29. Cincinnati Bengals Year in Review

It’s a funny thing about Terrell Owens. He is a great player and always signs with Super Bowl caliber teams. One or two productive seasons later and T.O. bolts (or is cut) leaving his team in shambles.

Sound familiar Cincinnati?

Yep, he’s done it again. Cincinnati was primed to make a run. Coming off a 10-6 record and an AFC North Title the year before, Cincinnati appeared to have all the pieces.

Carson Palmer is  a smart, strong armed, veteran quarterback, Cedric Benson has turned into a tough hard-nosed runner and Chad Johnson was an electric big play receiver. Add rookies Jordan Shipley (second coming of Austin Collie) and tight end Jermaine Gresham and you’ve got a potent offense. Throw in a fast and aggressive d-line and a secondary with playmaking skills and suddenly it seems like a copycat version of the Colts.

 Each of the players or positions named above reminded you of a slightly lesser version of the Colts.

 Considering the similarities in both personnel and the way the teams were built, it wouldn’t have been difficult to predict similar records.

Ahhh….

Enter T.O.

 When preparing to write this column, it seemed unfair to blame T.O. for the team’s fall from newfound prominence. In fairness, Owens turned in another remarkably productive year. More surprisingly - save the last two weeks - T.O. kept his mouth shut avoiding negative publicity.

 Yet what else could have occurred? The team remained relatively in tact from the year before and as mentioned above, that should have been an overwhelming positive. The coaching staff returned in tact and the team did not suffer through any devastating injuries (especially compared to the fate of the Colts). So how is it, that the Bengals fortunes could turn so drastically. Good, veteran, playoff teams don’t suddenly implode on their own.

Only one of two factors can offer a possible explanation

1. They are the Cincinnati Bengals after all.

2. They signed Terrell Owens

While enticed by option 1, because of its all-encompassing nature, the Bengals seemed primed to break that jinx. They were ready this time, until they signed T.O. 

Productivity on the field seemed to take a back seat to the clash of egos and personalities in the locker room. Everyone played nice publicly but something happened behind the scenes. According to Stampede Blue's sister site cincyjungle.com, the Bengals have admitted that they didn't surround Palmer with the right pieces and didn't allow him the opportunity to be the true leader of the team. Sounds like an fractured locker room to me.

 

 Season in Review

The season started with a tough loss at New England. After a strong bounce back statement win against division rival Baltimore, it looked more like New England was a really good team rather than that Cincinnati was doomed for another losing season. 

Then the Bengals lost 2, 3, 4, 5 in a row, and the outlook started to change. By the time the Bengals reached Indy in Week 9, they were on life support. 

The Colts jumped out to a 17-0 lead, thanks to a stingy and opportunistic defense and a patient running game. Cincinnati, like its season, looked finished. As a Colts fan though, you knew  Cincinnati was going to mount one last charge. 

After Jermaine Grisham's touchdown pass with 2.35 you could sense the nervous energy in the building swell. Colts fans were on the edge of their seats as their worst nightmares can true. The Bengals recovered the on side kick and suddenly were driving down the field. In a fitting metaphor that perfectly captured their 4-12, the Bengals fumbled away their chance at a victory like they had fumbled away their season. The Colts simultaneously recovered the football and dashed any hopes of Cincinnati turning their season around.

At 2-7 the Bengals were done and over the next few weeks it would only get worse. Trashings at the hands of lowly Buffalo and their hated division Pittsburgh added injury to insult. It wasn't until a week 15 victory over instate enemy Cleveland that Cincinnati was able to stem the bleeding. By that time, fans and the front office were already looking to next season. 2 weeks and 1 more win later and Cincinnati officially closed out another painful and terribly disappoint season. With a record of 4-12, the Bengals, a team one year removed from the playoffs, had completed one of the more surprising collapses in recent memory. 

Season Highlights: Receiving Corps

Whatever distraction T.O. might have presented on the field, he was his usual productive self on it. Another surprisingly effective and at times electric season showed that T.O. is still one of the NFL's top receivers at the ripe age of 37. Few of Owens' biggest fans could have predicted 72 receptions for a shade under 1000 yards and 9 TDs. Between Owens' age and the fact that he was sharing the spotlight  er ball, with Chad 'did it really take me this long to realize ochocinco was dumb' Johnson, 72 catches was remarkable. 

Speaking of Chad 'why didn't anyone in my family save me from myself' Johnson, he too had a solid year. Certainly not as spectacular as in years past, but 67 catches for 837 yards certainly showed he still has some tread on his tires as well (especially considering he only played 14 games).

