USA Today kicks the Cincinnati Bengals' tires this morning, running down its view of the team's five most pressing issues: QB, WR, can Marvin Lewis win, top free agent priority and how do they beat the Steelers and the Ravens. I'd like to suggest that they've missed the biggest issue of all, which would be the defense, but let that pass for now. My take on their questions:
1. Will the Bengals be better off making a fresh start without unhappy quarterback Carson Palmer? USA Today argues that it's a hard case to make. On the contrary, I think it's quite easy: I would rather have a guy who wants to be there under center. Certainly Andy Dalton's inexperience will cost the team something, and Carson Palmer is at least on paper more talented and physically gifted, but talent and physical gifts only go so far. You don't win without heart and this team completely lacked that last year. I would rather have 53 average guys who care than a team full of talented players who are primarily interested in cashing a check and starring on Twitter and reality TV.
2. Will the Bengals be better off without T.O. & Ocho combo at wide receiver? The paper says "the potential is definitely there." Potential? Did the last three games of last season, in which Jerome Simpson and Andre Caldwell caught fire while Batman and Robin were hurt, not happen? There's no "potential" about it. It's the best example of addition by subtraction in the league today.
3. Can Marvin Lewis deliver a consistent winner? USA Today doesn't really answer its own question. I will: yes, he can, if given the proper tools. But if he's forced to babysit a team full of divas, malcontents and 21-going-on-12-year-olds, no. Given the generally high character of the guys they drafted in April and the departure (hopefully) of Chad Ochocinco, it looks like the Bengals are finally moving in the right direction on this front.
4. What is the Bengals' top free-agent priority? USA Today says Cedric Benson. I'm going with Johnathan Joseph. No offense to Ced but running backs are a heck of a lot easier to replace than good cornerbacks. Unfortunately, I think someone is going to back the Brinks truck up to Joseph's house, and it won't be Cinicinnati.
5. What are the Bengals' biggest problems ahead? USA Today believes it's getting past Pittsburgh and Baltimore. I would argue that the team has to get past themselves first. The culture of losing is still there, the locker room is broken, leadership is lacking. Some of that is due to the lockout, which has prevented a lot of the usual opportunities for these things to be addressed. So be it. Once the labor mess ends, this team will have to gel and discover leadership quickly. Otherwise, 2011 is going to be another long year.