The biggest thing that makes an offense go is the offensive line. Every expert will tell you that if an offensive line can't protect the passer or open holes for the running back, the offense will struggle. The Bengals have what is considered one of the best quarterbacks in the league with Carson Palmer. When given time to throw, he is the biggest reason the offense has been feared recently. OK, until last season when the offense finished dead last in the total offense category and averaged less than 13 points a game. That was obviously due to injuries to not only Carson, but also to the offensive line leaving Marvin Lewis and Offensive Coordinator Bob Bratkowski to move players around and put them into positions that were unfamiliar.
The best Bengals offensive line in recent memory was the 2005 line of Willie Anderson, Levi Jones, Rich Braham, Eric Steinbeck and Bobbie Williams. That line was able to protect Carson at a level that only Peyton Manning enjoys as Palmer was sacked a total of 19 times and then able to open holes for Rudi Johnson allowing him to gain a team leading 1438 yards rushing. And when Braham went down due to injury, Steinbeck moved over into Braham's position and Scott Kooistra moved into Steinbeck's spot, allowing the offense to not miss a beat. That continuity allowed the offense to continue to play at a feared level, giving us Bengals fans a chance to enjoy something that has rarely been experienced in the past 20 years.
The majority of that stalwart line is for this year, well, not around. Willie Anderson was released after 2007. Levi Jones met the same fate this past offseason, Rich Braham retired after the 2005 season ended, and Eric Steinback signed with the Cleveland Browns in 2007. Only two members of the 2005 offensive line remain. Williams, who has not started in only 3 games out of 81 possible games since arriving in 2004, and Kooistra, who has been with the Bengals since being drafted in 2003. Andrew Whitworth, who returns from last year's beleaguered line, has been with the Bengals since 2006.
Coming into this season, Marvin and Bratkowski have their work cut out for them as they decide who should be starting on the offensive line due to the level of experience. Williams and Whitworth figure to be starters due to their experience with the offense, and possibly Kooistra, who has spent most of his time with the Bengals as a backup. But that is when it gets thin. Everyone expects 1st round draft pick Andre Smith to start at tackle, but he has not signed yet. The early report on him after OTA's is he is above expectations but still lagging in other areas. With the departure of Eric Ghiaciuc, the offensive line lost the most playing experience at the center position. It is now up to 2nd year pro Kyle Cook who has played only on special teams for 5 full games before injuring his toe last season. He was on the practice squad for his rookie season. The other option is Dan Santucci, who was drafted in the seventh round of the 2007 and was later cut before that season started, resigning with the Bengals a week later. His playing experience is 2 games on special teams in '07 and was placed on IR (ok, who wasn't) last season after a high ankle sprain in the first preseason game of year.
The center position is considered the quarterback of the offensive. His job is to call out the blocking schemes for each play. Call the wrong scheme and this could cause a missed assignment allowing the defense easy penetration into the offensive backfield which could cause a sack of the quarterback or a loss of yardage by tackling the running back in the backfield. Rich Braham set the standard for future Bengal centers that was not met by Ghiaciuc or any other center since Braham's retirement. There was talk that Lewis and Bratkowski were considering moving either Bobbie Williams or Whitworth to the center position due to their knowledge of the rather complicated offense. But this in not their natural position and could leave the line even more vulnerable. If the Bengals move Williams to center, it will leave 2nd year pros Dennis Roland and Anthony Collins along with Andre Smith to fill Williams's position. Filling Whitworth's spot - if he is moved from guard to center - would also leave the guard position thin as the experience of those currently listed on the roster, aside from Kooistra, having 2 or less years of NFL experience.
A lot of expectations are surfacing for this edition of the Bengals. With a defense that showed much improvement late last season, the return of a healthy Carson Palmer and the arrival of Laveranues Coles to fill T.J. Houshmandzadeh's position, this group has been getting attention from the prognosticators. But what could unravel these expectations is the offensive line and its lack of experience. Chemistry is the key in this situation and the sooner it develops between them (increasing Carson's comfort level) this team could overcome the lack of experience on the o'line giving the Bengals a chance at competing for a playoff spot instead of continuing the dreary history of this franchise.