Rookie Jordan Shipley (the second coming of Austin Collie) drastically helped to open the middle of the field grabbing 52 passes thrown his way. Jermaine Grisham too, a guy Colt's fans should still be thankful for, blossomed into a big athletic receiving threat at the tight end position, securing his status as a rising star in the league.

For Bengals not concerned with the team's overall record, a treasonous statement I am aware, the Bengals were positively exciting to watch. Never mind that 11 of their 16 games were decided by 7 points or less, watching Carson Palmer throw to such talented receivers was fun to watch. Colts fans certainly remember and were even impressed by Chad 'really? nobody told me changing my name to a number was a bad idea?' Johnson's ridiculous circus-like sideline grab. Somehow, with all the talent at receiver and a top level yet underwhelming Qb, Cincinnati managed just 235 passing yards ranking them 13th in the league. I guess goes to show you how individual talent can only

take you so far... unless that talent comes from Peyton Manning's laser rocket arm.

An honorable mention season highlight goes to Cedric Benson who continues to shake the bust label after turning in another 1000 yard season to go along with 7 scores. 

Offseason Momentum: Balancing precariously on the edge of disaster

The good from last year will definitely be overshadowed by the bad and the uncertainty surrounding the fate of star players. Nonetheless, there was definitely several positives. Most notably, was the emergence of tight end Jermaine Gresham and slot receiver Jordan Shipley. Both players are future stars with limited potential. 

Defensively the Bengals have a lot of solid young pieces in place. While they underperformed this year, the unit, especially the linebackers and secondary are primed to be a force to be reckoned with for several years to come.

 Johnathan Joesph and Leon Hall form one of the best corner tandems in the league and Reggie Nelson and Roy Williams are veteran hard hitters. The linebackers are anchored by the perpetually reliable Dhani Jones are young, big fast and athletic. 

Again, last year was a disappointing year but should the team remain in tact, the future looks bright... The problem is, that is a big if.

Offseason Anxiety: Palmer, Johnson, Offensive Coordinator, Free Agency Departures... Yikes.

 

The T.O. experiment failed. Whether his mere presence in Cincinnati contributed to the team's implosion can be debated but his production on the field certainly cannot. The guy was steady as ever. So too were the rest of the receivers, which leads a lot of people to ask why Carson Palmer wants out? 

Sure the fact that he was sacked 26 times (second most in his career) probably contributed to his general discontent, but his line was banged up and had a bad year. More importantly, even without T.O., his surrounding cast is extremely solid. Shipley and Grisham are great young talent and Cedric Benson, if he returns, is a work horse 1,000 yard back. Over at our sister blog cincyjungle.com, writer Josh Kirkendale wrote that the recent firing of long time Offensive Coordinator Bob Bratkowski had a lot to do with keeping Carson Palmer happy. So too were statements made by the front office that essentially guaranteed that moves would be made to make sure that Carson Palmer would be the main leader of the locker room. As cincyjungle insightfully pointed out, such a statement seems like an admission that they too were deceived into believing T.O. could change. Also, shouldn't leadership be earned and not given?

Either way, why Palmer wants to leave is puzzling. The team was competitive in most games and going forward remains so on paper. It was a bad year but most analysts would agree that if most players return, Cincy should bounce back. 

Besides Palmer's trade demand, Chad 'I thought a number in spanish was cool for a last name?' Johnson (ok ok, I know..enough) has been unhappy as well. What started as friendly jabs between Johnson and his coach, has turned into an ugly and embarrassing spat played out in the media. 

Whether Johnson is simply blowing off steam from a difficult season or also desires to leave Cincy remains to be seen, but his displeasure and numerous tweets to that extent do nothing to dispel Bengal fan's anxiety. 

On top of all that, the Bengals face losing both Cedric Benson and standout cornerback Johnathan Joesph, which makes for a difficult offseason ahead.

If Palmer, Johnson and Benson come back, the Bengals could have a potent offense. If not, more losing seasons loom.

 

Draft Desires: Yet to be determined

The entire draft strategy looms on Carson Palmer's trade demands and Joesph Johnathan's free agency status (oh, and the CBA - can't forget that). 

