Cincinnati Bengals 2015 Year in Review: A Stellar Season Cut Short
With how important the quarterback position is in today's NFL climate, having an adequate passer can be a blessing.
When that particular player doesn't improve -- yet isn't bad enough for the team to move in a new direction -- things can get messy.
That pretty much summed up Andy Dalton's career entering 2015.
But the former TCU Horned Frog went out and had the most efficient season of any passer, per our metrics, in the NFL last year.
It wasn't enough for a Super Bowl trip, but was the offense at all to blame?
What Went Right?
Dalton, of course.
Of the 37 quarterbacks who dropped back to pass at least 200 times last season, Dalton ranked fifth in Passing Net Expected Points (NEP). That means that he added the fifth-most points above expectation level with his drop backs among qualified players. An easy way to visualize that is that a 10-yard completion on 3rd-and-5 is vastly different than on 3rd-and-15. The box score and yards per attempt numbers will be misleading, but NEP accounts for the actual impact these players have on the expected point outcome of the drive.
Dalton, on a per-drop back basis, added 0.35 points above expectation. That bested all of the other qualified passers -- Carson Palmer was second at 0.33. Dalton wasn't even necessarily big-play dependent to improve his efficiency marks, either. His Passing Success Rate of 52.84% (the percentage of drop backs that added to the Bengals' NEP) ranked fourth among these 37 passers.
That led to another solid performance from star wideout A.J. Green, whose Reception NEP of 116.21 ranked seventh among 86 receivers with at least 50 targets. Perhaps the biggest improvement for Green was his Target NEP, which ranked third in the group (78.85). With Dalton's penchant for forcing Green passes in years prior, Green's Target NEP suffered relative to his Reception NEP. This year, the tandem was less impacted by errant throws than in years past.
Among the 28 tight ends who saw at least 50 targets, Tyler Eifert's Reception NEP per catch of 1.39 ranked second -- Rob Gronkowski's 1.46 was first. But on a per-target basis, Eifert (0.98) topped the group, and Gronk was a distant second (0.88).
Defensively, the team was strong. They ranked 10th as a unit overall in Adjusted Defensive NEP per play (0.03), 14th in passing defense (0.08), and 16th in rushing defense (-0.01). We can nitpick and say that these need improvement, but with top-half marks in all three categories, the defense is deserving in the "right" section for the Bengals.
What Went Wrong?
The rushing offense lagged a bit. When adjusting for opponent strength, the Bengals ranked 19th in Rushing NEP per play as a team (and were second in passing). You can't fault Giovani Bernard, who ranked top 14 among 55 backs with at least 75 carries in Rushing NEP (2.28), Rushing NEP per carry (0.01), and Rushing Success Rate (43.51%).
Jeremy Hill, on the other hand, was 44th in Rushing NEP (-13.39), 37th in Rushing NEP per carry (-0.06), and 26th in Rushing Success Rate (40.81%).
Really, unless we hone in on the pass and rush defense as units, the other biggest problem for the Bengals was health.
Of course, they lost Dalton to a fractured thumb, which resulted in A.J. McCarron's starting the last four games for the team, including a wild card loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
They've promoted Ken Zampese to be their offensive coordinator after 13 years as the team's quarterbacks coach.
They did lose wide receiver Marvin Jones to the Detroit Lions, but Jones' efficiency was fairly middling for a 100-plus target receiver (just 0.67 Reception NEP per target), and the offense surely has enough firepower to replace him.
Cincinnati owns the 24th pick in the NFL Draft and the 10th-most salary cap space in the NFL.
For what we saw as the sixth-best team in football last year, that's a promising start entering the 2016 season.