Questions about the Bengals: Respectin' the '97 offense

Matthew Emmons-US PRESSWIRE

After taking time off for personal reasons, I unload on several questions received in my mail box. If you have a question, random about something regarding the NFL or the Bengals, email me.

It's time to recognize the Bengals offense from the '97 team, don't you think?

Here's my all-time roster on offense, polled together from my lifetime as a fan (not since I began drawing breath on Earth... rather when I actually knew what I was seeing).

QB - Boomer Esiason
RB - Corey Dillon

A point here. Would Dillon's style mesh with Bruce Coslet's dynamic offense of the late 80s, which ranked in the top-five for four straight seasons ('86-'89)? Or would Esiason fit a stronger bill during the late 90s, when Coslet dictatorially ran a similar offense with Kenny Anderson at offensive coordinator?

Case in point: The final five games in 1997; Dillon's rookie year and the season that Esiason returned to Cincinnati. The Bengals were 3-8 when Esiason was finally named the starter in the final five games that season.

In one of those annual "Give me hope, or give me death!" moments in the 90s, Cincinnati went 4-1 and the offense scored 30 points or more in four of five games (40 points twice). Esiason completed 63 percent of 170 passes for 1,357 yards, scoring 11 touchdowns, throwing two picks, accumulating a 104.5 passer rating in games that he started. Had Boomer played the entire season, he was treading near 4,400 yards passing and 35 touchdowns -- all of which rivaled team records, as would the passer rating.

Then there's Corey Dillon, who like Chad Johnson, falls into the category of "yea, they were great but I grew tired of their attitude" crowd. During the same stretch that Esiason started in '97, Dillon posted 635 yards rushing, including a rookie-shattering 246-yard rushing effort against the Houston Tennessee Titans Oilers.

One question to this madness: Why did it take so long for the Bengals to start Esiason and Dillon, both of whom were on the roster at the start of '97? Sure. Jeff Blake was a Pro Bowler two years prior, but let's not confuse him with Esiason. And KiJana Carter was actually more effective when Dillon replaced him as a starter -- keep in mind that after Carter's injury, he became Chris Perry well before Chris Perry was Chris Perry. Anyone need a drink?

Yet all of this happened after the ineffective Bengals shook things up after their season was clearly dictated into a familiar conclusion. And if you can't answer that question, then asked this: Why did it take another two full seasons for the Bengals to fire Coslet after this gaffe?

WR - Carl Pickens
WR - Chad Johnson
WR (Slot) - T.J. Houshmandazeh

It's not a difficult comprehension why Boomer was so successful in '97, with one of the franchise's greatest receivers in Carl Pickens; who himself felt blessed after having to deal with welcome mat quarterbacks like David Klinger, Jay Schroeder, Erik Wilhelm and Donald Hollas up to that point.

Even with those names and a nice reprieve from an inconsistent Jeff Blake and all-to-short-marriage of Boomer Esiason, Pickens was a touchdown machine, averaging nearly eight scores per season (1.2 touchdowns more per season than all-time leader Chad Johnson) while averaging a touchdown once in every two games. Make sure you appreciate the moment when you're watching A.J. Green in a Bengals uniform, who is scoring touchdowns at an even greater clip.

Why not Green in the players you've watched in the all-time list?

Now why not Green on this list? Maybe he should be. In three seasons, Green is averaging 87 receptions, 1,378 yards and 9.7 touchdowns per season. I mean... !!!!. Alright. He's on the list.

Do you remove Pickens or Johnson? Maybe we'll ditch Houshmandzadeh, whose single-season franchise mark of 112 receptions in 2007 is 12 more than second-place Pickens -- both of whom are the only Bengals receivers with 100 receptions or more in a season.

Screw it. We're designing a starting lineup with a four-wide formation to start the game.

