Expectations are tricky in the NFL. Trends are fleeting, roster turnover is heavy, and prolonged success or failure moves in short wavelengths. Teams can fall apart mid-season and take months to repair. Others can catch fire late in the year and win the dadgum Super Bowl.
The Bengals are a good example of a team that defies expectation. In 2009, they were supposed to struggle but won the AFC North. The next year they added TO and the training-camp Super Bowl talk began, but then they flopped to a 4-12 record and left the stage in an embarrassing uproar. Last year, anyone with a prediction of more than eight wins for the Bengals would have been shunned as a crazy person while all the others said five or less, but with a rookie quarterback and a pretty good defense they made their way to nine wins and a wild-card spot. Pretty amazing.
Sadly, the trend would point to the Stripes choking once more in 2012, and even if they don't want to admit it, that little obnoxious factoid is alive and well in every Bengal fans' psyche when thinking ahead to this upcoming season. But worry not, my Bengal brethren, there is much hope this time around.
Achieving success through multiple seasons starts with team foundation. When you look around the league, most of the playoff regulars have great ownership. Bengals owner Mike Brown has been lambasted for decades by critics who point to the team's notorious losing and the shady stadium deal he negotiated with the city in the mid-90's. He's become a human Montgomery Burns who has been a terrific source of humorous mocking.
Mike Brown, however, is growing into a real life NFL owner and not some schlep who tinkers around with his daddy's team. For the first time in my memory, MB has created positions in order to help the Bengals win. He brought in consultant Jim McNally, made up a useless coaching title for Hue Jackson and now hired a West-Coast scout named Steven Radicevic. Brown's drafts have been terrific the past two seasons and his Carson Palmer maneuvering gets an entry into the business-villain handbook. He's pulled off other trades like nabbing Reggie Nelson and Taylor Mays, scooped up quiet free-agent signings like Donald Lee and Thomas Howard, and positioned himself this off-season with a huge amount of cap-space and two first-round draft picks. The guy has played his cards well recently, and tyrant or not, he deserves some credit.
The next level of sound infrastructure is that of coaching. Secondary coach Kevin Coyle headed south for the sunshine of Miami, but Mike Zimmer and Jay Gruden both came back for another go and there is talk about extending Marvin Lewis' contract before the season gets underway. Cincinnati has stockpiled a lot of coaching talent with the addition of Hue Jackson and new secondary coach Mark Carrier and as a whole, the collection should attract the attention of free-agents in the next few weeks.
With smart ownership and good coaching in place, Andy Dalton has the support to flourish in this system. He and Gruden found a spark last season when both men were new to the league and many thought it would take a long time, if ever, to make it work. With a full off-season together, and a growing familiarity in what is already a logical play-calling scheme, there is no reason to think that Dalton will struggle much next season. Red is a common-man leader, a smiling grit. Carson was a company-policy guy and was treated as a precious resource. Dalton's yeoman attitude doesn't invite the tidal waves of personal pressure that Palmer felt while in Cincinnati; he doesn't have to be the golden god of quarterbacks, he just has to win.
Attitude goes a long way toward a strong team foundation and is something the team has struggled with in years past. This team, starting with Dalton, does have an endearing quality of modesty and workman-like charisma, but there are still a few grumps and divas in the mix. One is Cedric Benson who simply wants the ball on every play no matter what. I think he officially has complained his way out of town and no one that follows these things thinks he will be back. While Benson is tireless and always strong, he wants too much too often. Ultimately it translates into selfishness and there is no room for that in a team setting, ask Chad.
Next is Adam Jones. Once an out-of-this-world talent, Jones looked pretty mediocre last year when he came back from a neck and a hamstring injury. He still yells at people at bit too easily for my liking and I am not sure he is worth keeping around due to his explosive personality. The Bengals aren't particularly deep at corner, especially with Leon Hall coming back from an Achilles injury, but average guys aren't worth big headaches.
Last is, of course, Jerome Simpson. Gifted but brainless. Even had he not been involved with pounds of herb mailed to his home, he still has an emotional fragility about him that frightens me when identified in grown men. As a football player, he can do the impossible but can't do the routine. He flashes and you want to put more stock into him, but his dependability is flimsy and he productivity is inconsistent. When he returns to football, he will surely face a suspension and why would the Bengals put more faith into a project that seldom functioned?
Once they rid themselves of a few bad apples, and cleanse the locker-room culture some, the next factor is the development of their current players. A lot depends upon the youngsters getting better and the veterans healing up.
There are many questions on the defensive side of the ball. Will Keith Rivers be effective again? Will Taylor Mays and/or Robert Sands be ready to start this year? Will Carlos Dunlap return to his old monster self? While Zim's return acts a stabilizing force to the group dynamic, I feel the success of the unit is somewhat tenuous as many young players must now seize the jobs of aged veterans. The Bengals can no longer rely on old faces like Crocker and Geathers and Clements. Players like Michael Johnson and Rey Maualuga need to prove they can get better, players like Dontay Moch and Brandon Ghee need to prove they can get on the field, and players like Leon Hall and Rivers need to prove they still got it. It's a transitional year for the defense, and the smoothness of that transition rests in the development of the younger players.
On offense, many players are expected to improve, mainly Dalton and AJ Green, but it's Jermaine Gresham's development that will be the x-factor next season. For the past two years we've heard how Gresham could be the best tight end in the league. He will be entering his third season in 2012, and this is the year that he matures into the star that he is destined to become. Physically, he can do it all including block which is what many young tight ends lack these days, but he still seems to miss a certain level of concentration. He has had ball-security issues throughout and his fumble in Week 17 against the Ravens was an absolute killer. He had too many penalties last year and the coaches are always shaking their heads at him. I like how he mixes it up with other teams and seems to have a knack for getting under the skin of his opponents, and he has all the ability in the world, but if the Bengals want to be the offensive powerhouse it can be, Gresham needs to boost his rating from 8 to 10.
The Bengals aren't going to sneak up on anyone next year. They will be expected to do well and make the playoffs again. Ticket sales will improve, national prime-time games will be scheduled. The hype will ratchet up in Cincinnati and beyond. Marvin Lewis will attempt to put together back-to-back winning seasons for the first time ever, and he will have a terrific crop of goods to try it with. If it's going to happen, the kids have to grow up and be men. A new power is rising; the time is now!