Baseball's no fun from now until September, and we can only watch old NFL highlights on YouTube for so long before we need to start prognosticating on the '06-'07 NFL season. Fall can't come soon enough. In the meantime, here's the seventh of our 32 team previews for the upcoming season, the Cincinnati Bengals.
TOM'S TAKE: The Bengals rally song this year might be "I Fought the Law," but I'm not paniccing about the glut of legal troubles Bengals have found themselves in as much as the status of Carson Palmer's knee. He swears he'll be ready before training camp. I'm skeptical, seeing as how Palmer tore two ligaments in his knee only seven months ago. Anthony Wright is a suitable backup, but Bengals fans will obviously be hoping for Palmer in Week 1.
I think, as far as the team's troublemakers go, the Chris Henry situation was a blessing in disguise. After being arrested FOUR times in SEVEN months, he'll be lucky to make it past training camp before finding himself on the unemployed list. His eventual replacement, Antonio Chatman, was an incredibly underrated target in Green Bay last year and will complement the starting duo of Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmanzadeh nicely. Other than the mystery surrounding the future of the #3 receiver position, Cincinnati's offense is set. Under Marvin Lewis' watch, they've developed one of the deepest, most talented offensive lines in the league. Levi Jones is the best young lineman around and second round tackle Andrew Whitworth will eventually take over the left guard spot, making the chances of another serious injury to Palmer unlikely.
Last year the Bengals had a mediocre defense that got enough big plays from the secondary to get by. Led by Deltha O'Neal, this group of ball-hawks will benefit from the signing of Dexter Jackson and the healthy return of Madieu Williams, their best player on defense, at safety. O'Neal and Tory James, the two starting cornerbacks, are still effective but aging but first round cornerback Jonathan Joseph is already impressing coaches and challenging for a spot at nickleback. He'll be a starter by next year, if not sooner. Of course, the linebacking corps is the group that has gotten in the most trouble. Starting MLB Odell Thurman, who exploded in his rookie year last season, has already been suspended for the first four games of the season. To replace him, the Bengals "won" talented (and probably stoned right now) ILB Ahmad Brooks in the supplemental draft, a guy who's been credited with first-round talent but also a propensity to spark the herb, resulting in his dismissal from the UVA. The team's fifth-round choice, MLB A.J. Nicholson, was also arrested on charges of abuse. Landon Johnson will man the middle until Thurman's return. Johnson performed well as the starting MLB as a rookie in 2004 and should prove an efficient stop-gap in the meantime, but it's the WLB that is most troubling the team. David Pollack is on the strong-side, and he broke out in the Bengals lone playoff game last year. His continued development as a converted defensive end will be crucial to the team's success, especially if the rumors of a switch to 3-4 are true. The conversion makes sense -- the team's got a ton of talented linebackers (should they be able to stay out of handcuffs long enough to play) and they signed Sam Adams in the offseason. Adams is a very large-bodied man who is known for his ability to plug the run lanes, the prototypical NT for a 3-4 scheme. The Bengals would need to add some bigger defensive ends instead of the pass-rush specialist Justin Smith (who is in a contract year and probably won't be around next year).
In half of a year, the Bengals went from a potential Super Bowl team to one of the biggest question marks in the league. They've had such a poor offseason people have completely forgotten about them in the scope of the AFC playoffs, but if Palmer's healthy another division crown and deep playoff run should be expected. The disciplinary problems are a bit troublesome, but not catastrophic. Lewis is one of the best minds and motivators in the league, he's bringing in the best players and relying on his coaching ability to straighten the troublemakers out. If it happens again, as with the likely case of Henry, they won't be around anymore. It's high risk/high reward, but knowing Lewis' track record I'm not exactly willing to bet against him.
KYLE'S TAKE: Cincinnati was a great feel-good story last year. That is, until it got crushed, along with Carson Palmer's knee, by Kimo von Oelhoffen of the Steelers on the Bengals second offensive play of their first playoff game. That leads us to now.
Basically, all we have for the Bengals is one huge question mark: the health of Carson Palmer. Carson was one of the most exciting quarterbacks in the league last year. He had the most touchdowns in the league with 32. His 101.1 QB rating was second to Peyton Manning (104.1). He had the highest completion percentage in the league (67.8%.) He was the best QB in the league last year. He was better than Peyton.
Unfortunately, those stats are now bittersweet to Cincinnati fans who worry that their main man won't return to form, at least in time to save this season. Carson's backup is Anthony Wright, since Jon Kitna left for Detroit to pursue a starting spot. Wright has had plenty of face time as the backup for an often injured Kyle Boller. Wright performed well, but never well enough to be able to steal the starting job from the often inept Boller. What am I really saying? I'm saying the jump from Carson Palmer to Anthony Wright could be compared to changing the channel from the Super Bowl to a regular season WNBA game. Without an effective Palmer, the season will be effectively lost. Chad Johnson, who was in the top 10 in the league in touchdowns scored and total receiving yards, won't mean anything without a decent quarterback throwing to him. Running back Rudi Johnson was also in the top 10 in total rushing yards and total touchdowns. But he can't do it alone if defenses ignore the quarterback and stuff nine in the box.
Even with Carson, the Bengals still needed some work. They were 28th in the league in yards allowed on defense, and 22nd in total points allowed. A few strides were made, such as acquiring former Super Bowl MVP Dexter Jackson from the Bucs. He should help shore up a secondary that already has Deltha O'Neal, who had 10 interceptions last year (tied for first in the league). They also got Sam Adams from the Bills, who's veteran presence should help them out as well. Middle linebacker Odell Thurman was a beast as a rookie and probably would have taken Defensive Rookie of the Year if it weren't for lights-out Shawn Merriman. However, Thurman will miss the first four games of the season because of drug charges, which brings me to an article that John Clayton wrote for ESPN.com.
Clayton points out there are five troubled members of the Bengals. Two are 2006 draft picks. One is Thurman. One is recent supplemental draft pick Ahmad Brooks from Virginia (three charges for marijuana) who they just gave up a third-rounder next year for. And finally, there's Chris Henry, who is the third receiver behind T.J. Houshmandzadeh (I call him Housh the Douche-- not because I dislike him, but only because it rhymes). In the last seven months, Henry was charged with possession of fire arms, for possession of pot, DUI, and providing alcohol to underage girls. I don't know how long Marvin Lewis can tolerate this. Although, Henry's fun and games won't hurt the team like Thurman's may. Clayton made the point that the first four games of the year are crucial. They're against tough opponents (the Chiefs, Browns, Steelers, and Patriots) and they're going to be when Carson is at his worst. He'll either be playing while recovering or not playing at all. If the Bengals start 1-3 or 0-4, can they really recover?
All these questions are tough and it makes it really difficult to try to predict where the Bengals will end up. I still think they'll be able to squeak out a wild card as long as Carson plays and plays by his standards. But who knows? If Carson is hurt and Thurman's absence kills them defensively (and if Chris Henry is suspended for violating the NFL's Clubbing Baby Seal Policy), it's possible they'll end up 3rd in their division, giving up their wild card to another one of their divisional mates.