> When agimpy Carson Palmer can throw for 4,035 yards, as he did last year, for a teamthat blew two games on special teams gaffes, it's easy to picture Cincinnatimaking its second playoff appearance in three years. In training camp thissummer Palmer looked picture-perfect and more mobile than last fall. Look forhim to be closer to the 68% passer he was in 2005 than the 62% he was lastyear. With Chris Henry suspended by the NFL for half the season after fourarrests in seven months, Palmer will turn to Chad Johnson even more on deepballs. The Bengals will need to score plenty because the defense, with theexception of rookie cornerback Leon Hall, isn't any better this year.
> Biggestquestion about the Bengals leaguewide: How can a team with this talent havegone 8-8 in three of the past four years? Answer: Maybe they're not as talentedas people think.
Or maybe, asPalmer believes, there are fixable flaws late in important games. Cincinnati,needing one win in the last two games to make the playoffs, lost in Denver on abotched extra-point snap and fell to Pittsburgh when kicker Shayne Grahamshanked a 39-yard field goal attempt. Boom--a 10-6 wild-card season becomes an8-8 lead balloon. "The good teams play great some weeks," Palmer says."The great teams play great every week. It makes me grind my teeth when Ithink about the breakdowns we've had."
To that end,Palmer walked into coach Marvin Lewis's office early in the off-season andhanded him a book by Capt. Michael Abrashoff. It's Your Ship: ManagementTechniques from the Best Damn Ship in the Navy describes how a lacklustervessel became a model for the fleet thanks to a captain who empowered his crewto want to be the best. "It's a significant book with a good story for afootball team," Lewis says. "[Abrashoff] took an underperforming group,had a vision and made it an exemplary ship."
Lewis hasstressed just such a teamcentric message to his players, emphasizing thatindividual success doesn't necessarily mean victory. "Last year, coming offa division championship, was a great lesson," Lewis says. "Dealing withsuccess, dealing with players wanting new contracts--I don't think we dealtwith that well at all. They need to understand that quality preparation duringthe week makes Sundays easier and gives us a better chance to win. The messagenow is, Just play your butt off and good things will happen, both for youpersonally and for the team."
No doubt goodthings will happen on offense, even after the speed threat out of thebackfield, rookie Kenny Irons, tore his left ACL in the first preseason gameand was lost for the year. Rudi Johnson still gives Cincinnati a reliableevery-down back. (He's averaged more than 1,400 yards over the last threeseasons.) A competent, pile-driving left guard, Stacy Andrews, should be O.K.as the departed Eric Steinbach's heir. When your biggest concern on offense isreplacing Henry as the third receiver (Tab Perry or college sprinter BennieBrazell will assume the role), it's a sign that your offense, eighth in scoringin '06, should be just as effective.
Part of thatassured feeling is Palmer's being more comfortable this year after gutting outa 2006 season that kicked off just 34 weeks after major knee reconstruction."Last year was frustrating," says Palmer. "I missed three passesagainst Atlanta [in a 29-27 loss] I should have completed in my sleep. Myrhythm just was a little off all year. Passes I might normally hit 10 out of10, I was hitting seven of 10 last year. I feel so much better this yearbecause I've been able to practice and throw like I normally do."
Curiously, otherthan drafting Hall, the Bengals did precious little to improve a 30th-rateddefense. The teams they'll have to beat for AFC supremacy--New England,Indianapolis and San Diego--strafed them for 38, 34 and 49 points,respectively, last year. That inaction could haunt them in December.
Defensive endJustin Smith is a nice fellow, a hard-tryer, a soft-spoken, cog-in-the-machinetype that every defense wishes it had. But he is not a franchise player, notwhen he has averaged seven sacks and 44 tackles a season in his six years. Heis, however, the closest thing the Bengals have to a great player on defense.(Who did you think we were going to anoint here? Domata Peko? Rashad Jeanty?)It's great to have a 4,000-yard quarterback, but if your defense issurrendering a league-worst 3,818 passing yards--as Cincinnati did--isn't thata wash? The Bengals needed to improve their front seven, but instead ofentering the Joey Porter sweepstakes they settled for a linebacking retread,Edgerton Hartwell, whose last two years were plagued by injury.
If young playerslike Hall and second-year middle linebacker Ahmad Brooks don't mature in ahurry on that defense, all the naval lessons in the world aren't going to makethis the best damn ship in the NFL.
(M) Monday (S)Saturday
23 at Seattle
1 NEW ENGLAND(M)
14 at KansasCity
21 N.Y. JETS
4 at Buffalo
9 ST. LOUIS
15 at SanFrancisco (S)
30 at Miami
Opponents' 2006winning percentage ...¬†.512
Games againstplayoff teams ... 6
AN OPPOSINGTEAM'S SCOUT SIZES UP THE BENGALS
> It reallyhurts that Kenny Irons is out for the year. The Bengals were smart to takeIrons to spell Rudi Johnson on third downs and give the offense some of thespeed it needs. Did anyone notice that Johnson's rushing average went downhalf-a-yard last year? He needs some quality relief. . . . No one gives WillieAnderson the credit he deserves for being a great right tackle in both the passand the run game. . . . I would love to see Marvin Lewis give Bennie Brazell 15snaps a game as the fourth wideout. He's got surprisingly good hands for atrack guy, and Carson Palmer is so accurate on deep throws. . . . There's noone on the defense who scares me--except maybe Ahmad Brooks, who looks like hemight develop into the kind of rangy middle linebacker Marvin has hadeverywhere he's coached.
THE KING 500
The first thingyou notice watching the first-round rookie from Michigan is how comfortable helooks. Smooth. In training camp the 5' 11", 199-pound Hall clung to ChadJohnson in coverage and didn't let the trash talk distract him. "Practicinghere is the best thing I could do to be ready to play in the league rightaway," Hall says. "When Carson throws it, if I'm not right there, it'llalways be complete."
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COACH MARVINLEWIS (35-29 in NFL), fifth season with Bengals
YARDS TD INTRATING
4,035 28 1393.9
HT 6' 5"
HT 6' 4"
HT 6' 4"
HT 6' 7"
HT 6' 5"
SACKS 10 1/2
SACKS 2 1/2
SACKS 7 1/2
> 2006 RECORD8-8 NFL RANK (Rush/Pass/Total): OFFENSE 26/6/8 DEFENSE 15/T-31/30
¬†GOINGDEEP¬†With his QB fully healthy, Chad will be hanging with the All-Prosagain.