Friday, November 6, 2009

Welcome to the Jungle

The times they are a-changin’. The Yankees are back on top of the world, Justin Timberlake and Jessica Biel have entered Splitsville, and the Cincinnati Bengals are 5-2. That’s right, my Bengals are sitting atop the AFC North Division, half way through the NFL season. It’s shocking, it’s exciting, and in many ways, it’s extremely surprising.

After being followed around all of training camp on the HBO series Hard Knocks, this Bengals team entered the season with more eyes on them then they have ever had before. The NFL’s perpetual under-achievers (with apologies to 2005) were watched by millions this off-season, with everyone wondering whether they could put it all together, or wallow in a haze of failure and mediocrity, just like they had so many years before. Needless to say, they haven’t disappointed so far, roaring out of the gate like a team possessed. But how shocking is their start? What about their start has been the most surprising? Where are they going from here? Only one man could have the answers to all of these questions…ME!!!

What makes me so qualified? Well, I spend more time reading about, watching, and researching this team than I do sleeping, I have an easier time remembering our quarterback Carson Palmer’s birthday (Dec. 27) than I do my own sister’s (umm…May 16?), I get more excited for Sunday than anything else in my life (I swear – it’s actually kind of disturbing), and – most importantly – because no one else is writing this article, so I win by default. Let’s take a look.

Not Surprising:
First things first, let’s examine the parts of the Bengals season thus far that haven’t really been too shocking.

#1 – Effort
This team worked their tails off all of last season, and only had four wins to show for it. Even after starting 0-8, they came out every week and worked hard, never giving up on the team or the season. There was no doubt in my mind that they would come out this season and give it their all, every game, win or lose. You could certainly question the Bengals’ effort in years past, but not with this group. They bring it every week, and that won’t be changing any time soon.

#2 – Andre Caldwell
The second-year receiver has become the clutch, go-to-guy for the Bengals on third downs and late in games, taking over for the departed TJ Houshmandzadeh. He caught the game-winning touchdown passes against both the Steelers and the Ravens, and has made countless other big catches this year. But after spending all offseason working out with QB Carson Palmer, it’s not too surprising to see chemistry between the two. Caldwell is going to be a huge factor for the Bengals, not only this season, but for many years to come. Fortunately, he has already shown that he is committed to the program and committed to helping this team win. We can only hope things continue to move in this direction.

#3 – Brad St. Louis
You have to take the good with the bad, and Brad St. Louis is as bad as it gets. The Bengals long-snapper was far and away the worst player on this team entering the season, and he made his presence known. In the first five games, St. Louis had six bad snaps, resulting in numerous missed field goals and extra points. Every single time he touched the ball, Bengals fans everywhere were holding their breath. For a team that was making their living on close games, St. Louis was putting them in jeopardy week after week. I have been questioning him since the AFC Wild Card game in ’05 and calling for his release since losing a game against the Broncos ona bad snap at the end of ’06 (keeping us out of the playoffs). For the past three seasons, I’ve been telling anyone that would listen just how bad this guy has been, and the botched snaps had obviously taken a mental toll on his ability to perform in the clutch…or ever. Fortunately, the team finally replaced him before Week 6, and we haven’t had any problems since.

#4 – Andre Smith
Once again, you have to take the good with the bad. Last April, I was praying that we would avoid drafting the offensive tackle with the 6th pick in the ’09 Draft. I was hoping for tackles Eugene Monroe or Michael Oher (both of whom were available), but drafting Smith was my biggest fear. Why? Well, he made a bunch of stupid decisions in college, and I just had this feeling that he would hold-out of training camp for a better contract and then finally report to the team completely out of shape. And in fulfillment of my greatest prediction ever, Smith missed basically all of preseason trying to get a better contract, weighed about 647 pounds when he finally joined the team, and promptly broke his foot before you could say "Doritos". He has yet to dress for a game this season, and I’m not the least bit surprised.

#5 – Carson Palmer
The least surprising aspect of the Bengals early success is actually the most important aspect as well: Carson Palmer. The mild-mannered QB is the straw that stirs the drink for Cincy, the one guy that gives us a chance to win every game that we play. If Carson is playing, the Bengals always have a shot. If not, our chances go way, way down. After missing 12 games last year with an injured elbow, Palmer is back at the helm for the Bengals, and his fearless attitude in the 4th quarters of games is the main reason why this team is in first place. He is as cool under pressure as MacGyver, and he gets better and better with each passing week. As long as Carson stays healthy, the Bengals outlook will remain bright.

