a very good pass catcher. And he can run. He's got all the tools to be one of the great tight ends in football. He just has to get used to different looks and get a better feel for the passing game. And he's shown flashes."
Gruden has a list for everyone to work on. If there is Gresham's route running, there is also Dalton's "deep ball accuracy," just two of the many items that can be aided by the extra practice time.
As a unit, Gruden says the top offseason priorities are red zone and "chunk" plays for big yards. The Bengals finished 26th in red-zone touchdowns at 45.1 percent and were pedestrian in plays of generating 20 and 40 yards. They were tied for 22nd with the 49ers and Baltimore at plus-20 with just 57 plays, and their 12 plays of at least 40 were tied with the Ravens, Vikings, Panthers and Seahawks for 11th in the league.
But maybe the best thing this offense has going for it is it's going to stay the same. Gruden made sure of that when he turned down inquiries from the Rams and Colts to interview for their head coaching jobs while accepting what reports said was a three-year extension in excess of $1 million per year.
At age 44 and with most of his pro experience coming as a former head coach and general manger on the outskirts of the NFL indoors and in the minor league UFL, Gruden isn't your typical NFL assistant. He didn't move to the NFL until his three boys were old enough to be in high school and college, and he's not anxious about moving the two that are still in high school again.
"I don't know if I had interviewed I would have got the job, so that's irrelevant," Gruden says. "You look at my history, where I've been, and my family has a lot to do with the decisions I make. I want to take care of them financially. There's only a small window of opportunity for elite jobs, but I think being an offensive coordinator in the National Football League is an elite job and I'm quite happy as long as they're happy having me here. It's my job to make sure we progress.
"I see only positives here. I like the quarterback. I like the offensive line. I think our receivers are going to get better and we have a young tight end that can be one of the best in the game. It's exciting here."