WR - Carl Pickens
WR - Chad Johnson
WR - A.J. Green
WR - T.J. Houshmandzadeh

Speaking of the Bengals receivers, three of those four accurately fall under the Harvey Dent rule of superheros: "You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain." Don't forget about Dillon too. We're not going to focus much on the offensive line from that generation, save for Willie Anderson. Let's broaden the horizon to the mid-70s to include Dave Lapham.

LT - Anthony Munoz
LG - Dave Lapham
C - Rich Braham
RG - Max Montoya
RT - Willie Anderson

Interesting. No Bob Johnson?

Though not the first player ever added to the Cincinnati Bengals roster -- that distinction belongs to quarterback John Stofa -- Bob Johnson became a trivia answer as the first draft pick in franchise history, earning the nickname, The Original Bengal. Also the only player in Bengals history to have his uniform number retired. That is a commentary in of itself (aka, the Bengals hate talking about their history).

Yet we can't stop thinking about the immortal one, Richie Braham -- the standard in which all centers in Cincinnati are compared to. Since Johnson's career was mostly over by the time Earth was honored with my birth, Richie is my guy. Munoz is obvious. So is Max Montoya (four Pro Bowls, three with the Bengals).

TE - Dan Ross

Selected at No. 30 in the second round of the 1979 NFL draft, Ross would generate a record 11 receptions, 104 yards receiving and two touchdowns in a game that nearly featured one of the greatest comebacks in Super Bowl history. Ross was named to the 1982 Pro Bowl team while earning two All-Pro selections.

Then again. When I think Bengals tight ends, I think the deep rumbling decibels that should belong to a smoker -- a voice made for radio. Bob Trumpy is an older no-nonsense grandfather-like figure that has kids begging for more Paul Brown stories. After all, he's a four-time Pro Bowler that earned a First-Team All-Pro selection.

After a ten-year career with the Bengals, generating 4,600 yards receiving and 35 touchdowns, Trumpy set forth with an equally impressive (if not more so) second career in radio. Along with hosting a weeknight show on 700-WLW (that would become Sports Talk) for ten years, Trumpy called games throughout the 80s for NBC where he called Super Bowls XXVII and XXVIII.

Not bad for a 12th round (301st overall) draft pick during the 1968 NFL draft.

We'll do defense another day.

Should we expect Carlos Dunlap's production decline after Michael Johnson's departure?

If one subscribes to the theory that success from one player enables the successes of others, then Carlos Dunlap could see a decline in his first year sans Johnson because 1) he may move to right defensive end, putting him against left tackles (aka, the league's most expensive pass protectors) and 2) attention will be greater because there isn't another Carlos Dunlap to propel Carlos Dunlap. Granted, Dunlap hasn't secured more than 7.5 sacks since his rookie season in 2010 (9.5 that year) however, he's in the top-five among all 4-3 defensive ends in hits and 11th in total hurries according to Pro Football Focus. Using an NBA reference, this will be the first year that Dunlap can shine on his own.

But they have... Wallace Gilberry and... Margus Hunt?

Gilberry concerns me because he's a contributor that may be asked to become a full-time starter. Last year, in nearly 400 defensive snaps, Gilberry generated an 8.2 pass rush productivity score -- that ranked 25th among all 4-3 defensive ends in the NFL and worse than George Selvie. It's still impressive, but does he stay on track? Margus Hunt has the physical prowess of Godzilla (big and strong but a little uncoordinated) with awesome Estonian humor. Translating into the eventual Michael Johnson replacement remains a developing initiative that becomes the first major project for defensive coordinator Paul Guenther. Dontay Moch may transition back to a defensive end, as could Sam Montgomery and Jayson DiManche (in fact, you might as well jot that down as a certainty). Any one could become the eventual Johnson replacement. If you're asking me to believe that it will happen this year, you're asking too much.

Who would dare forget about a totally unassuming defensive tackle in a 4-3 defense after going on IR for half-a-season last year?

