There's a good reason why many write pieces that ask which players, or coaches are on the hot seat. Most of it is conversational fodder. Rather than writing who is on the hot seat, let's take a look at players this year with the most to prove. This isn't a slam on any one player. The fact we're including them on this list only maintains their value. With that in mind, we decided to take a look at the offense; not because we're splitting the feature into two postings, it's just that when the list was comprised, we were left with mostly offensive players.
Carson Palmer. Is this a way to suggest that if Palmer doesn't succeed this year, that he's done, thrown in the compactor of abyss as another great Bengals quarterback that couldn't win us a Super Bowl? Is this a way of hinting that the Bengals should move on with a new quarterback next year? No, no, NO! But if one player has the most to prove on this team, factoring previous successes, then really, is there anyone bigger than Palmer? In truth, the perception of recent disappointments really hasn't been 100% Palmer's fault. We could cite the injury in 2008 that held him back that year -- even though in the four games he did play (one of which was with the injured elbow against the Cowboys), Palmer averaged 182.8 yards-per-game and recorded only three touchdowns against four interceptions. We could cite the shift with a rushing offense in 2009, along with little help from receivers and Tight Ends as more reason not to fault Palmer.
The truth of the matter is, none of that matters. Palmer is in another league, compared to the average player. He's not just some quarterback we drafted after the third round, or stole through free agency. He's Carson "freaking" Palmer. The former God of the Golden Arms. There's a reason that he's the highest paid player, therefore substantially encouraged to not only to be the best on the team, but one of the best in the league. Unfortunately, after recording back-to-back seasons with 4,000 yards passing or more and 25-plus touchdowns, the production started falling -- his fault, others' fault, it doesn't matter.
In fairness, last year is the best example of how every factor of the team's personnel and philosophy helped give the perception that Palmer had a down year. He wasn't bad; as a matter of fact, in the first half of the season, when it counted, he was the reason the Bengals generated come-from-behind wins late in the fourth quarter. Nor did he appear like a franchise quarterback; especially true in the second half of the season and into the playoffs; again, receivers not stepping up definitely contributed. Most of the league has detached the "elite" title on Palmer already and most top-five NFL quarterback lists exclude him (and in some cases we see Mark Sanchez ranked above Palmer). Now with a new crop of weapons at his disposal, Palmer will be able to prove that he's still an ass-kicker. No. That's he's still the God of the Golden Arms.
Prediction: God of the Golden Arms returns in a sequel like the Godfather II.
Andre Caldwell. One of the many reasons for Palmer's recent disappointments was simply the lack of options amongst receivers, or generally speaking, his pass catchers (since we'll gladly include the greatness that is Daniel Coats). Beside Chad Ochocinco, the Bengals lacked much in the way of progressive down field attacks -- per Football Outsiders, only 15% of Palmer's throws were deep passes -- less than Chad Pennington in 2008. Yikes.
Caldwell's disappearing act in 2009 was a concern at the time. We've written it several times this offseason. In Caldwell's past ten games in 2009, the wide receiver never recorded more than 35 yards receiving and he went half a season without scoring a touchdown. Granted, perhaps our expectations were unrealistically too high hoping for a high-volume receiver -- his career high is 54 yards receiving in a game.
I's not like we blame him totally; the Bengals just didn't have enough weapons to let receivers like Chad, Laveranues Coles or Caldwell to break free from double, triple (if not 15-man) coverages. When offenses can't stretch the field, coverage areas underneath become populated with mean defensive players in which guys like Caldwell can't find a gap to catch the football.
In his defense, Caldwell wants to prove us wrong, as much as we hope he does. Marvin Lewis said that Caldwell was probably the most improved player during the offseason. However, with Jordan Shipley and maybe even Dezmon Briscoe, Caldwell is in dangerous territory. He has a lot prove to remain the team's number three wide receiver.
