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Bengals Left Off-Centered

At one point, circa 2005, Marvin Lewis was so popular and well-endorsed as an up-and-coming coaching genius, that he could have run for president. The team was playing well, Carson Palmer looked like the next elite quarterback of the league, and the fans and media plunged themselves head first into the Bengal frenzy.

The saga reached its crescendo when Palmer’s knee ligaments were weed-whacked by the Steelers on the first play of the only playoff game Marvin has reached as a head coach. Many experts and fans alike point to that moment as the pivot to freefall for the team’s success. However, another serious injury that occurred the next season, to an even more obscure player, could be more responsible for the downward spiral the team has suffered: the tibial plateau fracture that ended Rich Braham’s career in Week 2 of 2006.

The offensive line in those golden days of 2005 was one of the best in the NFL. Both Willie Anderson and Levi Jones were healthy and regularly mauled opponents. Eric Steinbach and Bobby Williams provided a nice contrast of blocking styles. And there was Braham in the middle, pointing out blitz schemes for his line mates before every play and then taking on the huge nose-tackles of the AFC North after snapping the ball.

Once Lewis took over in 2003, nearly every offensive player improved with Braham at center, especially Rudi Johnson and Carson Palmer. After his injury, the running game slowly decayed and Palmer has struggled to adjust without his line captain.

Former team president and football demigod, Paul Brown, selected Tennessee center Bob Johnson, with the first pick of the Bengals’ first draft in 1968. He knew the pivotal impact that a solid center can have on an offense—it must be an important position with a title like center. If a good offensive line makes everyone’s job easier, than a good center makes the rest of the line’s job easier, and the result is a finely tuned offense that purrs as it elegantly moves down field.

Since the second quarter of that early-season game against the Browns, the Bengals have still not adequately replaced Braham, and the offense has never been as good as it was then. Rudi Johnson is now out of the league and Palmer continues his work to return to a plateau that he has fallen from since Braham went down. Willie Anderson was abandoned by his team and thus forced to play (well) for divisional rival, Baltimore. Levi physically broke down and was released this off-season. Eric Steinbach was given a huge contract by the Browns in ’07 and plays well there too. Bobby Williams reminisces about the old days and wonders where everybody went.

The evidence of Braham’s effect on the team is clear from a combination of history and statistics, but the most obvious measure is wins. The Bengals shocked the league in 2003 going 8-8 after a two win season the year before. The next season, they again finished 8-8, but then took the step up to 11 wins in 2005 and won the division. It’s been down the tubes since, with Cincinnati unable to produce a winning record in the past three seasons.

Whether Kyle Cook or fourth-rounder Johnathan Luigs is the answer at center remains a huge unknown for the Bengals. Cook is tops on the depth chart for now, but the team should want to make good on their draft pick and hopefully work Luigs into the rotation soon.

With all the depth and talent at the wide receiver position, and such youth and inexperience on the O-line, one can’t help but wonder if a player like former-Ravens center Jason Brown who signed in St. Louis as a free-agent this winter, would not have been a more sensible target than Laveranues Coles within this offense.

Hindsight is always crystal clear when it comes to NFL free agents, but it does seem like the center position has not received its proper dues as a team priority this off-season. This is awfully surprising considering how important Braham was to Lewis’ previous success.


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