The Bengals are going about this offseason in a very pragmatic fashion. The team's brain-trust seems to have a good understanding of the talent it has and of the parts it still needs to win the Super Bowl in 2010 (for all of those who scoffed or rolled their eyes to the last statement, remember that Cincinnati won their division last season and lost only minor personnel since then. To pretend they have no shot at a Super Bowl next season is the naïve perspective; not mine).
The headliner so far is the recently-acquired receiver, Antonio Bryant. While lacking the star-power name of Terrell Owens, Bryant makes sense from the Bengals' perspective. For starters he is seven years younger than TO, and can be more of a fixture in the team's future. I still think TO is a more reliable receiver than Bryant right now, but the thinking is that Bryant can provide a better deep threat option for Carson Palmer the way Chris Henry did. We all witnessed the passing game tailspin last year without Henry because defenses were no longer concerned about Cincinnati taking shots down-field. If Bryant can force defenses to return to deeper coverage it will help Carson, Chad and the others exponentially.
Bryant is also an immediate upgrade to Laveranues Coles. The experiment of getting a smallish possession receiver with limited speed failed miserably last year. Coles came nowhere near replacing Houshmandzadeh, then blamed everyone else for his ineffectiveness after he was run out of town this winter. Frankly Quan Cosby became a more exciting option to throw to last season than Coles, and Cosby costs the NFL equivalent of free.
This time, the Bengals went after a different prototypical receiver. While not the horse that TO is, Bryant is still a larger receiver at 6'2''/205 pounds. If Coles' claim that Palmer prefers bigger receivers is true, Bryant should find success within this offense right away. The ability to come into a new system and immediately have a big-play impact appears to be Bryant's modus operandi. This man has found success catching passes from such mediocrity as: Chad Hutchinson/Quincy Carter/ Vinnie Testeverde, Trent Dilfer/Charlie Frye, Alex Smith, and Brian Greise/Jeff Garcia/Josh Freeman. Next to this dross, Carson Palmer must seem like a godsend to Bryant.
Then there is Bryant's personality. He once banged heads with Bill Parcells—the strongest, most stubborn will in football history—and found himself traded to Cleveland soon after. He was arrested for a DUI while with the 49ers and served a four-game suspension for substance abuse as a result. He isn't listed under any “good guy” lists and is now employed by a team that is unfortunately famous for its players' legal issues. But as former-Bengal John Thornton points out, Bryant plays with a mean streak which is both conducive to the tough-guy AFC North environment and is a quality that Marvin Lewis holds in the highest esteem of his players. We could always use a little more grit around here.
With the additions of Bryant and Matt Jones, the Bengals are collecting overgrown receivers who can corral those passes that regularly sail on Palmer. The equation makes sense: a big, strong-armed quarterback who often overthrows his targets + 2 tall, athletic receivers who can go up and pull down jump balls = more touchdowns in the red-zone. There are some who feel that TO could still end up in stripes if there truly is no other market interested in his services, adding one more big body to the formula—not to mention Jerome Simpson who is 6'2'' with enormous hands and who Marvin has all but promised to play more this season.
The draft is also still to come where the team might pluck a few more targets, making for one interesting receiver battle this training camp. The Bengals' passing attack appears to have fangs again; their divisional rivals may want to invest in more defensive backs as a response to Cincinnati's new stockpile of offensive weaponry. This Bryant signing may be more important than many first realize. My optimism grows.
Yet there was another signing this week that mostly fell under the radar. Anyone thinking retaining Tank Johnson isn't a big deal isn't paying attention. Defensive tackles are enjoying more league-wide attention than ever and the result has been big money given to big men. Procuring a solid pro like Johnson in a lopsided market for his position was a must.
Tank is a Zimmer guy and vice versa. Both men are comfortable working with one another and that is most important in today's NFL. Johnson may not have collected the sacks for which Zimm had hoped, but he plays a major role in stopping the run and he adds depth to a seriously talented yet underrated rotation of defensive tackles with Pat Sims and Domata Peko. Had Tank strayed and signed elsewhere, DT would have become an immediate priority and stopping the run would have been more difficult without him. If the Bengals find they can't stop the run the way they did last year, their whole defensive philosophy goes out the window as does their top-five ranking as a unit.
Tank played through foot pain last year and battled when the team needed him most. One could safely assume that a healthy Tank is a better Tank, and he should arrive at training camp as just that. If he is able to increase the pressure on quarterbacks in passing downs the way Zimmer wants, then his value becomes priceless as pass-rushing defensive tackles are both rare and game-changing.
As a person, Tank seems comfortable in the city and in the locker room. After a tumultuous start to his pro career, Johnson was one of the most open and honest voices coming from the Bengals last season. He highlighted the camaraderie of the defense and of their loyalty and respect for their coach. He was supportive of the team and seems relieved to stay in Cincinnati. I like the guy and think he's one hell of a football player. If he gets that motor of his revved on two good feet this year, you will see what I mean.
I still hope the Bengals bring Roy and Bobbie Williams back, and maybe pick up a few minor pieces to add depth on the way to the draft, but the moves made so far check out with me. For the second year in a row, the team really seems to have a handle on the kind of blue-print from which they want to build and are closing in on completing that objective. Everyone in the NFL has talent; to reach the top, a team must find the right players, not necessarily the best ones.
Mojokong—slow but steady wins the race.