Even if Carson Palmer does get his wish and is shipped off, don't expect Cincy to draft a quarterback. Unfortunately for Cincinnati, with Andrew Luck out of the picture, there isn't a definite top 5 - even top 10 - quarterback in this year's draft. If Palmer leaves and Cincinnati panics, then Blaine Gabbert from Missouri or even Jake Locker from Washington are possibilities. That said its hard to imagine Cincinnati doling out big money for an overweight and out-of-shape Gabbert or to Locker whose stock has plummeted since last year. That those to are mentioned shows what a down year it is for quarterbacks.

Staying on the offensive side of the ball, Georgia reciever A.J. Green is tempting for Cincinnati, especially if neither Owens or Johnson return. (We know Owens wont, whether Johnson will remains to be seen). 

More likely, the Bengals will focus on defense. The best prospect defensively may be Patrick Patterson out of LSU, but again, his selection depends on Johnathan Joesph. If Joesph stays, which he tweeted he is inclined to do so, then a cornerback will no longer be a priority and either defensive tackle Marcell Dareus from Alabama or DE Cameron Jordan from California seem likely. 

As I have preached throughout the series, teams are more and more targeting fast defensive ends who can pressure the opposing quarterback. Last years' absence of quarterback pressure  makes Cameron Jordan a valuable asset for the Bengals.

Still, I wouldn't be surprised if Cincinnati traded down to stockpile picks.

One more thing to watch for: If Palmer does bolt and Cincinnati does't panic, look for them to take a quarterback early in the second round. 6'7 strong armed Ryan Mallet out of Arkansas would be an intriguing fit. 

Free Agency Farewells: Few

The biggest and most difficult free agency decision this off season will be choosing between Johnathan Joesph or Cedric Benson to use the franchise tag. Over at cincyjungle.com, the consensus is to tag Joesph as a shut-down cornerback is far more difficult to replace. I typically agree although the availability of LSU cornerback Patrick Patterson complicates things. So to does the fact that Derrell Revis' extravagant new deal bumped up the price for cornerbacks making Joesph nearly 2 million dollars more expensive than Benson. (The franchise tag is average of the top 5 highest paid players at that position).

Still, I find it hard to believe that the Bengals would let one of the premiere cornerbacks in the league walk. The

possibility does remain that Cincinnati could sign Joesph to a long term deal, but that depends on a new CBA and

doesn't seem particularly likely. 

Other than Joesph and Benson along with Terrell Owens, who they weren't going to re-sign anyway, the Bengals come out relatively unscathed. They already resigned offensive tackle Andrew Gardner and will probably look to lock other role players up as well. 

The focus for Cincinnati should be on Dhani Jones at middle linebacker. He is the leader of the defense and his resigning is almost a must. At 33 he showed no signs of aging, recording 125 tackles last season. 

One player of particular interest, especially to Colts fans should he not be resigned, is safety Chinedum Ndukwe. Not only does he have a wicked cool name, but the guy can play. He reminds me a lot of Melvin Bullit, a deserving starter in a backup role. Ndukwe had 55 tackles in only 12 games and recorded over 80 a few years back.

Cincinnati may try to retain him and may even make him a starter, but if not, given how depleted our secondary was, Ndukwe would be a great option were the price right.

One free agent acquisition scenario that might evolve in the coming months is a play by the Bengals for the Eagles' Kevin Kolb. Philadelphia likes Kolb, but Kolb wants to start and given Michael Vick's year, that seems unlikely. Kolb is a luxury for the Eagles, but if Cincinnati dangles enough in front of them, say a second and third, Kolb might suddenly become expendable. Just a thought.

 

Premature Glimpse to the Future: To premature to be even remotely premature

Given the total uncertainty surrounding the Bengals there is no way anyone can predict what might happen. With team it wouldn't do much good anyway considering many pundits thought the Bengals were a playoff contender. If Palmer and Johnson stay and 2 of the 3 free agents - Jones, Joesph, Benson - stay, then this could be a very good team again. If not and either Palmer or Johnson leave or both (unlikely), the Cincinnati could easily wind up with a higher pick then they have now. The dominos will fall once the Carson Palmer fiasco is resolved and the Bengals know their quarterback. 

With Palmer and Johnson (who besides my ochocinco rants I do really like) in the mix, Cincy can win 10 games. Without Palmer 5 is more realistic. If neither returns, a run at Carolina's record is suddenly a possibility. 

Threat to the Stampede: Low, Medium, High 

Traveling to Cincinnati, especially if the weather is bad, is never easy. Depending on what happens regarding everything mentioned above, Cincinnati could be a really tough road game for the Colts or it could be a walkover. 

Right now I am inclined to say the game will trend towards the less challenging side because after all we are the Colts and we make winning in the regular season look easy. 

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