They say football is a game of inches. In the salary-cap era of the NFL, the difference between 6-10 teams and 10-6 teams is minimal.
Coming off a 4-11-1 season in 2008, it sounds a bit far fetched to look at the Cincinnati Bengals as a playoff contender. Still, there is plenty of reason for optimism.
The Bengals share the AFC North with the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens, two teams that met in the AFC Championship game a year ago. Getting out of the division will be a great challenge, but will also serve as a solid measuring stick.
The Steelers, the defending Super Bowl champs, are a clear favorite to repeat in the division. Yet if they slip up, the Bengals could be in a position to take advantage.
Why The Bengals Can Win Now
Carson Palmer’s healthy—After being limited to four games a year ago, Palmer is looking good during offseason workouts. Prior to his injury-shortened ‘08 campaign, Palmer passed for 4000 yards in back-to-back seasons with 54 touchdowns in that span.
If the team can keep him upright, Palmer should return to Pro Bowl form.
Cedric Benson breakout—The former first-round pick of the Bears has never lived up to his hype. However, he did show signs of beginning to turn around his life on and off the field after signing with Cincinnati last year.
With little competition for carries and a full season under his belt, Benson is poised for a career year ahead.
Chris Henry goes deep—Henry’s talent has never been questioned. His effort at times on the field and in his inability to stay out of trouble off of it has limited his growth.
For the first time since joining the team in 2005, Henry managed to stay out of trouble this offseason and spent time working out with Palmer in California. If he keeps his head screwed on right, Henry could prove to be a huge contributor in the Bengals’ new play-action approach.
A new defensive attitude—One of the few bright spots last year for Cincinnati was the progress the defense made under first-year defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer.
With the additions of rookie Rey Malaluga and the signing of free agent safety Roy Williams, Zimmer’s defense just picked up some hard hitters. Look for the unit to close the gap on both the Steelers and Ravens in the season ahead as being the division’s stingiest defense.
The schedule—A year after playing one of the league’s more challenging schedules, the Bengals have the 22nd toughest schedule (opponents combined for a .465 winning percentage in ‘08) heading into the 2009 season.
Only two games (vs. PIT, vs. BAL) before their Week 10 bye come against playoff teams and teams that finished higher than 20th in total defense. The NFC North should prove easier than the gauntlet the team had last year versus NFC East opponents.
What Could Keep Them From Winning
Early struggles—Getting off to a fast start is extremely important for the Bengals. Over the past two seasons, the team has gone a combined 1-6 in September, effectively ending their season within the first month of the schedule.
Add to the equation their final division game comes on November 29 against Cleveland and another slow start would be crippling to the team’s playoff hopes.
Holes in offensive line—The Bengals have done a complete makeover on the offensive line, with only right guard Bobbie Williams returning as a starter at his position from a year ago.
Much of the team’s success will hinge on first-round pick Andre Smith’s impact in his first season. If the unit can not open up holes in the running game and improve on the 51 sacks allowed last season, it will be a long year in the Queen City.
Chad’s multiple personalities—The most unstable component of the team is wide receiver Chad Ochocinco. Over the past two years, the wideout has gone from a Pro Bowl performer to a big disappointment.
Despite their denial that he is not a distraction, head coach Marvin Lewis cannot regain control of his locker room until Ochocinco either changes his ways or his uniform. Another lackluster effort from him could prove to be too much baggage for this young team to carry.
Stopping the run—It sounds pretty straight forward, yet the Bengals have struggled for years to stop the run. They did hold runners under four yards per carry last season, but they still gave up 120.1 yards per game.
The team is hoping that the tweaks they made this offseason will go a long way toward reversing their fortunes, but they have to prove it on the field first. Another mediocre output here will likely keep them from a winning season yet again.
Team owner Mike Brown—Since taking over the franchise following the death of his legendary father, Paul Brown, Mike’s Bengals have produced a record of 101-187-1 (.351 winning percentage), making them one of the worst franchises in all of professional sports in that span.
Brown has refused to hire a general manager and add the key front office components it takes to remain competitive in the league. The Bengals have six of the 22 0-6 starts and four of the 13 0-8 starts in the NFL during Brown's 18 years as team president.
Heading into the 2009 season, the Bengals are one of the biggest mysteries in the league. They have the talent to be competitive.
If they can keep their key players healthy and get some of their new additions to perform as expected, the team is poised to make a big turnaround in the year ahead.
Anything short of 8-8 will be a big disappointment, but double-digit wins is not out of the range of possibility.