The NFL is built for parity. In theory, every NFL team should have a chance to make the playoffs at the outset of every season.
As evidenced by the Cincinnati Bengals—who have made one playoff appearance in the past 18 years—that theory often does not materialize into reality.
The Bengals have been locked in a string of rebuilding years for 18 season—13 of which have ended in losing campaigns. 2009 appears to be more of the same for Cincinnati, as they hope to continue a maturation process that began with a 4-3-1 finish to the 2008 season.
With the youth coming of age, and Pro-Bowl quarterback Carson Palmer returning from a season-ending elbow injury, an improvement from a 4-11-1 record to a promising 7-9 season seems to be well within reach for Marvin Lewis’ crew.
The 7-9 mark could have been attainable, or even surpassable, in 2008 had the Bengals not been as severely bitten by the injury bug.
Beyond Palmer, seven other starters finished the season on the injured reserve list for a Bengal team that was the second hardest hit by injuries according to FootballInsiders.com—behind only winless Detroit.
Cincinnati will have to avoid any debilitating injuries during the grueling NFL season, as late season opportunities against Oakland (week 11), Cleveland (week 12), Detroit (week 13) and Kansas City (week 16) should allow the youth to mature in winnable contests.
And mature they must, as Cincinnati will lean on seven players in the first three years of their career in starting roles. The most important of which will be on the offensive line, where two rookies—left tackle Andre Smith and center Jonathan Luigs—figure to join second year right tackle Anthony Collins in the starting lineup.
Smith—the sixth overall selection in 2009—and Collins—a fourth round selection in 2008—will have to develop their derided pass-blocking skills in order to avoid a repeat of the 53 sacks allowed in 2008 by the Bengal offensive line.
The 2008 unit was hurt significantly by a weakened interior with the undersized Eric Ghiaciuc at center. With Ghiaciuc now in Kansas City, Luigs—who possesses comparable traits to Ghiaciuc in his lack of bulk and reliance on quickness—will have to be able to hold his own against a healthy diet of nose tackles in 3-4 defenses.
Cincinnati will face the 3-4 10 times in 2009, including the six games against AFC North rivals Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Cleveland.
If the Bengals are able to overcome the hurdle of their inexperienced offensive line, Palmer will have time to hook up with a group of talented, if unheralded, wide receivers.
Pro-Bowler T.J. Houshmandzadeh departed for Seattle via free agency, but the addition of Laveranues Coles to complement Chad Ocho Cinco and slot receiver Chris Henry gives the Bengals an experienced and sure-handed unit.
The offensive youth movement extends to the outside, as well, as the second year wide outs Andre Caldwell and Jerome Simpson will need to make an impact on third downs and in the case of an injury.
Overall, the passing game that Palmer operates will continue to be a major weapon for the Bengals, as they have five games against teams in the bottom quarter in pass defense in 2008, including each of the final three weeks.
The youth’s fingerprint on the 2009 Bengals can also be seen on the defensive side of the ball, as four players in their first three years figure to be on the field for a unit that was rated 12th in total defense in 2008.
The youngest area for the Bengals will be the linebacker core, where rookie middle linebacker Rey Maualuga—a second round pick in 2009—will complement former college teammate Keith Rivers, in his second year at weakside linebacker.
Rivers was a hard-hitting presence for the first seven games of his rookie campaign, compiling 37 tackles before having his season ended by a broken jaw in week eight against Pittsburgh.
The young linebackers will get a chance to ease into the season, as only three of the Bengals’ first seven opponents were in the top half of the league in rushing offense in 2008.
The linebacker corps will be backed up by a youthful, productive secondary. Former first round picks Leon Hall and Jonathan Joseph combined for 37 passes defended and four interceptions in 2008, their second and third year in the league respectively.
They will be backed up by either Chinedum Ndukwe, Marvin White—both in their third year—or Chris Crocker at the strong safety spot and five-time Pro-Bowler Roy Williams—singed May 7—at the free safety position. Williams will be able to move back to a comfortable role in the 4-3 defense, alleviating his struggles in Dallas’ 3-4 this past season.
The Bengals will lean on the youth in the secondary heavily, as opposing quarterbacks figure to have ample time to find receivers against a weak pass rush that only produced 17 sacks in 2008.
The return of defensive ends Antwan Odom and Robert Geathers—who missed a combined nine games in 2008—bolsters the pass rush slightly, but both are better suited as run stoppers than sack specialists.
While the Bengals figure to be stout against the run in 2009, their inability to force opposing quarterbacks into quick decisions will be a major obstacle that they must overcome. However, having seven games against opponents from the bottom third in passing offense in 2008 should take some pressure off of the youthful Bengal defense.
Beyond the expected hiccups of an NFL maturation process, the 2009 season looks to be another step in the long rebuilding process in Cincinnati.
A losing season appears likely, but with a soft schedule—the easiest in the NFL by 2008 winning percentage—and avoidance of disastrous injuries, the Bengals should restore hope that one day the NFL’s paradoxical movement will reach Paul Brown Stadium.