Here’s a riddle:
How inexplicably boring/frustrating does Cincinnati’s professional baseball team have to be before fans start actually looking FORWARD to football season?
In a town that’s never claimed a Lombardi Trophy, that’s been to the playoffs only twice in the past 20 seasons, and that was recently named the single worst franchise in professional sports (ESPN the magazine), the answer is embarrassingly simple:
PRETTY DAMN BAD.
Yet, sadly, a Reds team that showed so much promise in 2010 has plummeted back to the familiar confines of mediocrity (55-60 at the time of this writing).
And so, more out of necessity than desire, the perennial Cincinnati sports fan must trade in their red and white jerseys (bloody and worn) for orange and black.
That transition, one we’ve begrudgingly made year after year (with the exception of that short glorious stretch in 2010), would almost be funny if it weren’t so sad.
See, hoping one's spirits, beaten and crushed by the Reds, will be lifted by the Cats of Queen City is like replacing tofu with bologna and expecting filet.
It’s a sad, sad reality for Southern Ohioans.
But it’s ours. It’s all we have.
So here we are.
Shortly after the Bengals put a bow on their 4-12 2010 campaign by losing 13-7 to the Baltimore Ravens (and a short few months after the Redlegs spent their first playoff appearance in 15 years playing like tee-ballers), I wrote a column outlining what off-season moves needed to be made in order for Marvin Lewis’ team to be competitive in 2011.
Today, I look back at that road map and assess how close owner Mike Brown and his crack staff came over the last few months to fielding a team that deserves to put on pads.
Excerpt: “In 2010, the Bengals featured veterans at the four most important offensive skill positions, all with seemingly different goals and agendas…For Marvin Lewis’ squad to come together in 2011, a youth movement is definitely in order; and it all starts with addition by subtraction.”
Give the Bengals credit: they did what every living, breathing, “I watch football once every couple of years” fan knew they should do (unfortunately not always a foregone conclusion in Cincy), which was part ways with a bunch of old guys who can’t play.
Gone are T.O (had a good statistical year because Carson bullishly insisted on throwing to him in every conceivable situation), Chad Ocho Cinco (too busy building his “brand” to realize he was about to add “4th wide-out” to his resume), and Carson Palmer (pouting).
In my 10-step plan, I also called for the heads of Cedric Benson and defensive veterans Chris Crocker, Roy Williams, Antwan Odom, and Robert Geathers.
Odom and Williams are gone. Benson, Crocker and Geathers remain, and I'm actually OK with that.
Benson’s durability and power running are a must in new offensive coordinator Jay Gruden’s West Coast scheme, and Crocker and Geathers are generally seen as good locker room guys who can mentor the herd of young talent on the roster.
Neither will be overly productive (with youngsters Robert Sands and Carlos Dunlap clamoring for their jobs, respectively), but sometimes roster spots just need to be filled.
Overall, the Bengals shed some cancerous weight, and got younger in the process.
Excerpt: “I think we can all agree that SOMEONE has to take the fall for the Bengals’ putrid offensive output in 2010. By re-upping Marvin Lewis’ contract, Bengals Owner Mike Brown made it clear that Lewis would not be held accountable. And, by obstinately refusing to discuss Carson Palmer’s trade plea, Brown basically put all his eggs in his quarterback’s basket. Next stop? Offensive Coordinator Bob Bratkowski.”
This one was a must.
After turning the combo of T.O, Ocho, Palmer, Jordan Shipley, and Jermaine Gresham into a portfolio of inefficiency, it was widely assumed that Bratkowski’s 10-year Bengals tenure was done.
A down hadn’t even been played in Super Bowl before Brat received his walking papers, ushering in a new era under upstart Arena League aficionado Jay Gruden.
As will undoubtedly be the refrain throughout the season ( which we'll obviously compare to last): what do we have to lose?
Excerpt: “While, in the last couple drafts the Bengals have performed reasonably well, as an organization they have been known to stuff the stat sheet with boners and gaffes. Instead of being tempted by what they deem to be “position needs”, the Bengals would do well to stockpile the best available talent they can.”
This one is hard to judge, as draft classes can’t really be assessed fairly until they play a few years in the league.
