Legendary NFL commissioner Pete Rosezell’s vision of parity has become a reality, creating a sense of hope for all NFL fans, including Cincinnati Bengal fans.
Cincinnati has won 58 games in the decade for an average of six wins a season. They have won three or fewer games five times since 1990 and are coming off a two consecutive losing season.
So why are Bengal fans so excited about the upcoming season? Because this is the NFL and rags to riches stories are common place, just ask St.Louis, Baltimore, and Chicago fans among others. Like any loyal fan base, Bengals fans are holding on to hope this is their year.
After watching their franchise quarterback Carson Palmer crumple in their only playoff appearance this decade, the Bengals have made a rapid spiral downward. That season Cincinnati won 11 games, but has combined for just 19 wins the last three seasons.
Two major factors have contributed to the struggles, injuries and off-field issues.
The downward tumble continued when their two fast rising linebackers; David Pollack and Odell Thurman were lost. Pollack was forced into retirement by a neck injury, while off the field issues derailed Thurman, who was eventually released.
Almost overnight, a team many thought was nearing championship caliber transformed back into a losing franchise.
Now fast forward to the 2009-2010 season. Palmer appears 100 percent healthy and in command of the team. The linebacker core has been rebuilt, courtesy of USC in the form of Keith Rivers and Rey Maualuga. The duo has been targeted not only as the future but the present core of the Bengals defense.
Offensively, Chad Johnson is still wearing the Bengal stripes, but many wonder for how long, especially with the signing of free agent Laveranues Coles.
Troubled, yet extremely talented wide receiver Chris Henry looks poised to unseat Johnson as Palmer’s number one target. If Henry can eliminate the problems of the past, his combination of freakish size 6’4” 200 lbs. and speed will create offensive mismatches.
The Bengals feel Jerome Simpson could emerge as a third option. If Simpson shows signs of becoming a legitimate second option, Johnson’s career in Cincinnati could be over.
Cedric Benson has replaced Rudy Johnson and Chris Perry at the half back position after signing with the Bengals last season. The former number one pick piled up 747 yards in 12 games for Cincinnati last year.
All of these changes could be for not if the Bengals fail to show major improvement on the offensive line. Last year the unit allowed 51 sacks and managed just 3.6 yards per rush. Any hope of a brighter season will require vast improvement from this unit and for that Bengals have turned to rookie Andre Smith.
The sixth overall pick out of Alabama this past draft, Smith was once seen as the number one offensive lineman in the draft. However, after being suspended for the Sugar Bowl, going MIA at the NFL combine, and clearly letting his physical fitness erode, there are many questions swirling around the talented offensive tackle.
That didn’t seem to turnoff Bengals’ owner Mike Brown or coach Marvin Lewis. They are confident that Smith will be the dominating player he was at Alabama and not the one who ran from the NFL combine.
It will not require an astrological miracle for Cincinnati to improve, but some things have to go right, starting with Palmer and the offensive line.
Cincinnati faces a difficult climb. They cannot afford another four game sweep at the hands of the Steelers and Ravens.
If they can protect the home turf against these teams, the schedule is dotted with very winnable games. The Bengals play the Oakland Raiders, Denver Broncos, Detroit Lions, Kansas City Chiefs and the Browns twice, all of which missed the playoffs last season.
There are already signs of confidence illuminating from the Bengals organization about the upcoming season.
Lewis accepted an offer to be featured on HBO and NFL Films Hard Knocks. A clear indication he believes his team is maturing and solidly on the road to success.
With a mix of veterans and young players, the Bengals will likely fall somewhere near nine wins, leaving them at worse sniffing the playoffs.