There is a feeling in the air that has put a positive vibe in the Bengals locker room. Chad Ochocinco has proclaimed "we are going to the playoffs". Carson Palmer is comparing last season's feeling in the locker room to how "confident" this team feels this year. We know that Carson chooses his words wisely, never trying to inflame a situation. But Chad has a reputation for taking a stick and smacking the hornets' nest hoping not to get stung. These recent statements show how confident and optimistic they are. I, too, am an optimist; my wife will vouch for that. But folks, this is the Bengals.
Should we, the fans, be as optimistic as the team we support? Should we go around boasting how the Bengals are going to make the playoffs and go to the Super Bowl before training camp has even opened? I will leave that up to you to decide. But for me, I reserve the right to hold back my optimism; this is because of the history the team has established over the past decade and half.
The Bengals were active in the offseason making a number of changes to the roster in hopes of improving a team that makes the playoffs when the moon and stars align just right. Were the changes during the offseason good enough to support this optimism? I think so, but that is only on paper. Once things start on the field, this may tell a different story.
Despite not resigning T.J. Houshmandzadeh (and T.J. will be missed) they were able to sign a viable replacement in Laveranous Coles from the New York Jets. He had a good season last year catching 70 passes scoring 7 times, leading his team in that category. His longest play last season was 54 yards. His physical toughness has been typified as he led the league early in his career with 104 consecutive starts that ended mid-season 2007. Expect his number of catches to increase along with his number of TD's because of defenses looking to double cover Chad.
One of the more surprising moves was the signing of Tank Johnson from the Dallas Cowboys, who was released after a subpar season. The word though on Tank and his struggle at Dallas is that the style of defense was not to his liking as they run a 3-4 style of defense, versus the 4-3 system that both Bengals run along with the Chicago Bears (where Tank made his reputation as a defensive force). Putting him along side emerging Domata Peko could make the defensive front more formidable then previous seasons.
Also to help a defense that was starting to gel last season was the signing of Roy Williams, also from the Cowboys. The Bengals defensive coordinator, Mike Zimmer, was Williams's first defensive coordinator at Dallas. Williams was a 5 time Pro Bowler before suffering a fractured forearm early last season. His last full season, 2007, Williams was credited with 92 tackles, of which 73 were solo. He may become the run stopping safety that Bengals have been looking for.
What I consider the biggest surprise of the offseason was the drafting of Rey Maualuga, former USC teammate of Keith Rivers. He could become a force that the other teams who passed on him may grow to regret. He came out of college as a highly touted linebacker who is expected to challenge the incumbents for playing time. With Maualuga playing alongside Keith Rivers, they could provide a defensive line backing corps that should make the opposing offense's game plan around them.
But there are a couple areas of concern that should cause caution in displaying unbridled optimism - that is with the offensive line and Carson's elbow. Returning starters from last season's team are Andrew Whitworth and Bobbie Williams. To help with the offensive line, they drafted Andre Smith who should start but lacks experience with the offense. Currently the Bengals have only 2 centers on their roster with a total of 5 years experience between them, which could leave Carson vulnerable to up the middle blitzes. So the Bengals have a bit of a dilemma. Do they move Whitworth who has some experience with the center position or do they go with the inexperience of Dan Santucci or Kyle Cook? Whatever the decision is, the concern will be for them to keep Carson from taking too many hits or giving up to many sacks. If that is to occur, it could be a rough season for Palmer and company.
Carson has proclaimed his elbow healed without surgery and that he is throwing pain free. That all sounds good. But right now he is on a pitch count and not throwing as many passes in practice as he may have done in the past. This may be a preventive measure now, but come time for the start of the season, he may have to throw more often which may inflame the elbow again. And if this happens and he is forced to sit, the offense will suffer just as it did last season due to J.T. O'Sullivan's lack of experience with Bob Bratkowski's offense.
On paper, the Bengals look good. But don't all of the teams in the league prior to the start of the regular season. I like the fact that the Bengals feel confident and optimistic. That shows they are excited about the future and may have forgotten the past. But we have seen this before when expectations are high and the Bengals feel confident that they can match those expectations. Then the team somehow gets snake bit and they fall out of the playoff picture before mid season. Heartache then sets in for us fans when reality hits with the disappointment of another season of suffering. Yes, I did say I am an optimist and my wife will gladly answer anyone who challenges that. But I am also a realist and I will wait until mid-season before I start buying into the vibe that Carson and Chad are selling.