Still, it’s fair to say that Cincinnati did their best, at least in the early rounds, of selecting based on "best available" AND "team need".
Round 1 brought A.J. Green, who every reporter has positively slobbered over so far in camp. Green fills the void left by Ochocinco, but also completely upgrades the position for years to come.Win-win.
Round 2 for the Bengals was widely applauded, as they landed a quarterback that many considered to be the best in the draft. Andy Dalton also fills a monster need, and looks like another huge coup.
Rounds 3 and 4 look a little more questionable, as we won’t know how athletic linebacker Dontay Moch and savvy O-lineman Clint Boling will pan out. Still, it looks like the Bengals brass at least ATTEMPTED to go best available there as well, so until we see these guys play, it would be hard to knock the selections.
Excerpt: “…Despite questions about his work ethic or his ability to keep his weight below 4,000 pounds, the Bengals drafted Andre Smith sixth overall. Since then, Smith has started only five games, suffered the same injury twice, and (evidently) devoured upwards of 6,000 Whopper Value Meals. Unless the Bengals feel like adding to their notoriously long list of draft busts (somewhere Ki-Jana Carter just indignantly re-injured his knee), they need to crack down hard on Andre. Give him a life coach/mentor. Give him a personal chef. Do SOMETHING. Just don’t let the guy get any fatter.”
All signs are positive on this one.
If the Bengals want to run the ball effectively this season (and, in doing so, take pressure off first-year QB Anday Dalton), they’ll need Andre Smith to capitalize on his immense (sweet pun alert) talent.
Fortunately (cue Hallelujah Chorus), Andre arrived to camp in good shape (an occurrence that, after watching him waddle around his five-foot radius of turf last season was about as unfathomable to me as cold fusion.)
Someone’s responsible for that change. Maybe Andre realized how much money he was wasting. Maybe he had a “come-to-Jesus” talk with Marvin. Or, maybe Big Macs just stopped tasting so good.
Whatever the reason, Andre the Giant looks like the Bengals’ Week 1 starter, and that’s good news.
Excerpt: “It’s no secret that in football, more than any other sport, team chemistry and camaraderie is paramount. Watching the Bengals plod through games this past season, it was clear they had none. Cincinnati needs to establish a steadfast ban on Diva-ism. Cut ties with existing divas, and avoid all selfish personalities like the plague come draft day.”
Cutting Chad and ignoring T.O. this off-season promises to do wonders for the Bengal locker room. Already, players are saying all the right things about grittiness and teamwork, intimating that the lack of “personalities” around camp has been a breath of fresh air.
However, the Benson signing worries me a tad in this regard.
He’s absolutely shown that he can carry an offense if the focus is on him (see: 2009), but he’s also ran afoul personally numerous times, and has never taken kindly to being shoved to the back-burner.
Apart from their brooding running back though, Cincy has done well to fortify their ranks with team guys. Green and Dalton looks like no-nonsense grinders, and new additions Manny Lawson and Thomas Howard (both linebackers) will provide positive leadership on D.
There’s no telling what a 0-6 start will do to team chemistry, but for now things look peaceful.
Excerpt: “In order to pull the best out of the 2008 College Football Defensive Player of the Year from USC (and to ensure he keeps wracking up hits like this), the Bengals need to put him where he is most comfortable. He has the potential to be the face of a great young defense for years to come (think: Ray Lewis), but only if he is put in a position to succeed.”
The time has come for the arrival of Rey.
Not the Rey of the last two years, who roamed the strong side like a pent up animal, anxious and tentative.
No, now it is time for unleashed Ray, he of the bone-rattling hits and the “I’ll eat your children” demeanor.
The move had to happen, and with incumbent middle linebacker Dhani Jones out, it will.
Excerpt: “The Bengals have quietly put together a slew of wet-behind-the-ears playmakers on the defensive side of the ball. The most intriguing unit on the roster is the defensive line, led by 2010 draftees Carlos Dunlap and Geno Atkins, as well as 2009 selection Michael Johnson. It’s important that defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer helps this unit realize its potential, by instituting a blitz-heavy, aggressive scheme.”
