I'm really not trying to be overdramatic here, and I'm definitely not going for a "sky is falling" resignation to the season. The Bengals could still contend if they fix a few things.
However, the 2011 offseason is looming conspicuously over this team for several reasons. The first, of course, is the new CBA and the potential of a lockout. This affects every team, and the Bengals are no exception. It will affect the way we draft, the way we sign free agents, and the way we look at our coaching situation.
The second huge point is Marvin Lewis. He remains conspicuously un-signed to a new extension. This is unusual; coaches don't usually find themselves as free agents. They leave a team because they retire, resign or get fired. What's going on with Lewis and the negotiations? We'll see...
The third part is the draft, which is particularly interesting given Carson Palmer's struggles. For the first time since he got drafted in 2003, the general media have been critical about his ability to continue as a starter. Folks here are all over the place on him, running the gamut from "He'll get back to Pro Bowl form any day now, and he'll lead us to glory if he gets a better O-line" to "he's absolutely done, and we can't take the next step with him as the starter." I'm somewhere in between, but Ken Zampese probably knows better than anyone.
So let's address those situations one by one.
The lockout is sort of self explanatory. There will be a 2011 draft, but if there's no new CBA by then, there will be a whole lot more drafting for upside and a lot less looks at "NFL-ready" players, since guys will get extra time to develop if they start working with the team in, say, the fall of 2011 but don't play games until 2012. Re-signing cornerbacks Jonathan Joseph and Leon Hall could get really tricky here; JonJo is a free agent this spring, and Hall is one in 2012.
As for the coaching situation, it's going to get really dicey. We're all pretty sure about the biggest thing holding up negotiations: Marvin wants more control and/or and indoor practice facility. Mikey doesn't want to give it to him. This is probably on hold for a little while longer now that the season has begun, but let's look at the options. Marvin wants to stay, so if Mikey bends, that's what'll happen. If Brown's stubbornness wins out, Marvin will walk away pretty quickly. He wants a head coaching job with control, and after bringing the team back from a 4-11-1 record, he has leverage elsewhere. Plus, we know Mike isn't throwing more money at Marvin to keep him here because a) he's a
cheap SOB frugal owner and b) there's another talented coach waiting in line that the city loves.
Enter the next factor here, who throws everything off, Mike Zimmer. Zim is fantastic at getting the most effort possible out of his players. He is respected by every player on that team, and he is coveted by many a franchise. He just signed a 3-year extension. He's probably the favorite to replace Marvin if Brown doesn't bend. He also happens to be somewhat close friends with offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski, who is... well, let's just say he's not as universally revered as Zimmer is.
Bratkowski is probably the second most reviled figure in Bengaldom right now (of course distantly behind Mike Brown), mostly due to what is perceived as a complete lack of play-calling prowess. However, it might be unlikely for him to be fired as long as Zimmer is in town, and especially improbable if Zim is hired as head coach. If Lewis stays in charge, it's more likely. If someone else comes in, he'll probably clean house.
As for the quarterback situation, Palmer needs to start being responsible for wins in order to maintain confidence from the coaches (and by confidence, I mean more than the passing "Carson is our quarterback" from Marvin). So far he's had two pretty good statistical performances in a pair of losses, and two abysmal outings in which the rest of the team looked like it won in spite of him. He has yet to truly win a game for Cincinnati in 2010. Whether you think he's simply the victim of a bad system/line or he's washed up, the team may look at quarterback in the offseason. The free agent market is thin besides aging stars and possibly Michael Vick, but the draft is deep. If the Bengals draft in the mid-to-late teens like they're positioned to do, a pretty good signal caller may fall into their hands. In my opinion, they have to take that opportunity if it comes, if for no other reason than to train the guy to be ready to take over for Palmer in 2013 (or sooner when Carson is inevitably injured). The only other huge needs for the draft are safety, right tackle (unless Andre Smith improves) and interior offensive linemen, all of which can be adequately addressed in rounds 2-4 or through free agency.
So, what do you all think? I'm still focused on the 2010 season, but I'm pretty sure we'll be in for an interesting spring.