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Bengals Coping With Collateral Damage

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Now that the media windstorm of nonsense and ballyhoo has briefly calmed—with all the fuss centered around the expected return of the brash and attention-starved pariah, No. 85—the Bengals, and those who follow them, can focus on the actual playing field. As we speak, football is being played—well, practices are taking place— but the point is, the team is actively preparing itself for its 2009 campaign, and I for one, would rather think and write about what takes place on the field as opposed to what may or may not be on another person’s face.

Last year the Bengals felt the sharp stinger of the injury bug which resulted in a ragtag roster of random players; the duct-tape and scrap-metal guys of the NFL. Out of this bunch, some made a name for themselves, most notably Cedric Benson, and in the process, legitimized some of these drifters from strictly back-up status to serviceable-player status.

By giving the coaches the chance to evaluate young players in real-game scenarios (and realize what veterans had become obsolete), the team’s lack of depth last season has conversely strengthened that very thing for ‘09. Now that the youngsters have some games under their belts and are ready to run with the big dogs, the Bengals cannot afford another season of injury devastation.

That dreadful scenario would result with starters becoming even younger and less experienced and eventually would resemble a minor-league football team. Sounds like the NFL’s version of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, doesn’t it?

Cincinnati has learned the value of certain positions the hard way. When Carson goes down, the black veils come out and mothers weep at the season’s untimely or premature death, or both. The team upgraded the backup QB spot with J.T. O’Sullivan, but no one–perhaps not even himself–wants to see O’Sullivan play a single down. While Palmer may be at times misconstrued as the Golden Boy and the single variable that hinges on the team’s success, he’s damn sure the best quarterback on the roster and the Bengals badly need him to win.

Mr. Benson is another crucial cog in this new and strange vessel, apparently called an offense, which Marvin Lewis and Bob Bratkowski continue to scurry about desperately trying to make it seaworthy in time for Week 1. Last year Benson showed his stuff (cut-back runner, square head, has a knack for screen passes and draw-plays) and is easily the No. 1 running back on the depth chart, or, as the cliched world of sports terminology insists on calling it, the team’s bell-cow.

It’s true that the Bengals have collected some new running backs—Brian Leonard, Bernard Scott and Gary Russell—and still have my main-man, DeDe Dorsey, all who should find some kind of role on the team (perhaps not Russell, he may not make it out of training camp). Still, an injury to Benson, coupled with an unproven offensive line, could sink this team back into the running-game doldrums.

As for that offensive line, rookie tackle Andre Smith would be difficult to replace should he fall to injury or mentally crumble under the duress of the media microscope and public scorn. The versatility of Andrew Whitworth would help soften that kind of a blow as he can move from guard to tackle in a pinch, and Anthony Collins can play either right or left tackle too, but Smith comes to town with expectations as large as his tummy and if the running game is going to mature out of its adolescence, they need Big Andre out there leading the charge.

Defensively, an injury to a starting cornerback it seems would have dire consequences, particularly against three-receiver sets. Third cornerback David Jones, showed consistent improvement last season and the team could survive with him as a starter if need be, but the worry then would become who would play the nickel. Simeon Castille and David Pope are cannon fodder, good for special teams and practice reps for our starting receivers.

The Bengals would prefer to not have to push these kind of players into significant action if they can help it. Cornerback Morgan Trent, was drafted in the sixth round, possibly with this kind of a concern in mind. Jonathan Joseph has yet to complete a full season thanks to injuries, and if that continues into ‘09, look for opposing passing attacks to feature a lot of down-field passes to the slot receiver, based on the inadequacies of the available nickel backs in such a scenario.

Every team this season will be hit by injuries; it’s the inevitable collateral damage brought on by the carnage of professional football. Through strategy and preparation, the best teams handle their injury woes the most effectively.

A team can only carry 53 players on its roster as it trots onto the field on Sundays, and if the Bengals are to taste even a morsel of success this year, their 53 players activated for Week 1 should look reasonably similar to the 53 on Week 17. A large discrepancy between these rosters, and it could become a season of auditions for younger players and free-agent workouts, while the team’s collective eye gazes ahead to the future…once again.


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