There have been a lot of lightning rods of Bengals hate over the years--particularly when the team failed to reach fans' and critics' expectations. Owner Mike Brown is always an easy target, as was former offensive coordinator, Bob Bratkowski. There is one Bengals coach that brings about a plethora of emotions from fans, in longtime offensive line coach, Paul Alexander.
Manning the job in Cincinnati for almost twenty years now, one could argue that Alexander has an impressive resume. He had the foresight to draft two bookend tackles in Willie Anderson and Levi Jones and helped create a dominant line from roughly 2003-2007. Even with the accolades and mega-contracts that most of those players received under Alexander's tutelage, there is also a string of head-scratcher decisions on his part that should bring worry to Bengals fans.
Going back to the 2007 and 2008 seasons, there were two major decisions that shaped the disastrous seasons that followed, and Alexander had to have played a major role in them. First, the team opted to cut an aging and ailing Anderson right before the season, leaving the right tackle spot vacant. Unfortunately for the team, the spot was given to Stacy Andrews and the line suffered because of that decision. What's worse is that Anderson went on to have a productive year with the division rival Baltimore Ravens, in which they went to the playoffs.
Also around that time, the decision was made to hand the starting center job to Eric Ghiacuic following an unfortunate career-ending injury to Rich Braham. Ghiacuic was ineffective to say the least and the Bengals were finally saved in 2009 with Kyle Cook taking over the spot--it was just two years too late. Also around this time, fringe Pro Bowl guard, Eric Steinbach left for free agency and Jones' body fell apart. The implosion of the once-dominant Bengals line was complete by the end of 2008 and the team had to re-build.
Then came the maddening situation with Nate Livings and Evan Mathis. Both were brought in in the 2009 offseason and split time at the left guard spot. Statistics and game film showed that Mathis was by far the more superior player, yet he ended up sitting on the bench while Livings continued to be given the job. The team's performance suffered because of it, Mathis burned his bridges in Cincinnati, just now are we entering a season of promise at both guard positions. A similar situation has happened with Anthony Collins.
In what's both a sign that shows progression and positivity, as well as one that evokes a "Wow. Really?" response, the Bengals drafted an offensive guard for the first time in their 44-year history. Unfortunately for some, that guard wasn't Stanford's David DeCastro, but rather Wisconsin's Kevin Zeitler. The Bengals made quite a wise decision in moving back for the player that they had targeted and getting an extra pick for it, who turned into Clemson defensive tackle Brandon Thompson. However, even though the team supposedly had DeCastro and Zeilter ranked evenly, one has to wonder if that was merely coach speak. While Zeitler looks like a very promising player and will likely be a good pro, he will always be compared to DeCastro throughout his career, particularly since the former Cardinal went to the Steelers.
One last aspect about Alexander's coaching philosophy that drives some crazy is his penchant for finding versatile players. While this can be helpful, particularly in the wake of injuries, it also hinders many young players' development. Mathis, for instance, was taking reps at backup center in 2010 instead of rightfully fighting for the left guard gig. Before Andre Smith finally got his act together, there was a carousel at right tackle, consisting of Collins, Dennis Roland and others. Again, Roland was the inferior player on the stat sheet and on film, but still got the nod of playing time over the superior player in Collins.
Should we, as Bengals fans, trust Paul Alexander's judgement? Though Wharton and Zeitler are upgrades at both guard positions, other options were available--did Alexander and others make the right choices? The jury is still out on these questions and they likely won't get answered until after the 2012 season is completed. Still, where do you gauge your faith in the Bengals longtime coach? Do you believe he'll turn things around in 2012 by getting the running game back on track and supplying Andy Dalton with more time in the pocket?