Once upon a time, the Bengals had an elite offensive line.
When we hear the word "history," we tend to think of older/ancient history. I remember being in school and re-learning the same series of events every year: the Revolutionary War, the frontier era, the Civil War, the industrial revolution, WWI, the roaring twenties and the depression, WWII, the sixties, etc. We do the same thing with football. If I said "Bengals history," you'd probably think about Paul Brown, the Freezer Bowl, Boomer, and maybe the Dark Decade. I'm guessing that many of you read my first line and thought of Munoz and company.
We did have an elite offensive line, back then...but I was actually referring to a later incarnation. Let their names be listed for posterity: Levi Jones, Eric Steinbach, Rich Braham, Bobbie Williams, and Willie Anderson. They did things that were frankly miraculous. Somehow, they turned a nothing-special running back into our team's all-time leading rusher, and they gave a decidedly-immobile QB so much time to throw that he didn't know what to do with himself. They were so good that they helped to mask a certain head coach's lack of aggression, as well as a certain offensive coordinator's lack of imagination.
Unfortunately, this unit was taken out by a shot heard (and seen) 'round the league. The date was was January 8th, 2006.
We all know what happened: Eric Steinbach accidentally blocked Kimo von Oelhoffen into Carson Palmer's knee. Or Steinbach had him beat and Kimo dove for it, intending to injure Carson. Or Steinbach was just a little lazy, and was trying to push him away in any direction, and Kimo was just trying to get a crawling-style sack. I'm sure we'll still be debating it fifty years from now.
Whatever the specifics, that incident became a gaping psychological wound for us. And god knows our franchise didn't need any more of those. Credit where it's due: Marvin must have sensed this, because he pounced on this issue in a way that's unusual for him. We gave Levi Jones a 25 million dollar extension in the following offseason, and we also drafted OT/OG Andrew Whitworth in the second round, even though pundits and fans alike wanted nothing but defense.
Then, as soon as the 2006 season started, the damage continued. Rich Braham suffered a career-ending injury (in the same game as David Pollack's career-ending injury). Levi Jones got hurt. Between injuries, free agency, and poor talent-evaluation, our once-elite o-line fell apart.
Carson's injury was in January of 2006. In January of 2012, rookie quarterback Andy Dalton took the field for an unlikely playoff game...and was promptly sabotaged by our offensive line. Six years and fifty-four draft picks later, we still haven't fixed the damn thing.
I remember watching pre-DeSean-Jackson Eagles games and thinking to myself, "Andy Reid loves to pass. His whole offensive scheme is built around it. So why doesn't he invest in top-flight receivers??" Likewise, our head coach, Marvin Lewis, is a traditionalist. His press conferences are like madlibs filled in with blue-collar stereotypes. And yet, despite this fundamentals-centric approach to the game, he's never seemed very interested in strengthening the lines. (We've seen a recent focus on the d-line, and thank god for that.)
Let's take a trip down memory-lane. How did we respond to the o-line's regression?
In '06, we drafted Whitworth, a home-run. In '07, we drafted Dan Santucci, a center (later guard) from Notre Dame. He's bounced around practice squads. In '08, we drafted Anthony Collins, a tackle/guard from Kansas. Collins has been awesome for us, but we don't like to play him, for some reason. Personality issues? In '09, we drafted baggage-ridden OT Andre Smith and the failed center Jonathan Luigs. In 2010, we drafted guard Otis Hudson and center (later guard) Reggie Stephens, both late-round projects. Hudson has stuck around, while we didn't keep Stephens. In 2011, we drafted guard Clint Boling. Despite playing in the rough-and-tumble SEC, he wasn't yet strong enough to play at the NFL level. Um, okay? Did we not know about this, or did we just not care?
In short, we took eight o-linemen in six drafts, and only two of those were taken before the fourth round. If you were looking for a sign that we value that unit, I'm afraid you'll have to keep looking. (And I think one could argue that Marvin felt "stuck" taking an offensive tackle in '09, based on extreme need and how high we were drafting. So that's less him valuing it and more him being pressured into it, IMHO.) One of our picks was great, one was good and sits on the bench, four are unknown quantities (Andre, Hudson, Stephens, and Boling), and two are basically busts. That is...less than ideal, to say the least.
Along the way, we watched as offensive line couch Paul Alexander (or is it Marvin?) was way too loyal to failed experiments. Eric "Fear my Fauxhawk" Ghiaciuc at center, Stacy "Turnstile" Andrews at RT...meanwhile, good players like Collins and former Bengal Evan Mathis sat on the bench.
An offensive line is made of five positions. We've had six years and 54 draft picks. In that time, we've drafted two starters, with one being questionable (Andre). Kyle Cook, our current starting center, was an undrafted free agent. Bobbie Williams has hung on at RG for as long as he could, and LG Nate Livings will hopefully be replaced by Boling.
Should it really take that long to rebuild a single unit on a football team? Give me a monkey, a Nerf gun, and pictures of draftable players, and I think that monkey could do it in under five years.
Did we ever learn from what happened to Carson in '06, and to the o-line after that? Will we learn from last week's playoff debacle? Is Marvin Lewis really an old-school coach, or does he think that "interior line" is something that has to do with geometry? Who does Paul Alexander have pictures of, and just how many sheep are featured in those pictures?
To answer my own question...look at how quickly the Saints fixed their offensive line when Brees came along. Look at how Wade Phillips turned around the Texans' defense. Between the draft, free agency, and imaginative coaches, fixing a single unit (or an entire side of the ball) shouldn't take more than three years. We've had twice that, and the results are still bad.
Levi Jones and Willie Anderson were high draft picks. So was Steinbach. Rich Braham was a steal of a free agent. Marvin may not be the most creative coach out there, but it's time to prioritize this. We have extra draft picks, this year, so it's the perfect opportunity.
What happened to Carson shouldn't be allowed to happen to Dalton. We need to fix the o-line, now, to give him the opportunity to win. Let's not let history repeat itself.