Since Bengals special teams coach Darrin Simmons arrived with head coach Marvin Lewis in 2003, the bar has been raised at what had been a traditional trouble spot.
But after three solid years, including top 10 finishes in 2004 (7) and 2006 (9), the Bengals are again grappling with special issues in the offseason. After a No. 22 finish in '07, they came in No. 24 this past season in large part because the Bengals finished last in punting with a 39.1-yard average and third-to-last in net punting.
Simmons has said the biggest offseason question mark involving special teams is the unsigned status of Shayne Graham, the most accurate kicker in club history. It's looking more and more like wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh's $9.88 million franchise tag is too rich for the appetite, but Graham's $2.48 million franchise tag may be more manageable for a team that needs plenty of pieces.
Instead, he fell to 34.2 and 39.5, respectively, and Simmons needs more from a guy that impressed him so much with his improvement during his first three NFL seasons.
"He's been on a downward spiral the couple of years; I know it's in there," Simmons said. "He showed steady improvement the first three years topped off by his best year in '06. He has to get back to that. Kyle has to fix Kyle. I think he knows that. We've got to be able to change field position. We didn't do that enough this year."
But punting isn't the only thing Simmons is looking to upgrade. It has now been 66 straight games that the Bengals haven't had a 40-yard plus punt return. And two seasons since they recovered more than one fumble in the kicking game.
Rick "Goose" Gosselin of the Dallas Morning News charts all these things in his annual NFL special teams survey using 22 different categories. He assigns points that correspond to the team's ranking in each category, so the team with the lowest score wins. The Bills won their third title in five years in 2008 with 254 points, nearly 15 points fewer than runnerup Tennessee.
The Bengals amassed 421.5 saddled by their low rankings in the punt game as well as 24th in punt return and number of points allowed after giving up a blocked punt for a touchdown against Tennessee and Jacoby Jones' 73-yard punt return in Houston.
That countered the tag-team effort of rookie wide receiver Andre Caldwell and veteran wide receiver Glenn Holt that finished 11th in kick returns and a 14th and 19th finish in punt and kick cover, respectively.
"We have to block everything up perfectly to get something going," said Simmons of the return game. "It's not every day you come across a returner like Devin Hester, but Chicago doesn't block everything up.
"But they have a guy that makes plays and everybody believes in that guy. Every time he touches the ball. We have to get that back. We had that with Peter Warrick the first year (2003). We had that belief, we had that feeling. We've got to get it back. Whether it's a returner having confidence in his blockers, or just as important, the blockers having confidence in the guy back there."
Simmons looks at Gosselin's top five of Buffalo, Tennessee, Cleveland, the Giants and Oakland, and sees pretty much the common denominator.
"You have to build around your specialists," he said. "They've got a great a punter, a great kicker, and great return guys.
"Buffalo has two excellent kickers in (Rian) Lindell and (Brian) Moorman and more returners than you can shake a stick at. They've got a guy who went to the Pro Bowl (Terrence McGee) who doesn't even return kicks anymore and Roscoe Parrish, who is very explosive, but they've got another guy (rookie cornerback Leodis McKelvin who was a No. 1 pick) who hardly plays defense and does pretty much only returns."
Tennessee picked up defensive back Chris Carr in restricted free agency and the Titans ended up leading the league in kick returns while Cleveland got another solid year out of its punter (free agent Dave Zastudil), kicker Phil Dawson and Josh Cribbs.
"(Cribbs) could have gone to the Pro Bowl as both a return guy and cover guy," Simmons said.
Bengals wide receiver Antonio Chatman had a good start and he authored the team's first 20-plus yard return since 2006, but when he hurt his neck and was done for the year he still averaged only 7.5 yards per return.
Which makes that spot a black hole because the guys behind Chatman, Houshmandzadeh and cornerback Leon Hall, were merely emergencies.
On the plus side, Simmons does have people like Caldwell to build around. Caldwell can only return kicks, but he's got Simmons very encouraged because on just 13 returns he had some long ones that included a 42-yarder.
"He's got a lot of speed and he can change field position," Simmons said. "And it was the first kicks he had returned since 2005, when he broke his leg. But he didn't say a word about it and that shows you quite a bit. But he still hasn't done it."
Still, if Caldwell emerges as a starting receiver in Houshmandzadeh's absence, it would affect his time on returns. For the first time in his career, Hester didn't have a return touchdown in the wake of the Bears jacking up his playing time at receiver this past year.
Arizona wide receiver Steve Breaston finished 10th in NFL punt returns in '07 with a 9.4-yard average, but when he became the Cards' third receiver in '08, he dipped to 19th at 7.2.
"Same thing with Dante Hall when he was with Kansas City. His production wasn't the same the more he played receiver," Simmons said. "It's just a matter of what works best for the team. It's hard to argue with Breaston because he did have over 1,000 yards this year."
"We have to stay healthy; we haven't been able to do that two years in a row," he said. "There's been too much missed time."
The Bengals' four top special-teams tacklers from '06 when they finished ninth didn't finish the season with them in '08. Simmons is hoping for a little more continuity in '09.
Of the top six tacklers in '08 (safeties Kyries Hebert and John Busing, linebackers Rashad Jeanty, Corey Mays and Brandon Johnson, long snapper Brad St. Louis), three were in the top 10 in '07.
"Kyries is one of those guys that's committed. You don't question his effort. You have to kill him to stop him from what he's going to do," Simmons said. "I've got as much respect for Rashad as any other player I've ever been with. He's tough. He plays hurt. He's been a starter for the past two years, but he's always been on two or three of the teams. In order for him to stay effective, I think he we've got to find a way to limit his role to keep him healthy."
But, like Graham, there are more question marks. All six restricted free agents have been key players for Simmons when healthy, spearheaded by the trio of linebackers, as well as Holt, Busing and running back DeDe Dorsey.
The Bengals can virtually keep all six by tendering them a one-year offer, but the cheapest tender is $1 million, and Jeanty probably commands $1.545 million so that the Bengals can be guaranteed second-round compensation.
Everyone but Johnson (a fifth-round pick of Arizona) is a free agent, meaning the Bengals would get a fifth-rounder if he signs elsewhere after a tender and nothing if they lose one of the other five because they came into the league as free agents.
"We've got to get more production out of offensive players," Simmons said. "It's like Marvin said: our good players need to play good."