Remember in the middle of the 2000s when this Bengals team was overrun with huge egos from offensive players? Chad Johnson turned into his alter-ego of Ochocinco, T.J. Houshmandzadeh always seemed to feel unappreciated and underpaid, and Rudi Johnson was showing up on MTV's "Cribs", bragging about his cars and flashy home. In 2010, we were also privileged to the "Batman and Robin" show, with Terrell Owens commanding the spotlight.
In one respect, one couldn't blame the offense for getting big heads, as they were forced to carry the club due to an inept defense during those years--save for 2009 and 2010. It was all a house of cards, though. Carson Palmer couldn't handle the cast of characters, and the team seemed to have a "there's no 'I' in team, but there's a 'me'" mentality and those All-Star squads never realized their full potential.
Fast forward to 2011 and 2012, where Marvin Lewis has done a masterful job of rebuilding this team's talent and image. With that rebuild came an overhaul to the wide receiver position group. First came Pro Bowler A.J. Green and a multitude of other quality youngsters followed. These players are all in a heated battle and if you ask Andrew Hawkins and offensive coordinator Jay Gruden, the group is a tight-knit, hard-working and versatile one.
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In speaking with Bengals.com Editor, Geoff Hobson, Gruden said:
"I think you are going to need more than two receivers anyway; the more guys you have that can do it the better you'll be," Gruden said. "Guys get tired. Certain plays are better for certain guys; it's good to have a variety of guys that can line up in a couple of different spots. I think that might be a little bit different than what we had last year. I think all our guys can line up inside and outside and not have a problem mentally. Not saying we did last year, but these guys are all very sharp and good route runners no matter where you put them. "
In the early going of OTAs, it appears that rookie Mohamed Sanu embodies this versatility. He's a guy that can play outside or in the slot and figures to be shifted around in various formations this year. He's also been drawing some rave reviews in camp, first from his fellow wideout Green and most recently from veteran cornerback, Terence Newman. A guy that he calls "Rutgers" (Sanu's alma mater), Newman says:
"Rutgers has made some really tough catches," Newman said. "If you're watching, that's impressive to see coming from college to here and it's kind of slowed down for him. A lot of these guys seem like they know how to work leverage, how to set guys up, and get separation. (Sanu) he's got good body control. He made a catch today on a ball that was kind of behind him and he went up to get it. He did that last week, too."
The biggest key for this young group is the fact that they have an entire offseason to prepare. Though some of the rookies weren't here to experience the 2011 lockout, Hawkins, the second-year receiver was and he is already seeing the benefits of early workouts.
Hawkins hesitates to say the receivers are smarter this season and simply says, "I think we have the time to prepare now. We're more thorough."
He says that's because the receivers have the luxury of the voluntary spring workouts, otherwise known as OTAs. He notes that Tate, with New England in 2010, and Shipley, as a rookie here in 2010, are the only receivers that have participated in OTAs.
"I'm working on things I may not have been able to pinpoint during the season because we had Jacksonville this week, or Pittsburgh," Hawkins said. "Now we can just kind of sit back and do the things we need to work on that we didn't have time to last year. When we couldn't break it down as thoroughly as we wanted. In that aspect, it's awesome."
Hawkins also touched on the versatility of the group and the many things that they should be able to do in 2012:
In previous regimes veterans like Chad Ochocinco and Jerome Simpson could only play one spot. Now after just one rookie minicamp and four practices with the entire team, Sanu and Jones have played all the spots. As they all the receivers are doing.
"The slot position can be, 'OK, I want my outside guys 6-3 or inside 5-10, 5-11.' That's not how it is," said Hawkins, who doesn't want to be pigeon-holed as a little slot guy. "Guys get in there and play. We bounce all over the place. A.J. plays the slot a lot of times. I'm on the outside sometimes."
It's this versatility that could make the Bengals offense so much more dangerous in 2012. If all of these players are on the same page, Andy Dalton will be the beneficiary of a multitude of offensive weapons. One of the things that ESPN's Herm Edwards liked abotu the Bengals draft this year is that the team didn't rest its laurels on last year's surprising seasons from Dalton and Green. They ensured Dalton's future success by adding weapons in Marvin Jones and Sanu. By the sounds of it, it's already paying dividends.