With one second left in the third quarter, the three-point lead the Bengals had accumulated over the Chargers dangled by an unraveling string. It had only taken San Diego three plays to get to midfield on the drive and Phillip Rivers could smell a come-from-behind, playoff-preserving win brewing in the background. He wanted another big chunk of yardage and went to his back-up tight end, Randy McMichael, on a deep crossing route. A catch would have put the Chargers on the Bengals' 35-yard line and would have edged themselves into easy field-goal range. A catch would have carried the drive further on its tour de force through Bengal territory and probably would have culminated into a go-ahead touchdown, but something went wrong.
McMichael stepped on the covering linebacker Rey Maualuga's back foot, and turned an ankle in the process. McMichael pulled up lame while Maualuga carried on and plucked the ball from the air. It wasn't a great throw, and probably would have ended incomplete at the very least if McMichael hadn't injured himself, but once Rey Rey picked off that pass and followed Reggie Nelson's instructions 47 yards the other way, the entire complexion of both team's futures changed in an instant.
The Chargers still made a game of it by kicking a field goal and pulling the score to within seven points inside of eight minutes left in the game, but then something else went wrong for the Bolts. In a play reserved for pee-wee football, the Bengals broke their huddle quickly and sprinted into formation. The Chargers lagged for a moment as they lined up to defend. The ball was snapped before the right corner was set, Jerome Simpson ran down the sidelines unguarded, Carson Palmer threw an easy deep pass, and the Bengals assassinated the Chargers' season.
It's moments like these that have been conspicuously absent all season in Cincinnati.
If someone were to ask me why the Bengals have performed so much better without their superstar wide-outs, I would say it's because the game-plan has become more simple. How many times this season have we seen Chad Ochocinco with his palms turned up wondering what Carson was thinking? How many times did Palmer make bad decisions trying to force Terrell Owens the ball? With these new guys -- the unproven guys -- there are no option routes to choose incorrectly on and there is no one receiver that simply must get the ball for the game plan to succeed. With this new bunch, who ever is open gets the pass. None of these guys are going to come back to the huddle complaining they didn't get the ball.
What is humorous is that when Terrell Owens became too hurt to play, the offense excelled. When Chad Ochocinco couldn't play, it was even better. There could not be a more perfect example in the world of the dangers of over-thinking one's self as this season has provided. Last year's model was criticized for being too basic, yet its simplicity somehow surprised the NFL enough to get them into the playoffs. It wasn't complex, but it knew what it was. This year's version was supposed to be the upgraded, big-boy offense that would surge the team to an even higher plateau and make the Bengals a Super Bowl contender, yet all it did was confuse the offense into believing it was something that it wasn't and resulted into more failure and embarrassment.
The funniest part, however, is that Cedric Benson, the team's bell-cow and work-horse all rolled into one strange animal, was the worst offensive player last Sunday. If this team truly is a run-first team that enjoys power and brute force, why is it the offense succeeded when Benson averaged 2.2 yards on 24 carries and fumbled the ball away?
The answer is because the backups are better on this team.
The more Bernard Scott gets a chance within the offense, the more he justifies my continuous rants about getting him more playing time. As both men progress in their careers, it becomes increasingly difficult to identify exactly what Benson brings to the table that Scott does not. Perhaps Scott can't physically hold up to 300 carries in a season when Benson has done so in back-to-back years, but that's the only leg Cedric has to stand on in the comparison. Even outside of Scott being a more explosive runner who catches the ball better and has faster straight-line speed, the fact is, Scott averages more yards per carry, hasn't fumbled seven times this season, and suits the athletic offensive line better with his skill set. While there may have been a multitude of factors outside of his control -- a better coordinator, underachieving line play, an organizational resistance to commit to the run -- I still expected a better season from Benson than the one he turned in this year. He went from a very good runner to a pretty decent one, and from my vantage point, not good enough to resign.
As for the receivers, the young ones improve Palmer's play. There is no reason why he and Ocho should not know each other back and forth. This, to me, seems like a clear case of working with one person for too long. Their dynamic is old and stale and each man seems to think he knows the play better than the other. Jerome Simpson might be Chad all over again, only taller with enormous hands. His recent game time has been a breath of fresh air for fans and quarterback alike. Finally, this guy is beginning to justify his high draft pick and has earned himself much more attention heading into next season.
Andre Caldwell doesn't have the potential that Simpson does, but might be more reliable with Palmer right now than two men are who are heading to Canton. I don't feel Caldwell is capable of a whole lot more than what we've seen already, but he has had some hallmark plays when he gets a chance. When Chris Henry broke his arm, and Laveranues Coles proved to be a bust, a lot of pressure was placed on "Bubba". He never lived up to a second-receiver's productivity and that put him in the back seat of a crowded a receiver corps coming into this season. Despite his lack of snaps in 2010, though, it really seems like the guy takes his job seriously and has some kind of report with Palmer.
