Posted: 12:55 p.m.
While the defense takes the bulk of the offseason venom, the usually hands-off offense is taking plenty of heat in Bratkowski's film study if not in public debate. His take sounds a lot like the players as they exited stage right calling for more team unity.
"There's no doubt that we can produce and be a championship-caliber offense," Bratkowski says of a unit that finished in the top 10 for the second straight season. "But we have to become much more disciplined. We have to get people playing the team game."
Finishing No. 9 in the NFL in offense despite injuries that carved the heart out of this team on third down is testament to how good of a unit it is.
But the fact remains the Bengals fantasy offense slipped in every major category as the 2005 AFC North champs slid from sixth to ninth, highlighted by a third-down conversion rate that dipped from nearly 43 percent to nearly 36 percent and a running game that finished 26th, the lowest ranking in the history of the franchise.
How a team can go from winning a smashmouth division to failing to rush for 100 yards in five of the team's six North games may be all the proof needed that the Bengals need to regain a mentality as much as anything else.
And Bratkowski isn't letting the players take all the heat because he's evaluating everything his staff did, too.
"We're looking at different things," he said. "If we need to do fewer things and do them better, or whatever."
There are no acquisitions looming for this unit outside of the return of the Perrys. The rehab of third-down running back Chris Perry (broken leg) and third-down tight end Tab Perry (dislocated hip) are the biggest concerns and provide a clue to the decline on third down.
But the discipline problems haven't been only off the field. The offense's Pro Bowl talent has been marred by a lack of execution and Bratkowski is taking the cue of head coach Marvin Lewis. He'll emphasize to his players that even the most minor of transgressions, such as being late for a meeting, is a slap at the team.
So Bratkowski singles out nobody, noting, for example, Carson Palmer got hit more than any quarterback he's ever been with during 15 NFL seasons.
The offense still churned out some nice individual fantasy numbers, but not the numbers that win the non-fiction championships. Which is why Bratkowski is also studying teams like the Colts and Patriots.
"When we study these good teams — New England, Indianapolis — their star players, (wide receivers) Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne are great blockers and that contributes to team success," Bratkowski said. "Their running backs, Dominic Rhodes and the other kid (Joseph Addai) are great pass protectors and great route runners and they do a great job after the catch.
"Our guys have to elevate themselves. Our runners have to think of themselves as more than runners, our receivers have to think of themselves more than receivers. We have to play the team game."
The galling thing about Bratkowski's evaluation are those seductive stretches when the offense does dominate. The Bengals put together the most prolific five-game offensive stretch in years last season when they averaged 410 yards and threw 12 touchdowns to just five interceptions while giving up just seven sacks and committing 20 penalties.
But in the next three games, when they needed just one outing close to that to make the playoffs, they didn't come close. In those final three losses, the Bengals averaged 305 yards, fumbled nine times, allowed six sacks and had 16 penalties. The passing game suffered the most, dropping like a rock from that five-game stretch of 302 yards to 197 with just four touchdown passes in the last three weeks.
"We can't have those big peaks and valleys," Bratkowski said. "That comes through disciplined play. And in a lot of the situations we weren't as disciplined as we needed to be across the board."
The two quintessential examples:
With 2:51 left in the third quarter of the next-to-last game of the season in Denver, Palmer unleashed a 75-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Chris Henry but wide receiver Chad Johnson was called for not being set and instead of taking a 24-21 lead, the Bengals had to punt trailing 21-17.
In the last 46 seconds of the first half against Pittsburgh in the finale on a second down from the Steelers 6, the offense committed two straight false starts along the line and had to settle for a field goal in a game the Bengals lost in overtime.
"It comes down to individuals at times and when those individuals make those mistakes, sometimes you get away with them," Bratkowski said. "Maybe it's a five-yard run and you get the play called back and it's second-and-15. But sometimes it's a touchdown and it bites you in the rear and costs you a game."
The loss of center Rich Braham in the sixth quarter of the season stunned the team and when it was followed in quick succession by more season-ending injuries to the Perrys as well as two other wide receivers in Kelley Washington and Antonio Chatman, the Bengals seemed doomed to allow 15 more sacks than '05.
"We've got to clean up our pass protection, there's no question about that," Bratkowski said. "Some of it was (the loss of) Richie, some of it was the other linemen, some of it was backs and tight ends, and some of it was the quarterback missing hot throws, not getting the ball out quick enough. It was a combination of all those things and we have to fix them."
Palmer is also going to get a list of critiques when the club returns in early April for offseason workouts. But that's the key. As opposed to last year, he'll be in those workouts. That alone should help him lift his completion percentage from 62 percent back to the nearly 68 percent of 2005.
"He'll be able to go through two-a-days in training camp and the entire spring throwing with the receivers, so you figure he'll be better just because of that," Bratkowski said. "He just has to do what you do with the technique things. Get on the field. Repetition. Do it until it becomes subconscious. Just experience."
Bratkowski is seeking a more consistent running game, but he isn't going to single out Rudi Johnson's inability to break a run longer than 22 yards.
"Rudi's never been a guy that gives you a lot of long runs," Bratkowski said. "He can be helped by the receivers and our receivers didn't have a very good year blocking downfield. We're studying some of the better teams in the league and their receivers did a lot better job blocking than ours did down the field."
The good news? There aren't that many teams to watch on tape.
"We want to see what other people did that did it better than us. There weren't a lot of them that did it better than us," Bratkowski said. "But there were eight of them and we'll see where we need to improve."