Marvin Lewis is seeking a fresh start for 2011, and in an offseason filled with labor strife and uncertainty, the Bengals faced their biggest upheaval of personnel since their head coach’s first season of 2003.
Quarterback Carson Palmer, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2003 draft, delivered on his threat to retire if the Bengals did not trade him — which they refused to do. Chad Ochocinco, the franchise’s all-time leading receiver, was dealt to New England, where he signed a three-year contract. On top of that, the Bengals lost one of their best players, cornerback Johnathan Joseph, in free agency.
The Bengals don’t play by the same rules as most NFL teams. Few, if any, franchises would’ve brought back Lewis following a 4–12 season that ran his overall record (including playoffs) to 60–69–1. But these are the Bengals. They did replace embattled offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski with Jay Gruden. Jon Gruden’s younger brother has never been a coordinator at the NFL level, but the Bengals have given him some weapons by using their first two draft choices on wide receiver A.J. Green and quarterback Andy Dalton.
In Cincinnati, that constitutes a fresh start.
The lockout hurt every team when it came to preparation and installation of the playbook, but that’s especially true for the Bengals, who are starting with a new offensive coordinator to go along with a new quarterback and headline receiver.
Unlike Carson Palmer’s rookie season, when he sat behind veteran Jon Kitna, Dalton is going to play in 2011. With the shortened offseason, veteran Bruce Gradkowski (signed after the lockout) is likely to get the opening-day start, but Dalton won’t be sitting long. Gruden’s offense will utilize multiple looks in the run and pass game, and Dalton has the mental makeup to run the scheme.
Besides the absence of Carson Palmer and Ochocinco from the offensive mix, the Bengals also will say goodbye to Terrell Owens, who led the team with 72 receptions and nine touchdowns in 2010 but wasn’t re-signed as an unrestricted free agent. Jettisoning the “me-first” personalities of Owens and Ochocinco will help Dalton’s progress.
One player who did return is tailback Cedric Benson, who flirted with the Houston Texans in free agency before signing a two-year deal to stay in Cincinnati. Benson has topped 1,000 yards in each of the past two seasons.
While Green will get a lot of attention, Gradkowski and Dalton should make fast friends with Jordan Shipley and Jermaine Gresham. They caught 52 passes apiece last season, and Gresham, in particular, made improvements throughout the season. His size (6'5", 260) and speed will allow him to line up anywhere and create mismatches.
The offensive line has to improve from last season, when it allowed 28 sacks and produced a run game that averaged only 3.6 yards per carry. Left tackle Andrew Whitworth used to have trouble with speed-rushers, but that is no longer the case, and the former LSU Tiger has quietly developed into one of the better players at his position in the league. The Bengals are still waiting for right tackle Andre Smith to prove he was worthy of the No. 6 overall pick in 2009. He’s been overweight and injured for two seasons.
Rey Maualuga moves from the strong-side linebacker position to the middle, taking over for Dhani Jones. Maualuga had a disappointing second season in 2010, when he was often overly aggressive and out of position. He wasn’t the only Cincinnati defender guilty of those transgressions, but if the Bengals are going to regain the status of a top-10 defense, a distinction they had in 2009, Maualuga has to be at the forefront.
A promising sign for the defense is the youth on the line. End Michael Johnson has developed into an every-down player, while second-year end Carlos Dunlap is working his way there. Dunlap is a potent pass-rusher who will command double-team attention after getting 9.5 of the Bengals’ 27 sacks last season. The interior of the line needs to generate more push in the pass rush. Geno Atkins provided some last season as a rookie, but it’s an area that needs improvement from veterans Domata Peko and Tank Johnson. Don’t be surprised to see Pat Sims finally force his way into the starting lineup.
Joseph’s departure didn’t come as a big surprise. With Leon Hall entering the final year of his contract at the other corner spot, the Bengals just weren’t going to be able to pay two top-end cornerbacks. Hall is durable (he’s never missed a game in four seasons) and has an ability every cornerback needs: He knows how to forget previous plays. The Bengals replaced Joseph with Ohio native Nate Clements. Now 32, Clements is past his prime, but he is still a quality cornerback who will team with Hall to make this a position of strength.
