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Hobson's Choice: Offense in transition

Q: "We can't move the ball. We can't get a first down. We can't run. We can't throw." We can't afford to finish dead last on offense with a finally improved defense. Will the Bengals make the right move and bring in a fresh perspective on offense in 2009?
--Tyler, Greenville, N.C.

TYLER: Ah, yes. The classic T.J. quote following the opener. Thanks for reading that far.

They better get fresh because if they don't they're looking at the same stale 6-10 with a franchise quarterback celebrating his 30th birthday heading into the '09 finale with exactly one playoff appearance.

With all indications that the Bengals coaching staff is returning relatively intact, the first surprise of the offseason, then the question has to be asked if the same coaches can bring any kind of a newness to it all.

they will have to because it looks like massive changes in personnel are going to dictate that something different must be done. If the last-place finish in offense didn't prove it already.

With the changing of the guard at tackle and wide receiver, this is officially no longer a passing team.

And, really, it hasn't been since the last three games of '06, when they threw it 106 times, scored six touchdowns, lost all three, and didn't make the playoffs.

They tried to emulate the Colts even into '07, but they just didn't have the flow, the precision, or the easy points. It should have been recognized at least midway through '07 that, for whatever reason, this was a team that could no longer live on a pass-it-first mentality.

Yes, their best players were in the passing game, but what did it give them points-wise? Head coach Marvin Lewis called it out in the first five minutes after the '07 season and said they had to re-commit to the run.

Carson Palmer's '08 injury, in an odd way, confirmed that call. The 12 games without Palmer simply illuminated the problems that his arm hid for years:

Inability to get tough yards and pop a big play on the ground. Unsure routes. Drops. No underneath threat. Trying to jam it into T.J. when Chad wasn't open just didn't get the ball down the field.

And, Lewis' '07 end-of-season vow revealed his belief that he wants to have a style like his old Ravens and Steelers instead of the Colts and Patriots.

So how do they respond?

Now, with what no doubt looks like a rookie left tackle, a new center, and quite possibly at least one new wide receiver, the Bengals can't have the same kind of passing mentality and keep Palmer sane and/or healthy.

(They also can't build anything around Chris Henry. He had a nice finish and he can be a terrific number three, but anything more might be stretching it although you have to admire how he hustled the last three games.)

Forget the Colts. In order to dig out of this hole, the Bengals have to be like the Chargers, Ravens and Titans. Teams where you can name the running backs and tight ends, but can't name the second receiver. If they don't, they'll get Palmer killed again before he ever learns the Boomer Esiason play fake.

And don't think this all means taking the ball out of Palmer's hands. Of the NFL's top eight passers this year, half of them (San Diego's Phillip Rivers, Miami's Chad Pennington, Houston's Matt Schaub, Dallas' Tony Romo) came out of offenses that try to get the ball into hands other than those of the wide receivers. More weapons. More time to throw. More separation and more easy throws.

There have been many pockets of cyberspace that have argued that the Bengals should have brought in some new offensive gurus in here at some point when it all went awful at the end of '06 or, at least, at the end of '07.

Well, they didn't and (it looks like offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski and his staff are back), they are going to be faced with this transition in personnel.

I don't think you ho-hum a guy like Bratkowski and just put him out to the curb with the recycling. His fingerprints are all over the Bengals' season and all-time record books. Some of this stuff isn't his fault, but he'll be the first to tell you that the numbers in the last 35 games have been obscene and he knows he's got a huge challenge on his hands.

So do his bosses. Do they re-sign wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh at $7 million per year, or do they go younger and cheaper at receiver and put their money into a veteran center and fullback? Houshmandzadeh is the one receiver that knows what to do every snap, so they have to scale back if they don't have him?

Do they take the bull by the horns and make sure they re-sign running back Cedric Benson as well as take a back high in the draft?

Or do they keep insisting it's a passing team even though they're going to have a bunch of new pass protectors and maybe a bunch of young receivers.

The last two games provided some hope in that there was a lot of diversity in the game plan. Against the Browns they unveiled a bunch of different runs, mixing in the zones with rare '08 sightings of counters and powers. Against the Chiefs, they went out of the box and used rookie wide receiver Andre Caldwell a bunch of different ways with screens and reverses and even off a direct snap.

If the Bengals are going to get their players to buy back into the offense, they have to keep that creative roll going. The looming transition in personnel should give them the opportunity.

(Footnote: Here is why the Bengals have to figure out how to get Palmer in the best position possible. Via, here are the five quarterbacks with the biggest salary cap hits in 2008: Peyton Manning $18.7 million, Tom Brady, $14.6, Palmer $13.9, Eli Manning $12.9, Brett Favre $12.0.)

Q: My New Year's Resolution is that the Bengals draft a tackle, center, running back and some sort of defensive help in the first four rounds. Do you see that happening? If so, in what order?
--Chris, Gaylord, MI

CHRIS: For the first time since they chose Willie Anderson 13 years ago, never has taking a tackle No. 1 been so apparent or needed, or such of a lock.

No one knows right now, of course, but it has to be one of the top four tackles on the board. With Alabama's Andre Smith and Virginia's Eugene Monroe getting all the hype, it may be time to fit Mississippi's Michael Oher or Baylor's Jason Smith with Anderson's No. 71.

I'm with you. I think they take a center at the top of the second round, a running back at the top of the third, and then in the fourth I could see them staying offense and going for a tight end.

But I think you hit it. With Eric Ghiaciuc a free agent and the jury still way out on his effectiveness against 3-4 defenses, they're going to go for a center early and this is a rich year for them. Some draftnicks have speculated that you could even see history turned on its head with two centers taken in the first round. But, traditionally they go late first, early second, and I think that's where they have to go this trip.

It was only in the 2007 draft that they were faced at No. 49 in the second round with Auburn running back Kenny Irons and USC center Ryan Kalil.

Irons suffered what may be a career-ending knee injury while Kalil is on the cusp of the Pro Bowl. The Panthers finished third in NFL rushing while allowing the eighth fewest sacks per pass.

Not to open the debate again (a speed back was welcomed by the offensive line that April), but it shows they should get a quality center there.

But I still think they have to go out and get a veteran center to smooth the transition. That's a tough nut lining up with a rookie left tackle and rookie center. You're going to go nowhere.

And that gets into another discussion. Where the Bengals miss the boat on free agency is not with the big money guys.

The club has proven to be right on that one. Rarely are they worth it.

But they have to be more open to the second-tier free agents even if they have a little wear and tear on them. They like to go young but, like Willie Anderson says, "Kids can't teach kids."

They weren't all that happy with how Ghiaciuc played in '07, but they passed on a competent, reasonably priced veteran in free agency in Justin Hartwig, and he ended up playing for AFC North champion Pittsburgh. They need to get a Hartwig-type to teach the rookie and play for him at least early on.

And if they feel like they can't risk Palmer's blindside early in the left tackle's career, they could put left guard Andrew Whitworth there and keep Nate Livings at left guard early in the season while the No. 1 pick adjusts.

This is going on the notion that they'll move Anthony Collins from left tackle to right tackle to start things out with right tackle Stacy Andrews on the shelf.

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