CINCINNATI – I was going to start this column out by saying how Bengals’ offensive coordinator Jay Gruden has been given a lot of toys to play with but that’s a lazy writing cliché to fall back on when you want to come up with that perfect opening but can’t. The thing about clichés, they’re usually grounded in truth.
While I won’t fall into that cliché trap, it is a fact that the Bengals have upgraded their offensive personnel this season, either by simply re-signing many of their own or via the drafting of Notre Dame tight end Tyler Eifert and North Carolina running back Giovani Bernard with their first two picks this year.
There has been a lot of talk about how important of a year it is for quarterback Andy Dalton now that he is entering his third season, but the same is true for Gruden. This is his third year calling plays for the Bengals and he fully grasps the situation the team faces.
“We have high expectations. We won 10 games last year and now we’ve added some more talent and we’re getting older together and more experienced,” Gruden said on Monday following an organized team activity, also known as practice. “We don’t have any reason to have low expectations. We have the ultimate high expectation and that’s to win it all. It’s to be the best offense and take major, major, major steps in the right direction moving forward. We’re never shooting for mediocrity, that’s for sure.”
Jay Gruden has never lacked confidence. He was confident enough in his coaching career to stay in Tampa and work in the Arena Football League and the United Football League after the NFL Buccaneers made a coaching change from the staff led by Jon Gruden, Jay’s older brother, after the 2008 season. He was confident enough that despite never being a coordinator at the NFL level he was ready to mesh his vision of how to run an offense with that of Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis in 2011.
The Bengals have finished ranked 20th and 22nd in the league in overall offense the past two seasons. They have converted just 35.3 percent of their third down attempts the past two seasons.
“Every year you see different things and you see your team in a different way but the one thing is I want to be consistent with my approach with the players and let them understand what it takes to be great,” Gruden wqie. “That’s coming out every day and preparing, listening and adjusting on the fly. I’ve learned a lot the first two years of dos and don’ts, no question about it. As an offensive coordinator you’re always going to second-guess yourself if you don’t win the last game. You’re going to second-guess yourself on every play that you called that didn’t work.”
There was plenty of second guessing the final six games last season, particularly in the playoff loss at Houston. The game plan was to take advantage of an injury-riddled Texans linebacker unit by featuring tight end Jermaine Gresham. The plan was solid; the execution lacked on several fronts. The Bengals failed to convert any of the nine third-down chances they had, including four in the first half when they had just 18 snaps of the ball. Gresham was targeted seven times but caught just two passes for a total of seven yards. Most noticeably, All-Pro wide receiver A.J. Green wasn’t targeted once in the first half.
Without saying the inability to throw the ball Green’s way even one time was a “don’t”, it’s doesn’t take much to understand that Gruden realized as soon as that game was over that it was a mistake to not utilize his best player for a half in the biggest game of the season.
So the growth of the offense continues during these OTA sessions. The Bengals will complete these practices, which are voluntary, this week and hold a mandatory minicamp next week before breaking until training camp begins at the end of next month.
They’ve been without starting offensive tackles Andrew Whitworth and Andre Smith during the OTAs – Whitworth is recovering from offseason knee surgery, while Smith is attending to personal issues with Lewis’ full knowledge – which allows for younger players and backups to get extra reps. The search is on for secondary receivers behind Green to step up and give Dalton additional options, be it second-year players Mohamed Sanu or Marvin Jones, rookie Cobi Hamilton or a Andrew Hawkins, Brandon Tate, Ryan Whalen or Dane Sanzenbacher. Gruden is also looking for ways to incorporate top picks Eifert and Bernard to best utilize their skill sets.
Then there is the constant work on improving a running game that has been too inconsistent for Gruden’s liking. The Bengals were 18th in the league averaging 109.1 yards per game last season and 18th with an average of 4.1 yards per attempt.
“We want to emphasize the running game for a lot of different reasons,” said Gruden. “It opens up the play-action and we’re trying to get guys in the box to throw it. Now that we have the talent outside we can really throw it but the way to be most effective is to run the ball and force them to put eight-man boxes in there and get our guys singled up every now and then.”
While the cupboard certainly isn’t bare for Gruden, his work for this season is just beginning.