In 1990, when they captured the AFC Central Division championship, the Bengals got 820 receiving yards and 7 touchdowns from their tight ends. No crew of Cincinnati tight ends has matched that combined production in a season since, and it's considered more than merely coincidental that the years from 1991-2001 have seen a long playoff drought befall the franchise.
The cry for more receiving and scoring punch from the tight end position has been an annual cry from Bengals coaching staffs in recent years. It's recalled that Cincinnati's 1988 Super Bowl team featured Rodney Holman, the top career TE receiver in team history, and that the 1981 club had TE Dan Ross, whose 71 receptions that season would stand as the club record for more than 10 years.
As the 2002 season dawns, expectations are high that the Bengals can regain playoff status. A young defense returns virtually intact after ranking No. 9 in the NFL last season, and the offense will feature Pro Bowl HB Corey Dillon along with a fast-improving corps of wide receivers.
But will the tight ends be able to...
play a significant role, improving significantly on last year's meager totals of 281 receiving yards and 1 TD?
John Garrett, newly installed as the club's tight ends coach after serving as offensive assistant last season, promises that he and his charges are ready for the challenge. Garrett is undeterred by the fact that neither of his top two contenders has played an NFL down.
"Bring it on," Garrett said. "Developing players is what coaches are supposed to do, and it's exciting because our young guys have some ability. They have a very good chance to develop and contribute significantly in year one. I love to see players improve and get better, and we'll have a competitive situation that will push each guy to be his best."
When the Bengals line up for their first training camp practice on July 26 at Georgetown (Ky.) College, most of the first-unit snaps will be going to Sean Brewer and Matt Schobel, the third-round picks in the last two Bengals drafts. During the off-season, the team released nine-year starting TE Tony McGee. His receiving numbers had been down in recent years, and the coaching staff believed the team would be best-served by handing the job to a younger player.
Brewer was chosen by the Bengals out of San Jose State in the 2001 draft. But he missed the entire preseason and regular season schedule last year, due to a severe groin pull suffered early in training camp.
"You really have to look at Sean as still being a rookie," Garrett said. "But he may have a little bit of an edge going into camp, because he's still been around every day for a year, learning the game plans and doing what he could to stay on top of things. He has good size (6-4, 255), excellent straight-line speed, and he's a smart player."
Brewer had the fastest 40-yard dash time (4.73) among tight ends at the 2001 NFL Scouting Combine, and Bengals coaches were impressed with his ability in college to adjust to off-target passes. He had the size and strength to be used by San Jose State as a reserve defensive lineman.
Schobel, from Texas Christian, was Cincinnati's third-round pick in this year's draft. The Bengals traded up six spots to get him, surrendering their fifth-round pick to Carolina, because they sensed he was high on the draft boards of several other teams drafting before their regular spot.
Schobel proved he could stretch the deep middle in college, averaging 30 yards per catch on his five TD grabs in 2001, and there was consensus agreement among draft analysts that his size, speed and great hands spell big potential as an NFL receiver.
"You temper all your evaluations until you see what a guy does with the pads on," Garrett said, "but we could see from mini-camp that he's a strong, athletic tight end who catches the ball easily. He has great instincts. There's no reason he shouldn't be a viable threat in the passing game as a rookie.
"The key for Matt, where a lot of development will have to take place, is as a blocker in the running game. He's physically capable, but he wasn't asked to do a lot of point-of-attack blocking in the TCU offense. He's going to have to learn and master some techniques that will be new to him."
Also in the picture at tight end are:
Nick Williams, a fourth-year Bengal who is only partially in the TE picture because his primary position remains fullback/H-back. But Williams' prominence in the TE position battle could increase, depending on events once training camp workouts begin.
"Brewer and Schobel go in as the top candidates, but we're dealing with a situation where everyone has to prove himself on the field, and everyone will get the chance," Garrett said. "We hope to see one guy emerge and take over the position. Then the other guys who make the team can fit in where they do things well."
And although Garrett knows the tight end position won't be rated a Bengals strength in preseason, he's headed for camp with the strong belief that if December finds the team in the playoffs, the tight ends will have done their part.