Oh, how quickly they forget.
In 2005, Lewis led the Bengals to their first winning season and division title in 15 seasons. Coaching a team synonymous with futility, the former Ravens defensive coordinator miraculously didn’t register a losing season with the Bungles in his first four years (they finished 8-8 three times). However, back-to-back third place finishes, including a 4-11-1 season last year, and continuous player arrests have many Cincy fans tired of the Lewis regime.
We’ll give Lewis – not our favorite NFL head coach – a mulligan for last season. If Carson Palmer stays healthy, do the Bengals make the playoffs? No. But they don’t finish dead last in most offensive categories. Palmer is back and ready to go, and Lewis is starting to add some talent to the defensive side of the ball (the group finished sixth in the AFC last season in yards allowed).
Wonder how it’s all going to shake out? Luckily, HBO is giving us an up close look at how an attention whore will continue to annoy.
Last Season: 4-11-1, 3rd in AFC North.
New Faces: S Roy Williams, WR Laveranues Coles, RB Brian Leonard, DT Tank Johnson, T Andre Smith, QB J.T. O’Sullivan, LB Rey Maualuga.
Subtractions: T Stacy Andrews, T Levi Jones, WR T.J. Houshmandzadeh, RB Chris Perry, S Dexter Jackson, QB Ryan Fitzpatrick, LB Corey Mays.
The Draft: Cincinnati actually did a good job of addressing their needs in the draft. With the departure of Levi Jones and Stacy Andrews, the Bengals hope they found a long-term replacement in Alabama’s Andre Smith. I’ve actually had the pleasure of spending time with Smith, and despite the negative stories surfacing about his maturity, he’ll be fine. In fact, he’ll most likely thrive. He has the skills to be a dominant tackle in the NFL.
In the second round, the Bengals gobbled up USC linebacker Rey Maualuga, who fell because of concerns about his speed. Any time you watched a USC game, Maualuga was making plays. Pair him with former Trojan Keith Rivers and the Bengals actually have playmakers on defense.
The third round also was good to Cincy, who picked up physical freak defensive end Michael Johnson (Georgia Tech) and tight end Chase Coffman (Missouri). At 6-foot-6, Johnson reminds some of a raw Jason Taylor. He’ll need some work, but he could be a steal. Coffman is a top receiving threat at tight end, but will need to work on his blocking. A foot injury probably prevented him from going earlier in the draft and he’ll push Reggie Kelly and Ben Utecht for playing time.
The Good: The receivers. Chad Ochocinco had a horrible season last year (540 yards and four scores). But most would have with Ryan Fitzpatrick at quarterback, though T.J. Houshmandzadeh still caught 92 balls for 904 yards. Houshmandzadeh is gone and replaced with Laveranues Coles. (Somewhere Peter Warrick is smiling and Dillard’s store reps are cringing.) Coles is probably a slight downgrade from Housh, but he’s still productive (six seasons with at least 70 receptions) and with the talented, but troubled Chris Henry, the Bengals have one of the top receiving trios in the league. Henry is being tabbed for a breakout. And no, not a jail break. He’s shown his teammates a more committed and mature personality in offseason workouts and they expect big things from him. Add in second-year pro Jerome Simpson, who I personally think is one to keep an eye on, and the Bengals receiving corps is undoubtedly the team’s strength.
The Encouraging: QB Carson Palmer. Is his elbow at full strength? Probably not. But Carson Palmer at 80 percent is better than what the Bengals had last season. If you’re trying to decipher algorithms, then a Harvard man is your guy. When you’re trying to lead one of the league’s most prolific offenses, leave the Ivy Leaguers alone. No offense to Ryan Fitzpatrick, but that dude sucked. He made Bengals fans yearn for the days of Akili Smith.
Palmer is an All-Pro, who everyone perceives isn’t the same since the knee injury he suffered in the 2005-06 playoffs. That argument is ridiculous. Palmer is still getting his shine on, it’s the team that sucks. In 2006 and 2007, Palmer threw for a combined 8,166 yards and 54 touchdowns. That’s good stuff. Last year, Palmer lasted just four games before a torn ligament and tendon in his elbow ended his season. In March, he said the elbow was back to 100 percent. The Bengals can only hope so.
The Ugly: The offensive line. Their center and right tackle have zero career starts. Their left guard has just six. Gone are starting tackles Levi Jones, the Bengals’ pillar at left tackle since 2002, and Stacy Andrews. Center Eric Ghiaciuc bolted too. Only right guard Bobbie Williams returns in the same spot.
Kyle Cook will replace Ghiaciuc and Andrew Whitworth is moving from left guard to left tackle. As a rookie in 2006, Whitworth started 12 games at left tackle when Jones was injured. He played well enough to remain in the lineup when a healthy Jones returned as Whitworth slid over to left guard, where he started the last two seasons.
Rookie Andre Smith will start at right tackle. He has all the skills and athletic attributes to be a dominant tackle, but can he get his head right? Something tells me will. This kid doesn’t want to let Marvin Lewis down. But piecing together a patchwork O-line isn’t exactly what Carson Palmer needs.
Fantasy Island: Cincinnati finished last in the NFL in points per game (12.8) and yards per game (245.4) a season ago. That usually doesn’t translate to fantasy success, and besides the since departed T.J. Houshmandzadeh, the Bengals were a nightmare. Once Palmer got hurt, it was over. Ochocinco was an epic bust. The running game was practically nonexistent. Cedric Benson (someone who I, as a Bears fan, will always loathe) had four decent games last season, but managed just two scores.
With a healthy Palmer, there’s no doubting the Bengals offense will be much improved and Ochocinco will return to fantasy relevance. Laveranues Coles is a solid WR3 in a 12-team league and Chris Henry could be primed for big things. An improved passing game will open up the running game. So, it all rests on Palmer’s right elbow.
Potential Breakout Player: RB Brian Leonard. I was going to go with Jerome Simpson. But the Coastal Carolina product had just one more catch than I did catch last season (for a grand total of two yards), and hearing Marvin Lewis say Simpson “has a long way to go,” wasn’t too encouraging. So I’m going with whoever is Cedric Benson’s backup. That would be Leonard, who the Bengals acquired from St. Louis via trade. Leonard was drafted to be a versatile compliment to Steven Jackson, and amassed nearly 500 total yards as a rookie in 2007. But a shoulder injury limited him to two games last season and the new Rams’ coaching staff shipped him to Cincy for defensive tackle Orien Harris. Cincinnati likes Leonard’s receiving ability out of the backfield and will most likely use the former Rutgers back on third downs. And remember, the only guy ahead of him on the the depth chart is fucking Cedric Benson.
Schedule: Road games against Minnesota, Green Bay and San Diego don’t do the Bengals any favor outside of their division. Home contests against Denver, Houston and Chicago could all be tricky as well. Besides games against the Browns (Weeks 4 and 12), Raiders (Week 11) and Lions (Week 13), it doesn’t look too promising for Cincinnati and Marvin Lewis.
Best Case: The fellas at WhoDeyRevolution launch a redux of Project Mayhem Task No. 6, and achieve their goal of a coup d’etat.
Worst Case: Cincinnati police show up to the Bengals’ practice facility.
Prediction: 4-12, last in AFC North.