As far as defensive philosophy is concerned, it’s way too soon to tell how the Bengals stable of pass-rushers (which now includes 2011 draftee Moch) will be deployed.
However, fiery defensive coordinator lost a key component when Jonathon Joseph bolted on free agency. Without “J-Joe” locking down opponents' number one receivers, it is even more imperative that “Zim” gets fancy with his blitzes, as the D-line will have much less time to get there.
We’ll see how this pans out, but after going 4-12 in 2010, Zimmer should have no qualms giving his speedy athletes the green light on opposing QB’s.
Excerpt: “In order for the Bengals to be able to affect opposing quarterbacks the way they would like, they need AT LEAST two good corners. That starts with locking up their best one, free agent Jonathan Joseph. This should be a big priority.”
Welp, it wasn’t. Not big enough, at least.
Joseph went to the Texans, leaving the Bengals searching for answers.
With Adam Jones out for an unknown length of time (he says he’ll be ready for the season opener), Cincinnati took a plunge in the free agency quagmire, coming out with former Ohio State star and 10-year veteran Nate Clements.
Cincy has been quick to trumpet the leadership Clements brings to the table (and his addition mitigates the J-Joe loss to a degree), but make no mistake, he’s no Joseph.
Outside of Nnamdi Asomugha, Joseph was the most talented free agent corner out there; his loss will be felt.
Excerpt: “In order to win in the AFC North, the Bengals need to swallow their pride, forget about 2005 (when their passing game could do no wrong), and borrow a page out of one of their most recent chapters. Indeed, it was merely a year ago that Cincinnati was hosting a playoff game, solely because they dedicated their season to playing the way an AFC North team should.”
The AFC North is a smash-mouth division. Cincinnati tried to cheat that system in 2010, and it blew up in their faces.
So far, Gruden has preached the fundamentals of his West Coast Offense: short passes, moving the chains, and pounding the rock.
If Dalton can grip the system early, and if Benson stays healthy, the offense will have a chance to play with the likes of Pittsburgh and Baltimore.
Then, it becomes the defense’ responsibility to play tough, mistake-free football.
I believe in Mike Zimmer, and think that even with the loss of Joseph, the D will be improved.
Still, it’s safe to say a division sweep (a la ’09) won’t be happening just yet.
Excerpt: “If the Bengals want to compete in 2011 they have to be careful (with Palmer). Quarterback is truly the most important position in sports, so if Palmer stays they need to involve him more in the direction of the offense, but they also need to draft a QB that he can begin to mentor. If they do let Palmer go, it becomes immediately incumbent upon the organization to not only draft his replacement, but also to sign a veteran free agent QB to steer the ship while the newbie gets his bearings.”
As it turns out, Carson actually WAS serious about that whole retiring thing.
If that stays the case (and it looks like it will), the Bengals have moved on in the perfect direction.
Besides being what many considered to be a first round-caliber QB, Dalton is also a perfect fit for Gruden’s system. His football intelligence and accurate throwing arm should thrive in Cincinnati, even as, in Palmer, they usher out one of the greatest players the franchise has known.
As insurance, Cincy signed veteran signal-caller Bruce Gradkowski, a safe addition that should only boost the confidence of immediate-starter Dalton.
I’m still of the mind that the best course of action with Palmer would have been to just trade him. Mike Brown obviously feels differently, so it seems Marvin and his staff are doing the best they can.
Being competitive and being a winner are two totally different things.
Purely due to their youth across the roster, the Bengals may not win many games this season. In fact, I’d be shocked if they went 8-8. However, based on their off-season maneuvering, the Bengals have a great chance to compete in most games they play.
Dalton, Green, and the rest of the offense will grow as the season progresses, and the combination of talent and the will to prove themselves should mean a couple W’s here and there.
We all, I believe, would be impressed if this squad wins more than they lose.
However, that doesn’t mean they won’t be fun to watch, or the right steps aren’t being taken, or that the off-season wasn’t a success.
Any wins will be gravy, as this team looks to rebuild their identity. But, even if the losses mount, it’s not like we won’t be used to it.
Thanks to those damned Reds.
Final Grade: B (84%)