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Expect Nothing; Prepare for Anything

Bengals Camp Football
From top to bottom, the NFL is the most competitive of the major sports. When the word expectations are brought up, smart analysts take a second before spouting off predictions and forecasts. Asking the expectations of the Bengals this season is like asking what you may have for dinner in three weeks, or if it will be an especially snowy winter; it all depends on a lot of things.

All we can really say without hesitation is that New England will be good and Detroit won’t be. But we’ve learned throughout the salary-cap era that teams can grow up to become contenders, or wilt and die, seemingly overnight. Miami went to the playoffs after winning just one game the season before. Cleveland’s big season of 2007 fooled the world into giving them five prime-time games in ‘08, only to watch the Brownies wind up in the basement. Expectations are a risky business in the NFL these days, but you only live once, so here it goes.

The number one reason the Bengals smelled of dead fish and turned their fans to stone when they watched was because they couldn’t run the ball. The softies up front – Levi, Andrews & Ghiaciuc – were pushed around all year, and Chris Perry showed the nasty side effects of not playing for entire seasons. Benchings and injuries ensued, and the replacements became an immediate upgrade. Benson showed a hard-running style with nifty footwork, Collins showed a capability of protecting the blind side and Kyle Cook showed that anybody could fill in at center and become an improvement.

This year the Bengals have added a few more horses to the stable of running backs. Behind Benson, the team now has the diminutive but nimble DeDe Dorsey, the strong and gritty Brian Leonard, the explosive yet problematic Bernard Scott and the old reliable Kenny Watson. They’ve beefed up the line with draft picks Andre Smith and Johnathan Luigs. There’s also a couple of new rookie fullbacks to choose from, Fui Vakapuna and Chris Pressley, not to mention an intriguing rookie tight end, Chase Coffman – whose immediate contributions will be more apparent in the passing game.

Even if the running game can muster itself into the ranks of mediocrity, Cincinnati will win between seven to nine games, and the faith in that prediction has more to do with the improving defense rather than the assumed passing attack.

There’s a pervasive assumption around the football world that when Carson Palmer is healthy, he will be spectacular and will lead an explosive passing attack, when we have watched his performance decline since that mythical 2005 season. It’s difficult to argue that when pass protection breaks down or when routes are incorrectly ran, Carson panics and he demonstrates the improvisational skills of a slug. The system must run perfectly for him to be great, and the Bengals system has been far from that.

The main sticking point to this complicated equation that involves Carson, his blockers, the running game and his coaching staff, is that the offense has been smitten with the long pass. Once Carson went down last year and Fitzpatrick was reluctantly handed the reigns, it became obvious that a play-calling shift to shorter passes and an emphasis on ball-control was necessary.

It took longer than some felt was needed, but Bratkowski made the shift and the Bengals suddenly became more competitive in the season’s second half. Even with the strong-armed Carson poised to return, the offense should carry on with its West-Coast version because it has proven to be successful… for now.

The league’s trends and philosophies of the game are fluid and ever changing. The stagnant nature of the play-calling the Bengals have suffered through for two and a half seasons was why the change was needed in the first place.

Once the league catches on to the Bengals West-Coast version of its offense – and it will – then they can return to the vertical game, or better yet, innovate a new strategy. One of Marvin Lewis’ favorite slogans is ‘moving forward’; the philosophy behind that statement would apply nicely to the way this year’s offense is constructed.

The defense is far less of a concern for Cincinnati, which is has been so unlike this team that the words look funny printed on the screen. They’re a young, hungry bunch who are collectively benefitting from the experience and wisdom of defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, linebackers coach Jeff Fitzgerald & Marvin himself. The front office has identified a prototype of a successful defense, and it’s gone about its business collecting the necessary new parts.

Rookies Maualuga and Michael Johnson, mixed in with free-agent veterans Tank Johnson and Roy Williams bring some specific skill sets that will assist Zimmer in his scheme, which calls for specialists and experts in various situations. The Bengals have accrued defenders who aren’t great overall players, but rather do one or two things better than the rest. It’s the assembly-line defense that quietly and efficiently produces three and outs; Henry Ford would be proud of this defense.

So if the running game improves, even a little, and the defense matures into the winner that they’re capable of becoming, the last brick in the road to the playoffs rests with the special teams. Franchise-tagging a kicker (Shayne Graham) and drafting the best punter in the country (Kevin Huber), it seems the issue has been, to some extent, addressed.

A threatening return-man is still needed, but Caldwell showed some skills last season and Bernard Scott could be a candidate for the job. Special teams has broken down the last few seasons and it cannot decline any further for the team to be successful.

After an abysmal 2008, to say that the Bengals will improve this season isn’t going too far out on that limb. To say they won’t win the division is also a bit of a mollycoddled prediction, but ear-marking them as a Wild-Card team, well, that’s just crazy. But with the perfect storm described here, it may all add up to celebrating the New Year with a playoff birth.

Alternately, if the Bengals suffer some early setbacks and their stubbornness gets in the way of progress, they could repeat the nightmares of last season. When the dust settles, you can expect a 7-9 season and another year of missing out. We’re not quite there yet.

I’ll eat nothing but tuna in three weeks and it won’t snow once this winter.

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