Usually the late portion of the fall season is where people in America break bread and give thanks for the many blessings that the good Lord has bestowed on them. However, I'm going to rip off the "Christmas in July" sentiment by using a "Thanksgiving in July" approach to this year's Bengals squad as their Training Camp is just opening up.
I've compiled a list of ten reasons for which Bengals fans can also be thankful as we are about five months away from the traditional Thanksgiving holiday. I like to think of it as a combination (or ripoff, if you're a cynical pessimist) of David Letterman's nightly top-ten list, as well as Peter King's "Things I think I Know" bit he does for Sports Illustrated.
Let the countdown begin. Drumroll please...
10.) Rey Maualuga hasn't been suspended...yet: Under NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell's rule, players aren't getting away with many off-field problems as they did under Paul Tagliabue. In his previous three seasons as a Bengal, Maualuga has had two off-field incidents; one being a DUI and the other a brawl at a nightclub involving, you guessed it, alcohol. One would have hoped that since Maualuga went through an AA program and rehab that these, but as it is with anyone with alcohol-related issues, it's a lifelong struggle. We keep waiting for the hammer to drop on Maualuga, even if it's for a game or two since he's now considered a repeat offender. It hasn't and the Bengals are planning on No.58 to man the middle of the defense for the entire season.
9.) A decent haul in free agency: The Bengals were heavily criticized early on for not going after some of the "big fish" on the open market. While a player like Ben Grubbs or Carl Nicks would have been fantastic, the team took a more rational, level-headed (it's okay to also call it "cheap") approach. They grabbed some decent veteran cornerback talent, which they needed to fill the position group out with. It's now so crowded at the spot that some big-named player might be shown the door. The re-signed some key players and grabbed role players to replace those who departed. Nearly every player that they brought in was an upgrade of some sort, even if it was a marginal one. What they didn't nab, they went after in the draft and it all came together quite beautifully. Between BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Travelle Wharton, Jason Allen, Terence Newman, Adam Jones, Pat Sims, Derrick Harvey and Jamaal Anderson, the team grabbed three likely starters and other significant role players. Not bad. They knew what they were doing after all.
8.) The 2012 draft class: Never can I remember the team getting such high praise for their work in last April's draft. They were the consensus winners by nearly every draftnik and grabbed quality players in every single round--sometimes twice. Almost every one of these players will compete for a roster spot, as well as significant playing time. A couple could be viewed as immediate starters. The great thing about this haul though is that, outside of Kevin Zeitler, theteam doesn't NEED any of them to start immediately. We will likely see a lot of Dre Kirkpatrick Devon Still, Mohamed Sanu, Brandon Thompson, George Iloka and Orson Charles, but the team doesn't need them to work the magic that A.J. Green and Andy Dalton were forced to in 2011. If this group proves to be as mature as the team's previous two classes, they've built themselves quite a roster.
7.) The defensive line: This is the deepest area of the football team and there are a lot of solid players that comprise the group. The defensive tackle position is manned by Pro Bowler, Geno Atkins, and team captain, Domata Peko. Though these two are very good players, they have other quality guys backing them up. Pat Sims is stout against the run and the two newcomers, Devon Still and Brandon Thompson, look like the real deal. On the outside, they have two potential budding stars in Carlos Dunlap and Michael Johnson. If both can play the end spot for a full season together, they could sniff 20-plus combined sacks. They lost some pieces some good role players in Frostee Rucker and Jonathan Fanene, but Derrick Harvey and Jamaal Anderson are looking to have a career renaissance here. The best part? The team can get pressure from any one of these players at any number of spots. Ask the New York Giants how that's worked out for them over the past half-decade.
6.) A.J. Green: Most people attributed nearly all of Andy Dalton's success as a rookie directly to Green. If you did, that's not that far-fetched of an idea. Green caught almost everything thrown in his general direction and appears to be on track to become the best receiver the team has ever employed. He still has a long way to go to prove that, but with a Pro Bowl rookie season, complete with franchise record-breaking numbers under his belt, the sky is the limit. One has to be concerned about his knee and shoulder injuries from last year, as those types can become chronic, but he played through it and still started 15 regular-season games. Even though the Bengals don't have an established No.2 wide receiver to play with him, Green will still strike fear into defenses and make plays that evoke a one-word response: "wow".
