CINCINNATI — Bill Lazor's statistical study of the Bengals' offense during the offseason left him feeling the same as he did on all those discouraging game days. The numbers confirmed what his eyes had seen so many times.
Some mighty small numbers filled up the columns measuring big plays. The Bengals were one of the most inept teams in the league at getting the ball downfield, the main factor in a second straight losing season.
"Statistically, it looks just like it felt," the Bengals' offensive coordinator said.
The main emphasis in Lazor's overhaul of the offense has been finding ways to get big plays out of an offense that finished last in total yards and near the bottom in big plays as well. It all begins with Andy Dalton, who is coming off one of his least-effective seasons.
The eighth-year quarterback completed 69.9 percent of his passes and averaged 6.69 yards per attempt, both figures his worst since his rookie season. Dalton repeatedly was off-target on long passes. He also was under constant pressure, which limited the time for receivers to get open downfield and contributed to the lack of long passes.
"This group's been one of the best groups in the NFL — since Andy came into the league — on vertical passes," coach Marvin Lewis said. "And we weren't very good. So that alone is the first thing."
The 2015 season was Dalton's best as he worked behind a veteran line. The Bengals had 63 pass plays of at least 20 yards, nine shy of the league high shared by the Saints and Jaguars. Last season, they managed only 34 such plays, a huge decline. The Saints led the league with 72 pass plays of 20 yards or more.
The passing game wasn't the only failed area. The Bengals' longest run was only 25 yards, the worst in the league.
Injuries played a role. Tight end Tyler Eifert hurt his back in the second game and was out for the rest of the season. Top draft pick John Ross was severely limited by two shoulder injuries and didn't catch a pass.
By contrast, every part of the offense — receivers, tight ends, running backs — provided game-turning plays in 2015.
"Guys did a good job of making tough, contested catches," Dalton said. "I was being accurate with the ball, and guys were catching and running. I think there were probably some broken tackles in the run game and different things. It's a big thing we want to do."
The Bengals failed to score a touchdown in their first two games last season and fired offensive coordinator Ken Zampese. Lazor took over as an interim coordinator, got the job after the season, and was given a lot of latitude to reinvent the offense.
The new playbook provides many opportunities to try for a big play.
"It's not on everything, but there's definitely chances to take shots down the field," Dalton said.
The Bengals traded with the Bills for left tackle Cordy Glenn and drafted center Billy Price in the first round as part of their line overhaul. Ross is back and making impressive plays during camp. Eifert signed a one-year deal and was cleared to practice on Monday.
There was no thought of bringing in someone to challenge Dalton, who has the backing of Lewis and owner Mike Brown. They're hoping a solid line will give Dalton the time he needs to perform more like he did in 2015.
"When Andy came to us in 2011 up to now, our winning percentage is eighth in the league," said Duke Tobin, director of player personnel. "We're confident in him leading our team. We have to be better in front of him than last year. We've got to put a better run game with him.
"We feel like we've got weapons on the outside and he should be in the prime of his career, so he's going to have to lead the charge."