Perception vs Reality: The Mirage in Cincinnati
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Pre-Season predictions are funny things. Everyone does them, whether they write them down or bounce them around the walls of their brains, everyone has some sort of opinion as to what is going to happen in the coming season. I prefer to write mine down because what often makes perfect sense to me in my head doesn't translate well onto the page.
Coming into this season I had some very dodgy predictions. The San Francisco 49ers for one, I predicted them going 12-4( Ahem. Well lets move on, shall we?) the Houston Texans 10-6(This isn't getting much better is it?) and the Dallas Cowboys 13-3(Honestly, I'm baffled if you're still reading this, however if you are lets get at it!)
The one thing about this year's predictions that really perplexed me coming into the season was the amount of media hype surrounding the Bengals. ESPN and Walterfootball.com both had the Bengals ranked as the 11th best team in the league in their preseason rankings, NFL.com incredibly had the Bengals ranked 6th in the league before week 1, CBS had them at a relatively modest 17 while USA Today had the Bengals 12th. Personally, I had the Bengals going 5-11 and ranked them between 20th-24th among NFL teams.
Preseason predictions are all about the perception of teams on paper. It is startling to break down the Bengals season and understand how the hype awarded to the team coming into the season was undeserved.
And no, we can't just blame it all on Carson Palmer.
The staple of the Bengals season in 2009 was obviously their running game. Cedric Benson ran the ball for 1'251 yards and 6 touchdowns last season with a 4.2 average. The most important statistic of those three is probably the one that most people overlook. The 4.2 average per carry in relation to the 1'251 yards means that Benson carried the ball 301 times in 2009. Therefore the Bengals' back's body was hit at the very least 301 times(taking into account plays were Benson got to the endzone or ran out of bounds but replacing them with plays he blocked on or took hits from receptions).
Benson had the sixth highest amount of carries of any running back in the league but, of the five above him with more, four of them are supremely physical runners who had proven themselves as feature backs in the past(Thomas Jones, Stephen Jackson, Maurice Jones-Drew and Adrian Peterson) the other was Chris Johnson who's record breaking season has taken a toll on his body during this season. Benson has suffered a similar fate as his prominent role in last season's success diminished in offensive co-ordinator Bob Bratkowski's offense this year. This is due to a combination of Benson's body deteriorating and the hype surrounding Batman and Robin's(or Laurel and Hardy as I prefer to call them) reputations that labelled them as a dynamic duo coming into the season, which was totally unjust(hang on we'll get there).
Benson showed to be a an abrasive runner for the Bengals last season with undervalued but also not outstanding speed(The lack of pace of the Bengals offense as a whole is very noteworthy and will come up repeatedly throughout this article). Last season Benson showed the ability to run both between the tackles and to the outside. This season he did not hit the interior of the defense as explosively which meant that opposing defenses were not being worn down by the constant battering that the Benson of 2009 handed out each week. Softening the center of the defense was the only reason that Benson was able to get to the outside last season as defenders were forced to crowd the line of scrimmage and crash it early. He does not possess breakaway speed by NFL terms, once in the clear he most likely won't be caught but he has never possessed the ability to run past defenders in this league.
The Bengals needed Benson to perform this season because their offense is constructed in such a way that the passing game defeats itself.
There is an old saying about potential that reads “Potential is what you haven't done yet” Reputation can be viewed in a similar vein, reputation is just based on what you have done previously not what you are capable of doing at this moment. Terrell Owens' and Chad Ochocinco's reputations certainly preceded them coming into this season and caused people to overlook the fact that as a pair on the field they cannot co-exist.
Now don't get me wrong, I think both of these guys were great receivers in their day. I have nothing against either of them. I loved watching Owens' monster season for the Eagles and that amazing recovery to play in the Superbowl against the Patriots while Ochocinco has been one of the best route runners in the league over the past decade in my opinion. However the Terrell Owens of today is a shade of what he was six years ago, he lacks the pace to seriously scare cornerbacks and take the top off defenses which would be fine if he had another receiver on the team that could do that.
As possession receivers, Owens and Ochocinco, would have huge value to any team in the league. Both players possess impressive upper body strength that allows them to consume heavy hits over the middle and maintain possession of the ball. Owens, at 37 years of age, may lead the league in dropped passes but this is partly due to the routes that he runs. He routinely extends his body over the middle and exposes himself to defensive backs attempting to make the difficult catch. These exact words can also be said of Ochocinco.
The two receivers do not compliment each other well as neither can take the top off of the opposition defense, couple this with Jordan Shipley, the third receiver on the depth chart, who was drafted as a slot receiver to specifically run short and intermediate routes, and starting tight end Jermaine Gresham, a rookie tight end who relies on his size rather than his pace to make receptions and the whole offense cannot coincide together successfully. This means that Carson Palmer does not have 1 starting skill position player with legitimate NFL speed.
What does all this mean for the opposing defense? Interceptions!
The Bengals' lack of pace on offense allows the opposing secondary to keep the ball in front of them without sacrificing a safety to cover deep. When defensive backs do not have to turn their hips they can keep the ball in view and break on it ahead of the receivers. The middle of the field suddenly becomes smaller as the defense can crowd out the receivers by bringing their safeties forward while the cornerbacks on the outside don't have to worry about being beaten deep because the Bengals' receivers cannot outpace anyone. Without a serious rushing threat Carson Palmer is more vulnerable to the pass rush than Austin Collie going over the middle trying to catch a pass.
By no means is Palmer free of any blame for his performances this season, he has been awful, but I have a certain amount of pity for him because of the situation he was in. Added to the offense's lack of cohesion, the Bengals came into the year with such high expectations that were drastically overblown and unrealistic(all this without even mentioning that he had to deal with two of the most outspoken players in NFL history catching, or dropping as the case may be, his passes: Laurel and Hardy).
Palmer has made some terrible throws and has looked nothing like the player he was before being injured in the 2005 playoffs against the Steelers. The no.1 overall pick from USC was a premier passer when he had the trio of Chad Johnson(Ochocinco as he is known today), TJ Houshmandzadeh(trust me spell checker, I'm right on that one) and Chris Henry. At the time any three of those receivers could threaten the back end of the defense. Not one of them were Mike Wallace or DeSean Jackson, but Henry and Houshmandzadeh would provide a big enough threat to draw a safety's attention while a younger version of Ochocinco was able to get deep albeit to a lesser degree.
A team with such a defunct offense could never have met the lofty expectations that they set themselves and were given by the media. Star power counts for nothing on the football field, the only place it has any value at all is in shirt sales and as a method to put fans in seats. Nobody was ever given the Vince Lombardi Trophy for selling the most jerseys or having the most fans, even if they were the Bengals wouldn't have won this season either; the teams past two home games have been blacked out(removed from local television) due to the games not selling out.
This is why I love preseason predictions. They are funny to me because it is startling to see the perception that can come with reality and the different views that can come with different people. You cannot argue who the best team in the league is at the end of each year because the best team in the league is the team that wins the Superbowl. You can spend countless hours throughout the offseason and regular season putting whoever you like at the top of the NFL Ladder and justify it with your own point of view even if it's as ludicrous as having faith in Alex Smith leading his team to 12 victories(Thanks a lot for that one Alex!).
The Bengals' season has been one to forget for their fans and the organization as a whole but all 32 franchises should take note of what happened in Cincinnati this season and remember that Reputations are results of the past, not the present.
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