Andre Smith. Sign a contract that guarantees you at least $21 million at a time when the Bengals were desperate for offensive line help and expectations will be dramatically higher than any one player on this team. Then fracture a bone in your foot which takes you out the first ten games of the year, have offseason surgery that prevents you from doing any offseason work with the team, and you better believe that you have a lot to prove.
Is Andre Smith's participation with the Bengals critical? That might be a bit dramatic on the scale of melodramaticism; but as it stands Smith is probably the strongest and most balanced right tackle the Bengals have; we saw glimpses at the end of last year that he's good enough to play and likely has the biggest upside (pun totally intended) of all the offensive linemen.
But Smith needs to perform. More importantly, he needs to be healthy. If injuries hurt his overall participation this year, bringing about an encore of 2009, hell, we'll gladly throw him on the Hot Seat list. Perhaps a list of first round busts by the Bengals? No, no. We won't go there. Not yet at least. Anything less than mauling poor defensive ends and linebackers in Pittsburgh and Baltimore will be disappointing. However, not only will Smith need to prove that he's worth first round status with the money he's "earned", but he has to prove that he can remain healthy in the first place.
Jerome Simpson. During a time in which Chad's future was in doubt and T.J. Houshmandzadeh was projected to be long gone after the 2008 season, the Bengals tried to prepare for a future without both receivers, drafting eventual heirs in Jerome Simpson and Andre Caldwell. Unfortunately, we have to list both receivers on this list. While Caldwell hasn't had anything near the production of Houshmandzadeh -- or even given us a reason to believe he ever will -- Simpson simply hasn't produced. Or maybe the more proper word is participated.
In his two seasons with the Bengals, Simpson was listed as inactive in 22 of the team's 32 regular season contests. Even though he played in only eight contests -- he was Active-DNP in two games in 2008 -- Simpson's career totals include one reception for two yards -- he left the game after his lone NFL reception with an ankle injury.
Much like Smith, Simpson isn't in that critical category; meaning that the Bengals won't rise or fall depending on his participation. But for Simpson this year, who watched the Bengals sign a veteran wide receiver over the offseason and drafted two receivers in late April, has a lot to prove. Especially considering that the increased competition could mean that he misses the cut entirely when the Bengals 53-man roster is introduced.
Mike Nugent/David Rayner. We have a hard time projecting which place kicker the Bengals will go with this year -- though our gut says Mike Nugent. A competition between the two kickers in late June went neck-in-neck with Nugent converting all 12 attempts and Rayner only missing one -- a 54-yard attempt.
Once the competition is settled and once the Bengals have their place kicker, the real fun begins. And it won't be fun. It'll be pressure. Mega-pressure. Nugent/Rayner will have to deal with the ghost of Shayne Graham's struggle with clutch kicking. Not only is it critical that any NFL team have a place kicker that can make clutch field goals, but both kickers will be forced to do it in Cincinnati, where fans will spit acid for blood at the next field goal missed during clutch situations.
Adam Jones - Though he's close to having an inside track being the team's third cornerback without much competition and without much fear of losing his job, Jones will have other things to prove. Like that he's changed and he's turned into an upstanding human being with a moral conscience. Or that he got a stable girlfriend.
Chase Coffman - This is an interesting one for us. While expectations for the sophomore tight end are relatively low now, they were plenty high last year with most of us praising the Bengals for having a tight end that can make a huge difference in the passing game. So we were a bit off. Instead, he struggled so much at blocking that Daniel Coats jumped him on the depth chart and then injury took him out for the rest of the year. Now there's no telling what will become of Chase. Will he be a backup tight end, playing the other tight end in duel tight end formations?
Matt Jones - Much like Adam Jones, Matt Jones had decent talent before he was forced into a vacation last year. However, early reports indicate that he was less-than-impressive during offseason practices, most of which described him as being slow off the line. Jones will likely fight for one of the final spots on the team's wide receiver roster; a spot which would generally be awarded to guys that contributes on special teams also.
You've read my list. Now it's your turn. What's your Top-Five list of players that have a lot to prove in 2010?