Thursday, August 20, 2009

Hard Knock Life

The great John Lennon used to sing, “Always something happening, but nothing going on.” I personally think they should put that quote on the entrance of Georgetown College, home of the Cincinnati Bengals annual training camp. In fact, you might as well make it the motto for every Bengals preseason. Why? Because year after year, the Cincinnati organization jacks up the interest of its fanbase with roster moves and team decisions that either make us shout with jubilation or scratch our heads until we bleed; our attention as fans is always drawn in to what’s happening. Unfortunately, once the season rolls around, we have historically been disappointed here in the Queen City, time and time again. Unfortunately, there is rarely something going on.

The sad truth is that for the most part, the preseason has been the bright spot of each Bengals season over the past two decades. Sure, there was the occasional ray of sunshine, whether it be the excitement surrounding the start of the “Marvin Lewis Era” in 2003 or the team’s AFC North Championship in 2005, but other than that, our training camp buzz has usually led to a season-long hangover. Much like Doc Gooden or Guns N’ Roses, we start out so promising, only to end up so devastatingly displeased. Around here, preseason is the best time to be a Bengals fan.

Over and over, we as Cincy followers are thrown into the torpedo that is our football season, and it always seems to end the same way: poorly. We get ourselves so invested and excited by the current events, that we fail to realize we are more than likely setting ourselves up for more heartbreak. It’s like when Ross and Rachel would get together or when Brett Favre retires from football; we all trick ourselves into believing that’s just the way things will stay, despite our deep-seated fear and suspicion that we’re probably wrong. The Bengals are notorious for those potholes of excitement with the potential to devastate us all. They are what musician Jack Johnson would refer to as “Inaudible Melodies”, and sadly, the impeding season is ripe with them.

The first red flag that pops up for the approaching year was brought on by the fact that the team played so terribly last season. After a 4-11-1 record that was spurred by an injured Carson Palmer and a disgruntled Chad Johnson, those of us in Cincinnati are just assuming that this year will have to be better. Palmer is coming back from his injury, Ochocinco appears to be in a much better mood, the defense is improved, we get running back Cedric Benson for the whole season, we made some nice offseason signings and draft picks…the list goes on and on. All of these signs point to the Bengals being more successful than they were last year, which obviously wouldn’t be remarkable, seeing as how we recorded only four wins. That down year in 2008 is only sparking our hopes and interest for this season. But can we really be sure that things will be any different? Are we digging our own graves yet again?

Another potential “Inaudible Melody” for the upcoming season is the HBO television series Hard Knocks: Training Camp with the Cincinnati Bengals. The annual HBO series has chosen this year to delve into the world of the Orange and Black, hoping to shed light on an organization that is a perpetual underdog and underachiever, and has often times gotten a bad-rap around the league. The show itself is very exciting for the Bengals organization and fans, because it gives an in-depth look at a program that is rarely on the national stage. People all over the country will now get a chance to see the Bengals and possibly change any ill opinions they have about the team. The show has a way of putting the organization in a positive light, making them intriguing and endearing in a way that no other team in the league will be able to experience this season. And while this could easily be the start of good things to come for Cincy this year, it could just as easily be another pitfall for Bengals fans everywhere, ebbing our worries and fears until they once again come crashing down upon us. How it all plays out remains to be seen, which is exactly what scares us the most.

