The Cincinnati Bengals organization kicked off their inaugural season in 1968, a year after Paul Brown made a pitch to bring a professional football team to Cincinnati. Mike Brown was the team's assistant general manager that year. Before the season could start, the Bengals picked 41 players through the NFL Draft that year, seven of whom were offensive linemen. The very first draft pick the Cincinnati Bengals ever drafted? Was it a running back or a quarterback to build the team around? No. It was a center in Bob Johnson from Tennessee, an even more appropriate position to build the team around.
One aspect of football that's never changed from Paul Brown giving birth to the Bengals to his son often presiding as Grim Reaper, is the importance of the offensive line. It wasn't just Ken Anderson, Boomer Esiason, Dan Ross, James Brooks, Eddie Brown, Cris Collinsworth that made the Bengals so successful in the 80s. It was guys like Anthony Munoz, Max Montoya, Bruce Kozerski, Joe Walter, Bruce Reimers and let's throw Dave Lapham in for good measure. It wasn't Carson Palmer, Chad Johnson, T.J. Houshmandzadeh and Rudi Johnson that made the Bengals successful in 2005. It was guys like Levi Jones, Willie Anderson, Richie Braham, Eric Steinbach and Bobbie Williams. And it was the offensive line that gave the Bengals their first 2,000-yard rushing performance in nearly ten seasons.
Although, to be completely honest, the team's offensive line has been hit or miss recently. In 2008 the Cincinnati Bengals rushing offense recorded only 1,520 yards rushing; their lowest dating all the way back to 1995. Chris Perry averaged 2.6 yard/rush, never posting an average of four yards/rush in any of his 13 games that year. The 2004 first round pick also fumbled the football five times with the opposition recovering three. The Bengals signed Benson during the season with his first action coming against the Dallas Cowboys. Even he didn't fair that much better. In his first ten games as a Bengals running back, Benson only averaged 3.1 yards/rush. It wasn't until the final two games of the year that Benson figured to be somewhat effective, rushing for 282 yards rushing against two of the league's worst defenses that year in Cleveland and Kansas City.
There are many reasons as to the team's overall rushing struggles that year. Ryan Fitzpatrick didn't play well enough for defenses to concern themselves with the pass and the offensive line was, putting it mildly, a disaster. Eric Ghiaciuc, the center from 2006-2008, was often overpowered by bigger nose tackles in the AFC North that forced running backs like Rudi Johnson and Chris Perry to make their first move well in the backfield -- and it wasn't like their first move was that effective anyway. They have yet to replace Steinbach's versatility, speed and natural pulling instincts.
Yet, from 2008 until this moment you're reading this posting, the Cincinnati Bengals have only drafted five offensive linemen. What's worse is that those draft picks have only made 21 starts between them with Anthony Collins starting 16 of them. And once you examine the drafted offensive linemen, you notice it gets worse. Otis Hudson is a project. While he was on the 53-man roster, Reggie Stephens wasn't active at all. Jonathan Luigs is already gone and you know about Andre Smith.
True, they have made changes in 2009. Nate Livings, an undrafted free agent, rotated at left guard with Evan Mathis, who was signed by Cincinnati in 2007, 17 days after the Miami Dolphins released him. Dennis Roland spent much of his career on Tampa Bay's practice squad (what is it with that team and practice squads?) before the Bengals signed him to their practice squad in 2008. He was promoted to the team's 53-man roster in mid-November of 2008, where he's been ever since.
However, the most notable change came at center when Eric Ghiaciuc was replaced by Kyle Cook, an undrafted free agent. Cook was close to replacing Ghiaciuc against the Cowboys before sustaining a foot injury and going on Injured Reserve. Since Cook took over as the team's center, the Bengals rushing offense has improved. According to Pro Football Focus, Cook scored above-average rush blocking in both seasons.
Cook will be entering free agency as an restricted free agent, which could be misleading, considering that a new Collective Bargaining Agreement could redefine the free agent classifications. Andrew Whitworth is signed through 2013, but Bobbie Williams, the team's second-best offensive lineman, will be entering the final year under contract.
If this team really wants to make changes, really wants to be successful in this league, they have to start drafting better on the offensive line. Or it won't matter if Carson Palmer stays, if the team picks up A.J. Green or whomever the offensive coordinator is. An offensive line that struggles is a team waiting to go 4-12 again.