The Bengals 2011 season is going to be interesting from beginning to end. Most of us (at least the sensible Bengals fans) aren't expecting a playoff contending team in 2011 and would think that an 8-8 season would be a great success. The team has gone through too many changes, lost too many important players and has too many vital free agents to re-sign to expect the team to move through the tough AFC North division on the way to the playoffs.
However, even though we're not expecting the Bengals to have a winning record, there's plenty to be excited about. The team has obviously moved on from the old and to the new. Carson Palmer's replacement is Andy Dalton. Chad Ochocinco's current (or future) replacement is A.J. Green. Jerome Simpson could have a breakout year. The team has talented receivers in Jordan Shipley and Jermaine Gresham.
ESPN AFC North blogger James Walker believes that the biggest thing that we Bengals fans can hope for and be happy about is a fresh start.
Whether rookie second-round pick Andy Dalton turns out to be the long-term solution remains to be seen. But there is no denying the Bengals needed to blow up the team and start over. Dalton and first-round pick A.J. Green usher in a new era in Cincinnati. Veteran quarterback Carson Palmer and receiver Chad Ochocinco had plenty of time to make a title run but failed to win a single playoff game in eight seasons. With PAlmer and Ochocinco both wanting out and heading for retirement and a release, respectively, the path is clear for Dalton to establish himself. The Bengals believe he is the best rookie to fit their new West Coast offense. Dalton certainly will have no shortage of weapons to work with such as Green, Jermaine Gresham, Jordan Shipley, Jerome Simpson, Andre Caldwell and potentially tailback Cedric Benson, who is a pending free agent.
There are few teams who have as talented and young skill position players to surround a quarterback and that is certainly something to be extremely excited about. If the offensive line can protect Dalton long enough, there's not reason why he won't be able to find an open receiver and even though they might not win the majority of their games, 2011 could be a building block for playoff seasons in the near future.
Youth is a double-edged sword, though. Walker also writes that even though youth is a good thing, it's also our biggest reason for concern.
Assuming Palmer sticks to his word and doesn't return to Cincinnati, the team has virtually no experience at the quarterback position. Dalton, like most young quarterbacks, is certainly due for some growing pains. Backups Jordan Palmer and Dan LeFevour also combine for zero NFL starts between them, which doesn't leave much insurance in the event Dalton isn't ready. Add in a new system and mostly young skill players, and the Bengals could struggle on offense, especially early in the season. This is a rebuilding year in Cincinnati. So the Bengals are at least two season away from being a contender. A lot will depend on how quickly Dalton develops and whether he can solidify the quarterback position in Palmer's absence. Also, look for Cincinnati to try to add a veteran backup to help provide some stability at quarterback.
Yes, the inexperience of the team's offense, especially at quarterback, is a concern, but I don't think it's necessarily a bad thing. We aren't necessarily expecting huge things from the Bengals this year. I can handle a less than stellar record with flashes of greatness as long as the team does better throughout the season. As long as that happens, I'll be happy and expecting a more successful season in 2012.
As long as that happens, I will be more hopeful than concerned.