Need more examples? How about first-round selection Andre Smith, who the Bengals felt was worthy of the sixth pick in the draft this spring. Hoping to bring in Smith to shore up a shaky offensive line from last season, the Bengals have yet again been able to create noise without making a sound; we are only a few weeks away from the regular season, and Smith still remains unsigned by the ball-club. He has already missed the team’s entire training camp, and each day it is looking more and more like he will miss the entire preseason. If and when he does sign on with the team, it will still be quite a few weeks (maybe months) before he is ready to contribute in a game situation. So why is the team’s first-round pick, the plan for the future at offensive tackle, still unsigned in the waning days of August? Well, the Bengals front office and Andre’s agent are reportedly about $5-$10 million apart on a contract deal. Now yes, first-round picks in the NFL are notoriously overpaid coming into the league. Despite the fact that they have never played a down of professional football, the early picks always come into the game as some of the highest paid players with the most guaranteed money in their contract. I don’t agree with this or think it is fair, but that’s irrelevant. It is what it is, and the Bengals had to know that they were going to have to fork over a lot of cash to get this kid signed. Or at least you would think so. Instead, management is piddling along in their negotiations, unwilling to bite the bullet and give Smith his money. The front office is allegedly offering less money than what the 7th and 8th overall picks signed for, not to mention that the Bengals are well known for their tight wallets and inability to sign first-round picks on time. So while it’s probably true that Andre is asking for more money than he deserves, the Bengals should have anticipated this. We as fans understand he’s going to be expensive, so why can’t the higher-ups? If Smith isn’t worth the money, why did they draft him where they did? Just get it over with and give the man his paycheck. Until then, it will be tough to get excited about the #6 pick when his spot in the team’s locker room remains completely barren. Everybody’s talking, but no one says a word.

The laundry list doesn’t stop there. Owner/General-Manager Mike Brown profusely stated that the Bengals had no interest in pursuing former Pro Bowl quarterback Michael Vick, fresh off two years in prison for dog-fighting. However, after Vick signed with the Philadelphia Eagles, news broke that the Bengals were the first team to offer him a contract. Why would Brown lie to us? What purpose did that serve? In the end, it didn’t really matter, because Vick signed elsewhere. But the news was just another example of a classic off-season Bengals move: There’s always something cooking, but nothing in the pot. The rollercoaster never seems to end.

When you add it all up, it’s obvious that this season is a very important one for the Cincinnati Bengals organization and its fans. The program has finally put its (poor) reputation on the line with the Hard Knocks series, exposing themselves nationally to football fans across America. After watching how they prepare for their season, aficionados of the sport all across the country will be watching to see how their year plays out. Mike Brown has one last-ditch effort to redeem himself. Marvin Lewis’s job is most likely on the line. Carson Palmer’s reputation and legacy is on the line as he attempts to get back to being a healthy, elite quarterback. Chad Ochocinco’s ego and future contract (with a different team) is on the line. There have even been whispers of the Bengals being a possible sleeper, finally returning to our playoff form of 2005. Now we just have to show some progress on the field. If everything goes well, the team could be seen in a new light, the fanbase could grow with new members, and the faithful and loyal followers could get the rewards and satisfaction we have been pining for. But, if everything goes the way of the past, it could get ugly…really ugly.

Could I handle it if the season does turn sour? Can I myself, along with so many other Bengals fans, suffer through yet another dreadful season? Well…yeah, probably. It’s just the nature of sports fans. There are still millions of Chicago Cubs fans out there, and they haven’t sniffed a championship in over a century. Why? Because once you commit to a team, you give them your soul. For this reason, I will always be a Bengals fan, regardless of how many horrendous seasons I have to suffer through – and I know I’m not alone. And on top of that, I will always be excited for a new season, always ready to sing along with those “Inaudible Melodies” that roll around each offseason.

Maybe I’m ignorant. Maybe I’m deranged. Or maybe, just maybe, my wishes will finally be fulfilled. Maybe success is right around the corner; maybe there truly is something going on. Because that’s the payoff to being a sports fan, to giving your soul to a team: eventually, the dice rolls in your favor. It has to. And that sunny day always feels a hell of a lot better after years of rainy ones.

I hope that day is now for the Bengals. In many ways, it needs to be now for the Bengals. And you never know, maybe it will be. Because as Mr. Lennon sang, “There’s a place for us in the movies, you just gotta lay around.” Maybe the Bengals have been laying around long enough, and the wait is finally over. It could happen. These certainly are “strange days indeed.”

And if not – if it all goes south yet again – it’s no big deal. There’s always next year…

Thanks for reading

I start school again in September, so I will get back to making regular posts every other week or so, and maybe more. Let the Arbitrary Judgment Nation rejoice.