The Bengals will return to '05 form in 2007. Write it down. Put it the time capsule. My March prediction, before the NFL Draft following a very boring free agency period, comes with great evidence.
First, the great evidence of reliable trends. The Bengals improved from 2-12 to 8-8 in 2003. This was an exciting season because of the obvious record improvement. And it was exciting because Carson Palmer didn't play a down yet and the possibilities that Marvin Lewis could bring, seemed endless. Palmer's first season, after sitting in 2003, made for high expectations in 2004. And in a lot of ways, 2004 was a good season because it marked the first back-to-back non-losing seasons since 1989-90. But in another way, the Bengals stalled by failing to compile a winning record. Not that it was disappointing; it was pretty expected to the realist.
Then came 2005. The Bengals finished the season at 11-5, winning the AFC North title and a playoff berth. It was the best record since 1988. It was the first playoff season since 1990; the same year the Bengals finished with their last winning season.
The follow up was marked for regression. So if we take trends, the Bengals should improve again to make the playoffs. We make tremendous strides during odd numbered seasons and regress/stall during even numbered seasons.
But that's ridiculous evidence. Yes, that's true. So let's examine the obvious. Injury.
Discussing their own injury plagued season, Hog Haven examined how much injury was a result. However, avoid the first comment if you can or you'll lose five points on your average IQ score.
The Bengals injuries, I really believe, were too much to overcome. The general counterpoint to an injury excuse is that good teams overcome and all teams deal with it. I disagree with that assumption... big time. First of all, how many times do we hear about successful teams able to avoid injury? And if you lose a large portion of your starting lineup, how realistic is it for any team to "deal with it" and still remain competitive? If Peyton Manning tears his ACL, do the Colts win a playoff game? If a team loses their entire offensive line, the quarterback would be killed. If a team loses its entire linebacker corp., then the defense will struggle to make any stops. There's a reason why starters are starters. There's a reason a backup player contributes mostly on Special Teams.
Injuries do have an adverse affect on a team's success. To suggest otherwise, while pointing out other teams deal with it, is very irrelevant. Fact is, if the Bengals lost Carson Palmer at any point in 2005, they're not 11-5 and struggle to even win the Wild Card. Fact is, the Bengals suffered too many injuries in 2006 to replay their 2005 successes. The most comforting feeling is that we lost a lot of good players and still remained in the playoff hunt up until the final game. That's the only relevance that exists.
A perfect example of injury affecting a team horribly is Cincinnati's 2006 season. Consider...
- When Rich Braham went down during the second week of the season, the Bengals offensive line struggled to regroup. It was musical linemen with Eric Steinbach playing center and moving to tackle when Levi Jones went down. Andrew Whitworth shinned considering he played against some of the league's best during his rookie season. The Bengals offensive line allowed 14 sacks in a three game stretch the moment Braham left the field. It took time to establish continuity. And they did -- in pass protection. After that three-game stretch, the offensive line allowed three sacks or more in only two games. However, compared to 2005 (19 sacks), the line's 2006 (37 sacks) performance was, at times, awful. I thank that to injury.
- More on the offensive line. Some proclaim that Rudi Johnson just didn't get it done last season. While there's some truth to that, it would show failure on other people's parts to examine all the facts. Rich Braham played his final career game during the second game. Levi Jones, the starting left tackle, missed nine games. Bobbie Williams, the starting right guard, missed three. While the line stabilized pass protection, they struggled to give Johnson the room he needed to repeat back-to-back record breaking seasons.
- Also consider, when reflecting Rudi Johnson's season, that Chris Perry missed 10 games from multiple injury spells. Without Perry to give Johnson a break, Rudi rushed on 78% of all the team's rushing plays. In 2005, the Bengals went 11-5 with Perry playing 14 games. He nearly broke the team's single-season receiving mark for a running back. In 2006, he was non-existent.
- Then you examine linebackers. Odell Thurman started the season suspended four games for violating the league's mysterious substance abuse policy. Later, Thurman was charged with a DUI at a checkpoint and his suspension expanded to a full season. David Pollack lost his season after a violent collision against the Cleveland Browns. His broken neck has put his football future very much in doubt. Brian Simmons missed five games with neck troubles. Rashad Jeanty missed four games leaving Caleb Miller, Landon Johnson, Andre Frazier and Ahmad Brooks as the only healthy linebackers. Nothing against those guys, but that's a serious downgrade at a critical spot on the defense.
T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Chris Henry, Antonio Chatman, Dexter Jackson and Deltha O'Neal all missed time for one reason or another.
Bring all the injured players back and healthy and this team could run circles around the '05 team.