A year ago, the Bengals seemed to be in disarray. Coach Marvin Lewis became a coaching free agent, deciding to re-sign with the team only with the understanding that things would be different. Quarterback Carson Palmer had reached the point where no such promises would matter; after nearly a decade of dysfunction, he wanted out.
With the team’s first two draft picks devoted to a position that had been decimated by Palmer’s decision to move on (he “retired” until the Raiders offered a desperation-driven trade package) and the team’s decision to move on from Chad Ochocinco and Terrell Owens, and with no offseason program during which receiver A.J. Green and quarterback Andy Dalton could prepare for their baptism by blast furnace, not much was expected.
The Bengals served up much more than “not much,” snagging an unlikely playoff berth.
But Joe Reedy of the Cincinnati Enquirer recently pointed out an ominous trend. The Bengals never have put together consecutive playoff berths in non-strike seasons. With Green and Dalton becoming instant Pro Bowlers and offensive coordinator Jay Gruden passing on the opportunity to interview for head-coaching jobs, the Bengals finally may break a decades-long trend.
With Carson Palmer choosing no football over football for the Bengals and with the receiving corps scalped by the departure of Chad Ochocinco and Terrell Owens, who’d ever believe that both positions would so quickly be viewed as being under control for years to come?
Quarterback Andy Dalton immediately helped stabilize the offense, providing leadership and sufficient competence to an offense that needed an anchor. Though he’ll likely never be Peyton Manning or Tom Brady, Dalton already is on his way to becoming good enough to make the Bengals consistent contenders. If he can learn how to win the games the Bengals are supposed to lose.
Though the rest of the receiving depth chart is muddled for now, A.J. Green provides opportunities for middle-of-the-pack wideouts to become stars. With Green being blanketed (and still making plays when he is), others will enjoy single coverage — and whoever can best beat single coverage and catch the ball will generate the kind of numbers that will make him a fantasy favorite and, ultimately, the No. 1 option with a new team and the fat signing bonus that goes along with it.
Perhaps the player who’ll benefit most from Green’s presence isn’t a receiver at all. Jermaine Gresham could be on the verge of a breakout year, especially as the NFL trends toward targeting tight ends more aggressively.
The Bengals’ defense doesn’t have many (any) names that stand out as superstars. Only defensive tackle Geno Atkins made it to the Pro Bowl last season, and he got there as an injury replacement. Statistically, however, the Bengals had the seventh-best defense, thanks in large part to the work of defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, who fortunately for Bengals fans once again was passed over for a head-coaching gig. Zimmer will find a way to make the various new parts work together and thrive, even as few (or maybe none) of the individuals standout out as truly dominant.
After three straight 1,000-yard seasons, running back Cedric Benson is gone. Offensive coordinator Jay Gruden plans to use a committee approach, but no one on the committee approaches first-tier recognition.
Bernard Scott saw his per-carry average plunge from 4.9 in 2010 to 3.4 in 2011, a troubling sign for a guy who was regarded as a late-round steal in 2009. New arrival BenJarvus Green-Ellis has name recognition based in part on his unique name — and in part on the fact that he spent his first four seasons with the high-profile Patriots. But Green-Ellis has averaged little more than 500 yards per season, with only 3.7 yards per carry in a contract year that featured a 5,000-yard quarterback sucking safeties away from the line of scrimmage.
And so, just as a team that has two quarterbacks essentially has none, the Bengals could spend 2012 waiting . . . and waiting . . . for Scott or Green-Ellis to take advantage of the extra attention being paid to the passing game.
While the defense generally represents a strength, the cornerback position provides at a minimum a question mark. With Leon Hall recovering from a ruptured Achilles tendon and the team adding Terence Newman via free agency and Dre Kirkpatrick in the first round of the draft, the depth chart has plenty of shaking out to do. Adam Jones gets plenty of press, but he can’t seem to stay healthy.
The safety position provides even more uncertainty. Reggie Nelson is back. Beyond and behind him, it’s unclear whether there’s anyone who can handle the responsibilities of the job, which will include covering bigger and better and faster tight ends.
Tailback Cedric Benson complained his way out of town, and there’s no obvious perennial 1,000-yard rusher to take his place. Someone needs to step up; newcomer BenJarvus Green-Ellis presumably gets the first crack.
Receiver Jerome Simpson took his talents (and his stash) to the Twin Cities. Which means that someone else must take advantage of the single coverage that goes with starting across from A.J. Green.
Defensively, ends Jonathan Fanene and Frostee Rucker fled the coop. The Bengals replaced them with a pair of former top-10 draft picks in Derrick Harvey and Jamaal Anderson. If they can both play up to the potential that got them drafted so high, it would provide a major upgrade.
Perhaps the best changes were the ones that the team didn’t endure. With offensive coordinator Jay Gruden making an instant impact after making the jump from the Arena League, the Jaguars wanted to interview him for the head-coaching job. But Gruden opted to stay put, which will help the offense get even better. And with defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer still not a head coach, the Bengals benefit from the kind of consistency that could get the team back to the postseason.
The biggest fight will come at the receiver position, as multiple players jockey to play second fiddle to A.J. Green. Brandon Tate, dumped last by the Patriots after his biggest skill (kickoff returns) was devalued by rule changes, could end up pulling a reverse-Ocho, contributing in Cincy after not cutting the proverbial mustard for the Pats. Ryan Whalen, Armon Binns, and rookie Mohamed Sanu also could compete for the starting job, and they otherwise will contend for depth-chart positioning.
At cornerback, the situation is similarly muddled, but in a different way. Cornerback Leon Hall’s comeback from a torn Achilles could entail setbacks, opening doors for other players. Terence Newman, a disappointment in Dallas, could thrive under Mike Zimmer. (That sound you here is every Cowboys fan laughing their asses off at that possibility.) Rookie Dre Kirkpatrick could be a factor, but he must adjust from playing press coverage exclusively at Alabama to backpedaling. Adam Jones no longer acts like Pacman, but he needs to once again play like his video-game namesake. Brandon Ghee has high hopes to make the jump from second team. And Nate Clements faces the chopping block, if he can’t climb the ladder.
Rookie linebacker Vontaze Burfict will be battling in many ways himself during training camp, as the Bengals try to assess whether his talents can be harnessed and his temper can be tempered in a way that could help him make the teams that passed on him in the draft, repeatedly, regret. Every team, that is, except the Bengals.
It’s highly unlikely that the AFC North once again will produce a trio of playoff teams. Since the Bengals were the last ones in last season, they could be the first ones out. But in comparison to the other wild-card qualifier from their division, the Bengals actually could be better equipped than the Steelers to follow last year’s postseason berth with another one.
While the Bengals enjoy consistency at key player and coaching positions, they also have some areas of transition that could become liabilities. If the running game slumps, it will be easier for defenses to take away the best part of the passing game. And if no one steps up to take pressure off A.J. Green, those double teams could become triple teams. And if the defensive secondary can’t slow down the pass-happy offenses they’ll face, it may not matter how many points the offense can score.
For now, they fairly land in the middle of the pack. If they rise, it’ll happen because they’ve developed an ability to topple the elite teams in their division and conference. If they fall, it’ll trace to an overall inability to adjust to the expectations that flow from a nucleus of young, big-name players who overachieved as rookies.
Either way, it’s unlikely they’ll finish in the middle of the pack when the dust settles on the 2012 season.