Somewhat Surprising:
There’s always going to be something in the middle, right?

#1 – The Defense
The defensive side of the ball was one of the few bright spots from last year’s team. After a full season under coordinator Mike Zimmer and a few key additions through free agency and the draft, many of us had high hopes for the defense coming into Week 1. So far, they have been slightly better than advertised, including being 5th in the league against the run and spectacular on third downs. Their stats against the pass are a little lower than one would like, but a lot of that can be attributed to their ability to shut down the run. Guys like Rey Maualuga and Chris Crocker have brought a swagger to this team that hasn’t been felt since the Super Bowl years, and their inspired effort in the Baltimore game just days after defensive coordinator Zimmer’s wife passed away was nothing short of incredible. In a division against tough teams like the Ravens and Steelers, a staunch ‘D’ will help to carry a team, which is exactly what the Cincy defense has done. We thought they’d be good, but not this good. Let’s hope it continues.

#2 – Cedric Benson
If Carson Palmer has been the number 1 reason for the Bengals success this season, then Cedric Benson is 1b. By now, the story is well know: taken 4th overall by the Chicago Bears in the 2005 draft, Benson spent three tumultuous seasons in the Bears system before getting run out of town for a lack of productivity and an abundance of alcohol related arrests. But Benson has recreated himself in Cincinnati and has been bowling over defenses this season. He had 141 yards against Green Bay, 120 against a staunch Ravens defense, and 189 yards against his former employers. Before entering the bye week, Benson led the league in rushing and attempts with 720 yards on 164 carries, and five touchdowns to go with it. However, his performance has only been somewhat surprising, thanks to his impressive showing through 12 games with the Bengals last season. Following the Bengals signing of Benson in Week 5 of 2008, he racked up 747 yards to end the year, running hard for a bad team. He had earned himself a spot as the unquestioned top back on the depth chart for this season, and has turned it into something amazing. We knew we had something good with Ced, but we didn’t know it would be this good.

Surprising:
As well as I know this team, the 5-2 first-place start has shocked even me. And that wasn’t the only surprising thing thus far.

#1 – The Offensive Line
Coming into this season, the Bengals’ O-Line was the biggest question mark on the team. With three new starters and a former starter in a new position, the outlook wasn’t looking too sweet at the start of the year. Nevertheless, the offensive line has been extremely impressive through the first half, opening up monster holes for Benson to run through and giving Carson plenty of time. The Bengals are 6th in the league in sacks allowed, giving up only 11 sacks to this point. Aside from a few stupid holding penalties, the offensive line has played spectacularly…and 6th overall pick Andre Smith hasn’t even played a single snap yet.

#2 – Leon Hall
For me personally, the play of Leon Hall might be the most surprising thing this year. The third-year cornerback has really come into his own this season, living up to his status as the 18th overall pick in the ’07 Draft. I have been pretty critical of Hall in the past, partly because I thought he had underperformed, and partly because he went to Michigan. But so far this season, Hall has shut down big-name receivers such as Brandon Marshall, Greg Jennings, Santonio Holmes, Braylon Edwards, and Derrick Mason. On top of that, Hall has three interceptions, two forced fumbles, and 10 passes defended. But even with all of those stats, Hall is rarely talked about as one of the better corners in the league. In fact, he’s not talked about much at all…which I think is a very good thing. The more a corner stays under the radar – the more weeks that go by without his name being mentioned – the higher the probability that Hall is playing well. Cornerbacks are similar to lineman in the sense that the less you hear about them, the better they are. If linemen give up sacks or commit penalties, you hear about it. If they do their job and block their man, they go unmentioned. If a cornerback is heard from, he’s usually making tackles after catches or getting burnt in coverage. If he goes unmentioned, it’s because no one is open or the quarterback is afraid to throw passes his way. So the less we hear about Leon, the happier I’ll be.

