Gaudy passing statistics seem to be all the rage in the NFL these days. Since the 2009 player safety rules were introduced, passing yardage has become easier to come by, and offenses have shifted focus to concentrate more closely on their air attacks.
The Bengals appear at first glance to be one of those teams, as they've built a stable of young receiving weapons over the last few years to accompany quarterback Andy Dalton. Of the nine Bengals to record double-digit receptions last season, only two, tight end Jermaine Gresham and halfback Brian Leonard, pre-dated offensive coordinator Jay Gruden's arrival in 2011. Leonard is no longer with Cincinnati, having signed earlier this offseason with Tampa Bay.
In addition to the youth movement at receiver and tight end is rookie running back Giovani Bernard, who was known in college for his receiving prowess out of the backfield. Bernard was considered by many the top receiver of any running back in the 2013 draft.
After Bernard was selected, special assistant to the head coach/running backs coach Hue Jackson summed up his value like this: "We're looking for a guy who would fit what we do, who can catch it and run with it. But you also have to be able to pass protect and be multifaceted, and the young man has that skill set."
Look further into what Jackson said, and find a clue as to what the Bengals now value. Gone are the days of coveting a back whose value lies almost solely as a rusher—Cedric Benson, Rudi Johnson, Corey Dillon—and in is an era where backs must excel in the passing game as well, whether it be receiving or protecting the quarterback.
And that's not to say a back like Bernard isn't capable of carrying the rushing load, if called upon.
"Having evaluated him and watched every game he played this year and had a chance to work him out, and having spent a lot of time with him," Jackson said of Bernard, "he has that skill set where I think he could play and be an every down player."
But don't be fooled by all the talk of the passing attack. Head coach Marvin Lewis, who has spent 20 of his 21 NFL seasons between grind-it-out teams like Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Cincinnati, has long emphasized the importance of the running game. In fact, the Bengals under Lewis are 35-2 when a back carries 25 or more times.
"It's not always the yardage total that's most important," says Lewis. "When your back is carrying 25 times, it means that even though the yardage will vary, you're controlling the ball, controlling the clock, and keeping your defense off the field. As it shows for us, that is very likely going to be a winning combination."
So, all things considered, Cincinnati's balance between run and pass this season will be a storyline to keep an eye on. It would appear that the Bengals will try to find a new perfect balance between the two.
But with the emergence of many more high-powered passing offenses over the last few years, why not turn focus primarily on the pass?
Statistics over the last few seasons show that the lofty passing totals of some teams don't necessarily translate to wins.
Over the last two seasons, 21 quarterbacks have have hit the impressive 4000-yard passing benchmark (10 in 2011, 11 last season). More than a third of those, though (eight) missed the playoffs. Last season, the quarterbacks with the three highest passing yardage totals—Drew Brees of New Orleans (5177), Matthew Stafford of Detroit (4967) and Tony Romo of Dallas (4903)—all missed the playoffs, combining for a record of 19-25.
Dalton (3669 passing yards) ranked 16th in the NFL, and Super Bowl winner Joe Flacco of Baltimore (3817) ranked 14th.
Conversely, the NFL's top three rushers last season—Adrian Peterson of Minnesota (2097), Alfred Morris of Washington (1613) and Marshawn Lynch of Seattle (1590)—all made the playoffs, combining for a record of 31-17.
The trend continues when considering quarterbacks whose teams were most successful. Over the last three seasons, five Super Bowl quarterbacks were full-season starters for their squads (San Francisco's Colin Kaepernick in 2012 started only seven regular-season games), but only one passed for more than 4000 yards – Tom Brady of New England in 2011 (5235 yards).
On a per-game basis, one of the more impressive benchmarks for quarterbacks is a 300-yard passing game. Dalton hit that benchmark three times last season, going 2-1 in those games. Brees was just 4-6 last year when passing for 300 yards, Stafford was 3-5 and Romo was 4-5.
League-wide, teams last season whose quarterback threw for 300 yards were a combined 61-65 (.484 winning percentage). Over the last three seasons, that record is 174-169 (.507).
The numbers seem to buck the NFL's current conventional wisdom. But why?
In the words of legendary Ohio State head coach Woody Hayes, "There are three things that can happen when you pass, and two of them ain't good." Hayes, of course, is referring to incompletions, which stop the clock and hurt a team's time of possession, and interceptions.
Look again at those eight teams over the last two seasons whose passers broke 4000 yards but did not make the playoffs. Their quarterbacks averaged 598.6 passing attempts. By comparison, the Bengals single-season record for passing attempts is 586, by Carson Palmer in 2010. Last season, Dalton had 528 attempts.
And with more attempts come more chances for the worse of the two bad things to happen. Of those eight quarterbacks, six threw at least 17 interceptions.
So, despite the trendy air-it-out mentality that has swept through the league, the same old "coach speak" appears to be even more important: keep your defense off the field and limit turnovers.
The perfect offensive balance remains a mystery for now. But it appears the Bengals are built well enough to carry out a variety of offensive strategies, no matter how far and which way the run-pass scale tips.