The Bengals know two of the best things about such a dismal season are the play of rookie tight end Jermaine Gresham and rookie wide receiver Jordan Shipley. But head coach Marvin Lewis also indicated the club is paying a price for the rookies' inexperience after they were involved in two of quarterback Michael Johnson's three interceptions in Sunday's 23-17 loss in Indianapolis.
As Lewis noted wryly in his Monday news conference, Palmer took the blame for all three.
"We're having a little error, and it's hurting us a little bit. So we have to really help them out a little bit, because I think we're kind of assuming sometimes they're a little ahead of their times, and it's hurting us at some critical moments," Lewis said. "It's not for lack of trying hard and trying to learn it, but just when things change a little bit, they've not been as on point as much as we need to be. But it's great experience for them and the only way to play is to get out there and play. And the quarterback's doing a good job taking the bullets for them."
Some guys have memorable rookie seasons. Some guys have forgettable ones. Gresham had both in just one quarter of play Sunday.
He displayed all that sheer talent the Bengals knew they were getting in the first round when he caught all nine of his career-high balls in the final quarter of another mad dash to heartbreak. But he also fumbled away their last chance when he tried to turn a six-yard catch into something more at the Colts 34 with 2:23 left.
With no timeouts and trailing, 23-17, Gresham knew exactly what he had done wrong.
"In the last two minutes, you've got to get down,'' he said right after the game.
And he took the blame for the pick early in the quarter when he said it was a read route and he didn't make the proper adjustment. Palmer looked like he didn't help either with a hurried, scrambling throw. But one thing is for sure: Gresham showed the catching and blocking Sunday that is going to make him a star.
That last catch was his 40th of the season and put him five away from Tony McGee's club record for rookie tight ends set in 1993. And he's on pace to tie Dan Ross' 29-year-old Bengals record for catches by a tight end with 71 and break Cris Collinsworth's record for rookie catches set in the same season with 67.
Shipley's two catches for 13 yards give him 30 catches for 409 yards, a pace that would give him 56 catches, second only to Collinsworth for rookie wide receivers. The projected 767 yards would be fifth behind some familiar names: Collinsworth (1,009), Eddie Brown (942), Darnay Scott (866) and Isaac Curtis (843).
On Monday, Lewis elaborated on tying to make the offense easier for everybody, not just the rookies.
"I don't know about paring it down, but try to eliminate as much of the gray as we can," he said. "I don't know that we have a lot that pares. Try to eliminate some of the gray, which I think will allow them to keep playing fast and make natural football plays they are used to making, and blocking and running and running routes and blocking the right spots and all the things they are asked to do. That's kind of where we are."
Lewis also chose to walk carefully in the interception blame game.
"We need to do better all the way around. Our quarterback can help and do better. I think our receivers can help and do better," Lewis said. "I think our protection can help and do better, and it will make us a much better offensive football team in those situations. It doesn't do us any good to be more specific publicly."