Offense seeks answers

From the line to the backfield, the once proud Bengals offense finds itself in the throes of transition after finishing dead last in the NFL for the first time in franchise history.

With their leading receiver and rusher as well as their center headed to free agency, question marks at both tackles, and no fullback to speak of, it's like what a player said after Sunday's game.

"The Bengals," he said, "have a lot of work to do."

If he's got any changes in mind philosophically or personnel-wise, head coach Marvin Lewis didn't share them and there has been no pronouncement in the wake of his Monday news conference concerning next year's coaching staff.

The two things the offense has going for it is the encouraging reports about quarterback Carson Palmer's throwing elbow and the way it ran the ball in the last two games according to Lewis' vision of last offseason.


Palmer
The word is Palmer's latest MRI shows he still needs no surgery and there are those that saw him every day that believe if the Bengals had a game this week he'd be able to play at a higher level than his last outing back on Oct. 5, when his 217-yard passing effort generated 22 points in the nine-point loss at Dallas.

The Bengals never scored more in a game the rest of the way. Just ask wide receiver Chris Henry how important he is.

"It's a totally different game when he's out there," Henry said Monday. "He makes everything so much easier. The team kind of rallied behind him. There's a big difference."

Henry's eyes lit up as he recalled some of the deep balls he caught from Palmer last week. It's the first time they've hooked up, essentially, since last season because Henry didn't catch a pass against Dallas, his first game back from a four-game NFL suspension, and Palmer only practiced on Friday that week with only about 20 throws.

But the absence of the long ball, just like the overall lack of punch for an offense that finished sixth, eighth and 10th the last three seasons, showed signs of deterioration long before Palmer got hurt. In his 12 starts this season backup quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick won four games. In Palmer's last 12, he won five.

In Henry's first two seasons, he caught six balls of at least 40 yards. In the last two, it's two and none this year.

Stretch back to the final three games of the 2006 season when the Bengals needed one win to make the playoffs. They lost all three and scored one touchdown in two of the games. And in the last 35 games the offense has scored more than two touchdowns just six times.

They only did it once this season and it was under Fitzpatrick.

Match up Palmer and Fitzpatrick in their last 12 games and Palmer has the edge, but it's not as decisive as you think in reflecting the trend of the past few seasons.

Palmer: 410 attempts, 258 completions for 2,669 yards at 62.9 percent with 6.5 yards per throw, 13 touchdowns and 14 interceptions for a 77.98 passer rating and a 5-7 record. **

Fitzpatrick:** 372 attempts, 221 completions for 1,905 yards at 59.4 percent with 5.1 yards per throw, eight touchdowns and nine interceptions for a 70 passer rating and a 4-7-1 record.

The Palmer numbers are far below his career stats coming into this season of a 90.1 rating on 7.3 yards per throw.

Wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh said last month that the problems were visible last year and while he and many players have said they expect changes, they haven't elaborated.

Last offseason Lewis emphasized the running game, but it got short-circuited with the failure of running backs Rudi Johnson and Chris Perry, not finding a replacement for overweight fullback Jeremi Johnson, and an appalling lack of pass protection that resulted in the single defining play of the season on which Palmer injured his elbow against a Giants blitz.

To offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski's credit, he had these fears back in the spring when Houshmandzadeh and fellow Pro Bowl receiver Chad Ocho Cinco didn't show for the voluntary camps, Jeremi Johnson showed up fat, and Perry and Rudi Johnson had injury questions.

What did take him by surprise was the complete collapse of the pass protection that set a franchise record for fewest sacks in '07, and, he emphasized it was not always the offensive line. Despite injuries to left tackle Levi Jones and later right tackle Stacy Andrews, the Bengals got it together enough to rush for a season-high 191 yards against the Browns and then finish the season with 204 against the Chiefs, their most in four years and 69 games.


Lewis
"It wasn't strength at the beginning of the year, because we didn't start out and knock anybody off the ball as we began the season in Baltimore," Lewis said Monday of the offensive line. "It was a perceived strength, but it wasn't a real strength. And we need to be better."

That makes it sound like Lewis is again going to emphasize pounding the ball on the ground and with the flux in the receiver group and the pass-protecting tackles, that may be the way to go. Not only that, with Eric Ghiaciuc a free agent, there is most likely going to be a new center.

Is the best way to protect Palmer and set up his long ball to load it up and run like the Bengals did the last three games with 33, 46 and 39 carries?

They would like to re-sign running back Cedric Benson, but it's doubtful Perry returns and after an injury-plagued end of the season, reliable Kenny Watson turns 31 in March.

Along with Ghiaciuc, Houshmandzadeh, Benson and Andrews, Fitzpatrick is also a free agent on the offense.

(On defense it's not as urgent, although the club wants to get safety Chris Crocker done as soon as possible with the other potential UFAs backups John Thornton, Darryl Blackstock and Jamar Fletcher. The 10th potential free agent is kicker Shayne Graham.)

On Monday, Lewis sounded again like the team wasn't going to delve into at least the top tier of free agency.

"In most cases, teams sign back their players. And players are generally going to be more productive with the football team they're with, because they know the intricacies of things," Lewis said. "They know their ups and downs. Players are generally more productive on their current teams. That's why most players that are wanted generally fit back into their teams a little better than they do when they go elsewhere."

The Bengals pick sixth in '09 and the last time they drafted so close to that spot, No. 4 in 2001, they re-made their offense under Bratkowski with their best draft in history. They took Ocho Cinco and Houshmandzadeh in the second and seventh rounds, respectively, and Rudi Johnson in the fourth. The Ocho and Houshmandzadeh became the club's all-time leading and third-leading receivers, respectively, and Johnson set the single-season rushing record twice.  

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