#3 – The Ocho
Chad Ochocinco. The artist formerly known as Johnson. The most complex man on the planet, the Benjamin Linus of the NFL, the crowned king of Twitter. At this time last season, I would have gladly traded Chad to the Detroit Lions or the Oakland Raiders or any other crappy team for a 7th round pick and a bag of Funions. Now? Chad is back to his old self, his old antics, and once again has the city of Cincinnati in the palm of his hand. Last season, all he did was whine about being a Bengal and have his worst season since joining the league. This season, he is the ultimate teammate, doing whatever he can for the team and putting up Pro Bowl numbers once again. He is in the top 10 in nearly every major receiving category, including being tied for 3rd in touchdowns. But even more important than that, he is finally happy again. You can’t turn on ESPN for more than a couple hours without Chad popping up somewhere, talking about his next TD celebration and how the Bengals are going to the playoffs. You can say all the bad things you want about the man (and trust me, I have) but it’s impossible not to realize that the team is better off when Chad is the media darling we came to know in the past. He brings a swagger and a confidence to this team that few people in the league can. But there’s more. What is different this year is that it feels like Chad has finally bought into the concept of being a good teammate. Even in years past, when “Chad was being Chad”, he still wasn’t a team player. Now, all of the sudden, he’s defending his teammates and his team to Skip Bayless (or anyone else that will listen) like his life depends on it. He even partnered up with Motorola to help sell out the Week 6 game against the Texans, showing up at the stadium at 11 a.m. (on a Saturday) to hand out 600 pairs of free tickets to waves of adoring fans. Maybe something finally clicked in that complex brain of his, and he has seen the light and the bigger picture. Or maybe he is doing all of this to get a big contract with the Dallas Cowboys next year. I really don’t know. And as long as he keeps us in first place, I don’t really care either.

#4 – The Football Gods
This is the big one, the Grand Poobah, the Belle of the Ball. The single most shocking, unbelievable, incomprehensible thing about this Bengals season has not been Chad, has not been the offensive line, the defense, or Cedric Benson. The most surprising thing about this year for the Orange & Black has been that finally, after years of being cursed something awful, the Football Gods are finally smiling on the Cincinnati Bengals. This is simply something that hasn’t happened in the past 20+ years in Cincinnati. Karma has rarely, if ever, swung in our favor. Good things just didn’t happen to the Bengals. Ever. Our fullback going on a cocaine binge the night before the Super Bowl was the kind of thing that happened. Our stud quarterback having his left knee imploded on the second play of our first playoff game since January of 1991 was the kind of thing that happened. David Klingler, Ki-Jana Carter, Akili Smith; those were the kind of things that happened. Even an 87-yard, tipped pass, miracle catch and run, game winning touchdown against the Bengals in Week 1 of this season are the kind of things that happen to the Bengals. But since then? Cincy won four straight games that went down to the wire, including three against their AFC North opponents. Add to that a 35-point blow-out win over the Bears, and it is obvious that whatever grudge the Spirits of the Gridiron had against the Bengals may finally be over. The Bengals never, ever, ever had things bounce their way. This season, it happens on a weekly basis. I can’t explain it, and I don’t know why it’s finally happening for us. I’m shocked – and I just hope it continues. I really, really, hope it continues.

Where do we go from here?:
The Bengals have showed a tenacity and resiliency that has been non-existent over most of the past two decades. They finally believe in themselves, believe they could and should win every game they play. Add to that some good fortune (knock on wood) and this team looks prized to make a run at the division title. The biggest test will be in the next two games, when the Bengals face the Ravens at home and Steelers on the road. If we sweep those games, the rest of this year is cream cheese. If we split them (hopefully beating the Steelers in this scenario), we will still be in pretty good shape. If we get swept, we have a great chance to make up that ground against the Raiders, Browns, and Lions in the next three games. With a late season game against the atrocious Kansas City Chiefs and winnable games against the struggling Chargers and Jets, the Bengals should be in perfect position to control their own destiny. If things work out, we can pat ourselves on the back and thank the Football Gods for finally changing their minds. If things don’t work out, we have only the man in the mirror to blame.

Everyone in Cincinnati is thinking playoffs. We’re hoping playoffs. We can smell it, taste it, see it sitting there off in the distance. It just seems like it’s in the cards for the Bengals this season. We finally believe. We finally have a team that we trust. We’d be shocked if somehow, for some reason, it didn’t work out - and we don't want to be shocked. We’ve already had enough surprises for one year.



Thanks for reading