When you are the proverbial cellar-dweller of the division and the brunt of many NFL jokes, one would think the only direction in 2009 is up for the Cincinnati Bengals—even if you have to take one step at a time.
It's hard not to improve from a dismal 4-11-1 record and being the floor mat of the AFC North. Last season saw 17 players including first round draft pick Keith Rivers on the injured reserve. That number should have been 18 with the absence of quarterback Carson Palmer following a week three injury to his elbow.
With Palmer on the sideline wearing sweats, not pads, the Bengals fumbled and bumbled their way to mediocrity.
But just as injuries heal, and key players return, the Bengals look to make a move north in the standings in 2009. And when you finish at the bottom last year, up is the only way to go.
SIGNS OF A GOOD SEASON
The 2009 off-season included an almost impeccable draft where big names like OT Andre Smith and linebacker Rey Maualuga will don black stripes this fall.
Even with the departure of T.J. Houshmandzadeh, the Bengals maintained the status quo with the signing of former New York Jet Laveranues Coles. And lets not forget the defensive acquisitions in Tank Johnson and Roy Williams.
But adding the most excitement this offseason might be the resurgence of Palmer's leadership both on and off the field.
"We're going to be really good, I guarantee it," Palmer said earlier this spring.
And Palmer might be right. The offensive line looks to be much improved this year leaving fans in the Queen City with hope that rookie Smith could surpass all the hype and provide the much needed protection to Palmer's blind side.
That would be welcome relief to Palmer who spent much of last year's preseason and the first three weeks running for his life.
Adding to the hype this year is the defense that showed major signs of improvement late last year. With Maualuga and last year's No. 1 draft pick LB Keith Rivers together again coupled with the run stopping ability of free agent safety Roy Williams, the Bengals could surprise some teams in its ability to stop the run.
STANDING IN THE WAY OF THE LOMBARDI TROPHY
The walking sound byte Chad Johnson...Ochocinco is still upset and demanding a trade. Questions are still being asked about the maturity of Smith who is on his third, no second, but third agent.
Taking the Ochocinco problem first, this could blow up in the Bengals' face. Ochocinco has the ability to divide the locker room if he is unhappy. And once again, as the Bengals work in the shadows of Paul Brown Stadium, Ochocinco is nowhere to be found.
One bright side is that Palmer and the rest of the team seem to be moving on.
"It's definitely a new look for the Bengals receiver corps but I couldn't be happier with the guys we've got," Palmer said recently in an interview.
"T.J.'s ( Houshmandzadeh) gone and Chad's pretty much gone, he hasn't been here, so we've got guys that want those two spots, guys that compete day in and day out, when we're out there on the field, running, conditioning and in the weight room lifting. They're guys that want to take over for those two spots. They look every bit capable of doing what we're going to ask them to do."
Moving inside of the receiver corps this year is the shakiness of the offensive line. Early in the year last season, Palmer could barely step back before being rushed from opposing defenses.
This year, while hope is abundant, if Smith and fellow lineman Andre Whitworth can't step up, it could be a long Autumn in southwestern Ohio.
The Bengals appear to be doing the right thing this off season. Even the naysayers on whodeyrevolution.com wrecking havoc to the Bengals front office seem to be impressed, but this team still has holes to fill. Plus it is hard to get the losing mentality out of Cincinnati.
An optomist would say the Bengals could ride the wave of an easy schedule and increased hype to contend for one of the two AFC wild card slots.
A realist however could foresee another 8-8 season of mediocrity.
But as any Bengal fan would say, at least 8-8 is better than last year.