Paul Guenther, Bengals linebackers coach, must have mixed emotions about his newest gig. On one hand, having his own unit to coach is a promotion from his duties with the team last year and is a necessary step up the coaching ladder. On the other hand, though, he is faced with a group that lacks quality depth and one that continues to face bad news this offseason. If the linebackers have a nice showing in 2012, Guenther's accomplishments will be big working with so little.
This week was especially tough. First Brandon Johnson departed for Pittsburgh of all places, and then Dontay Moch was notified of his official four-game suspension to start the year.
The Bengals seemed to have simply been finished with Brandon Johnson. He languished on the free-agent market for months, reports that the Steelers were interested cropped up weeks ago and still the Bengals sat idly by and prepared the season without him. I don't know if it was a contractual stalemate or if Marvin Lewis and Mike Zimmer simply want to give the youth more of a chance, but the guy knew the system well, was noted for his coverage skills and gave the team some really quality games in his four years in Cincinnati.
Dontay Moch is still a frustrating mystery. After missing all of last year with migraine headaches, we Bengal fans were anxious to see what the third-round pick can do this year. Now the sample size of his evaluation will be four games less this season after blowing it in a drug test and the wait continues. Moch is said to have pass-rushing skills but that is about all I know of the player. If he can keep his head feeling okay and read the labels to his dietary supplements more closely, we may be pleased with his performance, but unfortunately, even getting suited up has been a challenge for Moch.
Another injury-challenged linebacker is Roddrick Muckelroy. After appearing in 14 games on special teams in 2010, Muckelroy blew his Achilles tendon in the first practice of training camp last season. Both Muck and Moch have a lot to prove that they are healthy, fast enough and ready to contribute on defense, and not just special teams.
Rey Maualuga informed the world once more that he has been playing his position incorrectly. I feel we get one of these confessions about once a year from Rey. Normally it's something to the effect that he is either playing hesitantly, or that he is thinking too much and not reacting enough, but this time is that he was hurt last year and should have let his backups play more. Rey is still hoping the NFL will ignore his latest indiscretion at a local night club, but the talons of Roger Goodell could still rip into the rock star linebacker before the year gets going. Maualuga has not become what we expected of him (as unrealistic as those expectations may have been), and to hear him always making excuses for his mediocrity is becoming as tired as his drinking shenanigans. All the world wants from him is a good middle linebacker, but he has been too many other persona to make that his reality. I hope the league does free him of suspension and that he finally just shuts up and plays football the way Mike Zimmer wants him to.
So, with a veteran gone to our rival, a young player coming back from a major injury, another one facing a four game suspension, and yet another facing a possible suspension himself, the linebacking corps is left largely up to Thomas Howard and Manny Lawson, neither of which are young, and the commando Dan Skuta. I was surprised to see Skuta resign with Cincinnati after getting attention elsewhere, but as raw as he is, his fearlessness and reckless abandon make him fun to watch. He put in some valuable game time last year on defense and if Maualuga is sat down for a couple of games, Skuta is certainly not the worst backup out there.
The only character in the fold still worth mention is of course, "Not Quite Perfect" Vontaze Burfict. While a lot of people are generating huge amounts of excitement around this guy, let us not forget why he was not drafted. His talent once oozed from his pores, but as time went on and he began to believe the hype, until the one time top-ranked high-school player in America got so lazy he wasn't even drafted. He is the quintessential project, a wicked experiment, Frankenstein's monster. As it stands now, his chances of making the team and getting some reps are better with the rocky road the linebackers have taken this offseason, but he himself could implode with the quickness if not careful and focused.
There is a lot of unrefined, volatile talent within this unit; it's like linebacker yellow cake. Some of these young guys have the spark within them to become monsters on the gridiron, but it's hard to extract it safely from them without ruining it for the rest of the team. There are many complications within this group but its potential is staggering. If the injury bug crops up in that area, coupled with the suspensions, we could be looking at a rather shabby starting trio for short stretches. Nonetheless, it's up to the Bengal brains, particularly of the new guy, Mark Guenther, to get this operation up and off the ground safely. If all goes right, the tables will turn and the question marks become stable contributors. If all goes wrong? Let's not think about that.
Mojokong—thirsty for football.