Safety is a weak spot. Chris Crocker (strong) and Reggie Nelson (free) are the starters, but Crocker has been prone to injury the past two seasons, and Nelson, acquired in a trade with Jacksonville last season, needs to show the talent that made him a first-round pick on a more consistent basis.
Whether they were kicking or returning, the Bengals didn’t do enough to dictate field position in 2010.
Mike Nugent is hopeful of returning from an ACL tear and MCL sprain of his right (kicking) knee, but the Bengals could find themselves in a mad scramble to locate a reliable replacement if he can’t make it back. The answer won’t be Clint Stitser, who struggled tremendously in his five games last season. Punter Kevin Huber’s numbers looked better in 2010 than ’09, but the Cincinnati native lacks consistency, especially with his hang time. All of his stats from 2010 put him in the middle of the pack of NFL punters.
Cincinnati was below-average in the return game, ranking 25th in the NFL in punt returns and 20th in kick returns.
It’s tough to see the Bengals making a push at a division title with as much change as they are going to go through this season. Starting a new quarterback brings enough difficulties, but when that player (who could be a rookie) comes in with less offseason prep time than normal and then goes up against a schedule that includes four games against defenses like Pittsburgh and Baltimore, that’s asking a lot. Still, it was only two years ago that the Bengals swept their division games, and a good number of the players who made that happen are still on the roster. They should be more competitive than a year ago, but not enough to challenge the Steelers or Ravens. This team is another year or two away from contending again.
OUTSIDE THE HUDDLE
New offensive coordinator Jay Gruden comes from a successful family. Fans are aware of older brother Jon’s success in the football world as a coach and broadcaster, but the oldest of the three Gruden boys, Jim, heads up the radiology department at the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, Ariz. “He’s the cerebral one,” says Jay.
The Bengals’ offensive woes of 2010 were particularly telling in the first and third quarters of games. They totaled just 45 points — less than a field goal per game — in the opening 15 minutes and just 57 points in the third quarter. Only five teams — the Bills, Buccaneers, Jaguars, Jets and Panthers — scored fewer points in the first quarter of games, and only seven teams had greater scoreboard futility than Cincinnati coming out of halftime.
Helping at Home
Linebacker Rey Maualuga and defensive tackle Domata Peko traveled to American Samoa in late June to take part in a football clinic run by Pittsburgh safety Troy Polamalu and his foundation. Peko, a native of American Samoa, and Maualuga, whose parents are natives of the island, have made the trip to the South Pacific previously for other charitable efforts. Following the tsunami of 2009 that devastated the island, both Peko and Maualuga spearheaded relief efforts in the Cincinnati area.
Peko and offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth organized player workouts in Cincinnati for the defense and offense while the lockout was in effect. Nearly 50 players showed up for all or parts of the two-week practice sessions that simulated workouts the players would have gone through at the team’s facility had the lockout not occurred.
Good Luck, Kid
Former Bengals quarterback Boomer Esiason understands more than most the frustrations that led Carson Palmer to declare that he would retire if he were not traded. Esiason was traded to the New York Jets in 1993, a year after the Bengals drafted David Klingler with the No. 6 overall pick. “He’s checked out of the Cincinnati hotel,” says Esiason of Palmer. “I sympathize with him. I hope Mike (Brown) tries to do the right thing even though with me he waited a year. I don’t know if (Andy) Dalton can withstand what we all have gone through. We’ll see. I wouldn’t have high expectations for this year, though.”
Anderson for HOF
Anthony Munoz is the only player in the Pro Football Hall of Fame who spent the majority of his career in Cincinnati, but former teammate Ken Anderson is receiving increased media support as his candidacy for the 2012 class switches to the Senior Committee. Anderson won four NFL passing titles and led the Bengals to Super Bowl XVI in 1981.
Carlos Dunlap didn’t start getting significant playing time until the second half of last season, but he still managed to total 9.5 sacks, a Bengals rookie record and second only to Detroit’s Ndamukong Suh for most by a rookie last season.
The Bengals went 0–4 last season when Carson Palmer threw for 300 or more yards. Since 2006, the Bengals were just 2–10 when Palmer passed for 300 or more yards.