The Cincinnati Bengals were rated as the worst team in the NFL by many prognosticators; most of whom I believed were justified in their opinion. It wasn't ten months ago that the Bengals wrapped up the 2010 regular season with a depressingly disappointing four wins. Superstars lacking production, key contributors suffering major injuries, all enabled this team's eventual degradation into a massive chemical vat, only to reincarnate as an insane villain with white makeup, a constant grin and green hair.
Sources close to Carson Palmer told Chris Mortensen that the franchise quarterback was demanding a trade, or he's play the "retirement card." The owners locked out the players, the Palmer demand lingered like a chlorine gas spewing from the water. The organization was demanding money from county to pay for maintenance costs, while a city councilman preached that "taxpayers should stop giving any more welfare" to the team. Essays were written about the team's stadium deal. Taking the negative over the past ten months, it was hard not to describe the offseason as the worst in franchise history.
But it wasn't. By disregarding the bad and focusing on the good, much happened during the offseason that's contributing to Cincinnati's 6-2 start this season.
THE CHANGE THAT STARTED IT ALL... Marvin Lewis had a semi-public negotiation with the Bengals after his contract expired, with key words such as "improved personnel department", "indoor practice facility" and "power to hire and fire coaches" being throw around by NFL Insiders. Many of us jumped on board with Lewis, believing that if his demands were met, fundamental change could take its first step. Others were resistant, apparently believing in Mike Brown just enough to hire a head coach that would win more games, even a postseason game or two; when asked to project who those coaches were, usually high-profile names with huge salaries and demands for power that Mike Brown would never pay surfaced.
Perhaps it's a defeatist attitude with a head coach that hasn't won a playoff game in eight seasons or perhaps it's merely acknowledging that Lewis remains the head coach best suited to work with the team's front office. Lewis eventually came to terms with an agreement and Mike Brown sat in front of the cameras announcing the hire that nauseated Bengals fans -- not because Lewis was hired, rather because Mike Brown was in front of the cameras.
Regardless of everything that was believed to be known, or developing as a talking-point, Lewis arguably did acquire more power than he had before.
One suspected change with Marvin Lewis' return was the head coach's allowance to establish his own coaching staff. A month after Lewis re-signed, offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski was fired. Three days later, the team replaced him with Jay Gruden, bringing (a form of at least) the west coast offense back home. With the lockout and not much to do, Cincinnati's coaching staff went across the country to scout college prospects. Eventually Gruden targeted Andy Dalton as his quarterback; preparing the team in case Palmer continued sticking to his guns on his threat to retire. Mike Brown reportedly favored Ryan Mallett when Gruden and Marvin Lewis convinced Brown that Dalton is their guy. Brown relented and Dalton is currently a candidate for offensive rookie of the year with the Cincinnati Bengals.
Marvin Lewis returns, hires Jay Gruden and together they convinced Mike Brown to select quarterback Andy Dalton in the second round of the 2011 NFL Draft. Not a bad start.
IT WAS TIME FOR THE PLAYERS TO FIND THEIR LEADERS... When the owners locked the league down during the offseason, it meant that the players could do whatever they want. Take on new activities and hobbies, discover post-career work, attend colleges to earn their degrees or find a way to get together and workout. Domata Peko and Rey Maualuga gathered as many players that remained in the city to workout together at Mason's Ignition AGP. Jordan Palmer gathered skill players together to run routes in California. Andrew Whitworth summoned his offensive line for a workout.
In mid-June Whitworth and Peko called players together for two weeks worth of workouts with Whitworth leading the offense and Peko the defense. The turnout, even with rookies showing up, was believed to be one of the highest in the league.
Most importantly the players gathered and began to develop a cohesiveness that we're seeing today. The initial steps into the true definition of team started.
THE FREE AGENCY THAT COMPLETED THE 2011 CINCINNATI BENGALS... Say what you will about losing Johnathan Joseph. The money needed to keep Joseph may have, arguably, prevented the Bengals from being active players in free agency -- Houston signed Joseph to a five-year deal worth $48.75 million. Moreso the Bengals needed clearance in case Carson Palmer returned and slapped his salary against the team's cap number.
Following the initial blitz after the lockout was lifted and a new Collective Bargaining Agreement was signed, the Bengals sat on their hands momentarily. Joseph left and the Bengals reacted by signing Nate Clements to a two-year deal worth $6 million. No, Clements isn't Joseph. But Clements isn't just effective, he's made significant contributions while numbing the sting of Joseph's departure. With the amount of money available, the team also signed starters like Thomas Howard, Manny Lawson and re-signed Brandon Johnson while nearly signing safety Donte Whitner.
There are many reasons why the 2011 Cincinnati Bengals are 6-2 this year. Marvin Lewis' return, the players stepping up to lead their own and the completion of the roster with starters have had a significant role in Cincinnati's surprising start this year.