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Editor's note: Yahoo! Sports will examine the biggest weakness of the 2009 season for every team and explain how the franchise can address the issue. The series continues with the Bengals, who finished first in the AFC North (10-6).
Biggest problem in 2009: Palmer's second-half decline
Few people expected the Cincinnati Bengals to win the AFC North in 2009. The Bengals were coming off a 4-11-1 season in which quarterback Carson Palmer was limited to just four games after suffering a right elbow injury in Week 3 against the Giants. Palmer opted not to have surgery on a frayed tendon, and he came out hot at the start of the 2009 season. In their first eight games, the Bengals amassed a 6-2 record (might have been 7-1 if not for Brandon Stokely's miracle opening day catch), but they went .500 down the stretch and were eliminated in the wild-card round by the Jets.
Palmer's second-half slide mirrored that of his team. In the first eight games, he completed 160 passes in 260 attempts for 1,832 yards, 14 touchdowns and 7 interceptions. In the second eight-game stretch, he went 122 of 206 for 1,262 yards, seven scores and six picks. Cincinnati's Passing Defense-adjusted value over average, Football Outsiders' metric for opponent-adjusted efficiency, absolutely bottomed out in the season's second half – from 46 percent (fifth-best in the NFL) to minus-8.3 percent (22nd). Palmer's health and mechanics also came into question. Near the season's end, he appeared to be pushing the ball instead of throwing it. This was one reason that Palmer didn't exceed 200 passing yards in five of his final eight regular-season games, including a disastrous Week 17 game in which he completed one in 11 passes – the same number of completions he threw to the Jets.
The Bengals still have faith in Palmer, and they're stuck with him from a quarterback development perspective, so the 2010 draft needed to be about analyzing Palmer's abilities and giving him better weapons.
The 2010 solution: Take a page from the 2008 version of Bradford
During the last two seasons, Palmer has been far better in shotgun than under center. In 2008, this had a lot to do with the fact that Cincinnati's offensive line was the NFL's worst. In 2009, Cincinnati's line improved, but Palmer still saw a lot of pressure and still needed time to scan his reads and find the best open options. One other trend that Palmer has followed during the last few seasons is that he is checking down far more than previously. In 2006, 39 percent of his passes were short, and that number went up to 45 percent in 2007. It stayed there in 2008 and then went up to 47 percent in 2009. Whether this is a result of Palmer's injury history or a change in offensive philosophy is open to debate, but one thing's for sure: The Bengals need to get more consistent production out of their passing game. Perhaps seeing the effects of this trend, the Bengals spent their first-round pick on former Oklahoma tight end Jermaine Gresham(notes), who missed his entire 2009 season with a knee injury and caught a total of 111 passes in three years.
Why such an investment? To answer that question with authority, simply watch Gresham during Oklahoma's 2008 season, when quarterback Sam Bradford(notes) was putting up video game numbers and Gresham was creating matchup nightmares all over the field. Bradford operated primarily out of the shotgun, and he targeted Gresham on all manner of short routes. Gresham would run the standard patterns you'd see from any tight end in a spread offense – little flares, slants, and curls – but he was most dangerous when lined up in a slot or flex position. There, he used his speed to get 10-15 yards downfield for catches and extra yards after, using his 6-foot-5, 261-pound frame and his 4.6 speed.
This play against the Washington Huskies in 2008 displayed a rare under-center snap for Bradford and shows how Palmer could use the rollout to get Gresham targeted downfield. This was a rollout designed to get the strong-side linebacker to bite on the quarterback run, which is exactly what happened. Gresham was in the flex position (illustration), with the outside receiver taking up the cornerback. Because the linebacker bit on the run possibility, all Gresham had to do was beat the safety outside to the end zone. Twenty-two yards later, Gresham had his first of two touchdowns on the day.
Through minicamps, Gresham's new teammates have been impressed. "I don't know if there is anything that any tight end in this league does that he can't potentially do," Palmer told the team's official website last week. "Not that he's mastered anything yet. Not that he's got everything down. But I don't see a weakness. If he had to play in Pittsburgh's offense and block a guy every single time and run little quick seam routes, out routes, he could do that. If he played in Denver's offense and got to run a lot of routes, he could do that. The sky's the limit for him.”
Last season, the Bengals didn't get much out of their tight ends, which was a burden on their passing game. With Palmer's attributes obviously changing, Gresham could be one of 2010's most important rookies.