The crown jewel of the Bengals passing future, though, is the studly tight end, Jermaine Gresham. Here is the man who the offense should be built around for the next few years to come. He has flashed serious skill throughout the year and really strutted his stuff against the Chargers last weekend. He has many good things going for him, but his best attribute is catching the ball in traffic. More than once, he has wrestled the ball away from defenders in the end-zone without demonstrating much effort in the process. His routes aren't yet sterling, but are still easy to work with, and he has shown himself to be a tough lad to bring down. He has surpassed the 50-catch mark this season and was only shutout in one game -- due to him missing the week's practice because of a death in the family. Gresham is composed of all-pro materials and is the kind of blue-chip prospect that is rare in professional football. More than perhaps any other draft pick other than Palmer, Gresham has the best chance to be the only truly great player drafted by Marvin Lewis. There is no reason why that shouldn't come true.
Even Cedric Peerman made an appearance last week. All that was missing was a Chase Coffman reception. In a paradox that only makes sense with the Bengals, the younger the player, the more dependable for Palmer they become. I still don't believe that Owens and Ocho are slouches who don't put in the necessary work to succeed, but there is something to the men who back them up that appear much more workman-like than the television stars.
All of this opinion, though, leads to the big question: what about Palmer? A few weeks ago I was calling for a new quarterback in 2011 and now it seems like I'm his boy again, right? Well, sort of. It's regular practice in this town -- and not just with the Bengals -- that teams who struggle for the majority of the year excite their fans toward the season finale by playing, and finding some success, with the young guys once their respective team has been eliminated from the postseason. That is what's happening here. I'm reserving my optimism of these pups to some degree because I've seen this movie before. If training camp wraps up next year and no receiver has more than three years under his belt, will you be comfortable with that? As good as these guys looked against San Diego, how do we know they can be trusted for a whole season? No one can trust a group of young players to fully maximize their potential with the current coaching staff. And if the players around Palmer aren't improving, there's a fat chance that he will get better himself.
That said, there aren't capable quarterbacks just out there for the plucking. If you're in the camp of drafting a QB, you'd better have a new coordinator to work with, and even then, unless he's a really good rookie, the youngster probably won't learn the NFL game fast enough to make the playoffs in his first year -- not every draft supplies a Sam Bradford. So how many seasons are you willing to forgo before becoming a legitimate offense? If you want to test the free-agent market for a quarterback, there are countless examples of why that rarely works. One need not look further than Jake Delhomme to see the tragic results a journeyman quarterback typically produces.
So ultimately, I'm not in a hurry to run Palmer out of town. If he wants out, like he perhaps hinted at with local reporters recently, than he should have the opportunity to explore his options, but if he wants to stay on and try out the next generation, he may get it right this time.
There is still a long way to go before we're faced with such possibilities, but it is comforting to know that there is a chance the new guys can be a quality offense sooner than later.
On the defensive side, for unexplained reasons, this unit appears more inspired. Reggie Nelson looked active, involved and somewhat aggressive last game for maybe the first time all year. Similar to the receiving corps, the younger backups along the defensive line are getting to the opposing quarterback way more often than their aged predecessors were, magnifying the uselessness of Robert Geathers, Tank Johnson and Antwan Odom. Carlos Dunlap and Geno Atkins have given Mike Zimmer something of a pass-rushing fire that simply didn't exist earlier in the year, and Michael Johnson still seems like he has more room to grow.
It was most refreshing to see Maualuga step up and make a big play, and elevate himself to an above-average linebacker. It was just a couple of years ago when he was making big plays every week at USC, but either the pro game has taken more time than he expected or he just isn't being coached all that well. Regardless, he looked like his college self returning the ball into Chargers territory on that crucial interception and, for all intents and purposes, won the game for his team.
All in all, it was a delight to watch a the Bengals deal the coup de grâce to the San Diego Chargers last week. Not since the mythical Bears game from last year did the team look so prepared, and for the second week in a row, the team was not out-coached. For one lasting moment, this was not a team of should-have-been but rather one of will-be. A peek at the future was revealed and it really didn't look too bad at all. If only this were next year, there would still be three more games to see the "New Bengals" in action, but as it is, we have only the Baltimore Raisins to showcase the future against. In regards to the Chargers game, though, I speak for my fellow Bengal brethren when I say to the team thank you and what took you so damn long?
Mojokong—the living and the frozen.