5.) Andy Dalton: Who would have thought that a second round quarterback would have that much success in his rookie year? Take a second a reflect of what Dalton has done in his one year here. He has assumed a leadership role after the team's "franchise quarterback" before him quit on the team. He didn't have a proper Training Camp to work with last offseason, which would have killed the development of any other rookie quarterback not named "Newton" or those having red hair. He took this team by the throat and led them to the playoffs when nearly every other national pundit predicted them to finish with the worst record in the NFL. It isn't always pretty and he doesn't always look like a Hall of Famer, but he gets the job done and plays smart football. He's got a huge test in front of him with the 2012 season, but we think he'll rise to the challenge.
4.) No lockout: Do you remember how terrible last offseason was without any tangible football news to talk about (outside of lockout updates) until July and August? It was terrible--and you don't have to write for an NFL team site! Though this may rank higher on some people's lists, it's so distant in the past that we almost forgot it happened. In the back of everyone's minds we knew that football would be played because of it's profitability, but the posturing and bickering continued through the summer and turned a lot of people off of the sport--temporarily. We thought that the lockout would absolutely kill the young Bengals team, but players like Dalton, Green and the like put together a shockingly solid rookie campaign. So, while you may complain that news is scarce or our updates are redundant, be thankful that we're not still talking about the lockout or replacement players.
3.) Marvin Lewis: Marvin Lewis has brought respectability to Cincinnati since his arrival in 2003. There have been ups and downs, but he does have three playoff appearances and has rebuilt this roster three successful times. The rebuild from 2010-2012 may be Lewis' best job yet. However, it's also the influence he has within the organization that makes Lewis such a valued commodity. He has wrestled power away from the stubborn Mike Brown and has revamped many issues with the club, including the medical staff, coordinators, draft philosophy and even Public Relations maneuvering. Say want you want about Lewis' playoff record (0-3) or his in-game coaching techniques, but he has rescued this team from fifteen consecutive years of non-competitive football. One thing is for certain, with Lewis at the helm, the Bengals will field a competitive team.
2.) The offensive and defensive coordinators: It may seem backwards to feel more strongly about the coordinators than the head coach, but both Mike Zimmer and Jay Gruden have done a masterful job in their respective short tenures in Cincinnati. Zimmer has made the Bengals defense into a near perennial top-ten unit full of players that can stop the run, pressure the passer and defend the pass. They're not exceptional at any one of these three aspects, but they're very good at them and the team has ridden the defensive unit to the playoffs in both 2009 and 2011. That is saying a lot, since so much of the team's historical success was based on an outstanding offense.
Speaking of offense, what about Jay Gruden. A lot of fans were skeptical at the hire in the early months of the offseason, as we all wondered if he received the job simply because of his last name. While most ever fan was happy to see Bob Bratkowski go, expectations were very low for a rookie coordinator working with a rookie quarterback and a rookie No.1 wide receiver. Did I mention that this was in a lockout-shortened offseason? Though the offense didn't light the statistical world on fire, they were gutsy and came through with many clutch performances that turned into surprising wins. Dalton took on the personality of his coordinator and played smart, gritty football throughout the season and led his team to the postseason. Most of the weak links (guards, running back) have been replaced and seemingly improved, so we expect Gruden to work his magic once again in 2012. The only downside to both Zimmer and Gruden is the possibility of one or both not being with the club in 2013 and beyond because of head coaching offers. Let's enjoy them while we can.
1.) A roster full of players that want to be here: Did you hear that? That's the refreshing sound of a drama-less Bengals locker room. There's no Carson Palmer "trade me" issue. There's no Cedric "I don't get shown the love" Benson problems pouring out of interviews with the media. There's no Chad Ochocinco challenges to Marvin Lewis on cage fight matches. It's just a collection of hard-working, well-mannered youngsters (that made me feel old). The leaders of the squad now are of the "quiet confidence" ilk like Andy Dalton, A.J. Green and Geno Atkins. The focus is the Super Bowl and not the Pro Bowl; respect and not the dollars. This truly is a Marvin Lewis roster and having those types of players on a team makes for a dangerous squad that could make postseason noise.