Geno Atkins is the league's best interior pass rusher... at least he was prior to an ACL tear in Miami last year. Ask me again in October.

What's the biggest thing to take away from the Bengals 2014 schedule release?

Cincinnati will get their share of prime time games; along with the NFL marketing Thursday Night Football as an all-inclusive format, having made three consecutive postseason berths will assure that the Bengals will have multiple appearances. Unlike "those years" when Cincinnati football drained our exuberant hope dry and never played primetime games, asking if the Bengals will have a primetime game really isn't a story anymore. What I'm happy about? No 4 p.m. games. There's just something unnatural about them. Like 5 p.m starts for the Reds or European soccer playing even before the sunsets on the West Coast. Suppose that's a market issue; the Bengals western-most opponent, the Denver Broncos, will make a flight over God's country to Cincinnati. More importantly, the schedule rotation eliminates west coast teams (what usually generates the most likely 4 p.m. starts) because the AFC North plays the AFC South and NFC South.

That said, it doesn't mean Cincinnati won't have any late-afternoon starts. Flex scheduling isn't just about Sunday Night Football -- CBS could just as easily delay a pivotal 1 p.m. meeting by three hours... if the Patriots, Broncos, or Jets aren't playing teams of interest (welcome to the big-time).

Will the Bengals draft another running back in the first two rounds?

Despite Giovani Bernard's ridiculous argument that made me look completely foolish, I foolishly hold onto the belief that Cincinnati should never use a high-round draft pick on a running back -- at least in the first three rounds. It's not that the NFL is shying away from big-impact runners; it's that decent talent can be found in most rounds and even within the talent pool of college free agents.

That being said, if the team is desperately concerned about getting Andy Dalton paid, they can release BenJarvus Green-Ellis and recoup $2.5 million against the salary cap. He's on the final year of a three-year deal and falling shy of the expectations when he signed in 2012. From 2010-11, Green-Ellis scored 24 rushing touchdowns and by the time he left New England, he famously never fumbled. In the last two years with Cincinnati, Green-Ellis has scored 13 touchdowns and fumbled five times, four lost. It's not about a lack of carries -- he's averaging 249 carries in Cincinnati and his career-high in New England only reached 229. He's yet to reach a four-yard average on his attempts (though third-and-one and goalline situations tend to saturate that number).

Wait, you didn't answer the question.

No. They won't draft someone in the first two... probably first three rounds. However, if they want to replace his production for a fraction of the cost, it won't be difficult. Couldn't Cedric Peerman or Rex Burkhead carry those duties anyway? Cincinnati won't. They like Green-Ellis -- a solid lockerroom guy -- so much so that Mike Brown personally delivers him to practice on his golf cart and gives him a gentle slap on the thigh. That's Hard Knocks for you.

Giovani Bernard will have a monster season, won't he?

With Hue Jackson calling plays, it's a favorable bet.

But there's another impact to this so-called discussion, isn't there?

Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton has two things to prove this year... 1) he deserves to be paid like most quarterbacks in the NFL and 2) he's capable of winning the big games. And Jackson will help him get there. Would it expose Cincinnati's offensive weaknesses with a system that demands short/quick/timing passes from a quarterback that becomes erratically indecisive if the first (sometimes second) option is covered?

Do you care that Andy Dalton calls himself the face of the franchise?

No, not really. It's a meaningless perspective. If the Bengals lose, the face of the franchise talks about it -- and I've never been a fan of post-game pressers. If the Bengals win, then the face of the franchise runs through the talking points of "say this when you win". In fact, if players and coaches weren't forced to talk within an hour after the game's conclusion, we'd all be better for it.

"We didn't execute." 
"We played well."
"Have to give credit to the other team." 
"I couldn't have done it without my teammates."

No shit.

If he calls himself the franchise and wants to take the lead, good. It's a step in a direction away from the criticism that he doesn't have mental toughness. But pronouncements in April are meaningless until September. Until then, talk big. Play bigger.

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