"I've had it with these motherf*%@ing snakes on this motherf*%@ing plane!"
- Samuel L. Jackson on Snakes on a Plane, a nomination for my favorite movie quote in 2006.
When last season ended, Marvin Lewis said, "It's time for us to blow the whole thing up and start from scratch." The quote was in response to his own energy, wondering if he was worn down. At the time, I got the impression that Lewis meant he was taking the team, blowing it up, and starting from scratch. Of course the reality of today's NFL prevents teams from dumping half their roster, and rebuilding from scratch. Too many salary cap implications and you just can't "rebuild" half a team in one off-season.
Half-a-year later, it's apparent his intention was to time-travel back to 2003, rebuilding the team's moral, spirits, unity and the defense. For several seasons, it's been hinted that Marvin Lewis lost the locker room due to double-standard and special treatment of Chad Johnson. It's now hinted that the way Lewis handled Johnson this off-season, his players started gravitating back to the coach, regaining their confidence.
But it was the defense that saw the biggest "blow up". And in truth, it's been an ongoing project for the past three off seasons. After the failure (perhaps intentionally) re-signing Justin Smith, Madieu Williams and Landon Johnson -- the team's leading players on the line, at linebacker and in the secondary -- they supplemented. Losing Justin Smith meant acquiring Antwan Odom (the team's biggest free agency acquisition). Losing Johnson, and other role playing linebackers, mostly on special teams, the team drafted Keith Rivers and signed new role players, mostly for special teams. When the team lost Williams, they put their money in the bank of youthful transition; which included the permanent demotion of Deltha O'Neal.
Note: $88 million of contracts were handed out to Williams, Smith and Landon this off-season.
This season, the Bengals figure to have Domata Peko, Keith Rivers, Ahmad Brooks, Johnathan Joseph, Leon Hall, Robert Geathers, and Marvin White starting on defense -- all players the Bengals have drafted in recent off-seasons. Pat Sims and Jason Shirley project themselves as a rotational defensive line within the next season while Jonathan Fanene will rotate at tackle and end. The key thing to note here is their youth and upswing on the line while playing with Antwan Odom and Robert Geathers -- two noted sackers.
This youthful transition took place in the secondary between 2006 and 2007 with guys like Hall, Joseph, White and Chinedum Ndukwe -- who's one bad Dexter Jackson play from starting himself and the team's best LB/S hybrid. The biggest hole in the whole defensive transition was at linebacker after a failed 2005 draft and seeing the team's drafted linebackers in 2004 leave for another team (aka, Landon Johnson), or simply unemployed (aka, Caleb Miller).
The Ahmad Brooks project remains at status: potential. In 2006, Brooks secured Thurman's spot, but couldn't keep it because he was often out of place allowing big plays. In 2007, he suffered an injury that saw his season lost, among 441 other Bengals linebackers. The surprise player of 2007, Dhani Jones, earned a new contract and was announced as the team's starting middle linebacker while Rivers and Brooks will flank him. The depth at linebacker isn't great, but it is good -- and that means quality special teams talent.
Then there's Mike Zimmer, who unlike his predecessor Leslie Frazier or Chuck Bresnahan, quickly earned his player's respect. Expecting the team to run a base 4-3, imploring a higher ratio of 3-4 sets, a key change is the team's philosophy to bump-and-run becoming more physical with the opponent's receivers in an effort to delay the quarterback's release so guys like Geathers and Odom can do their thing. With a physical secondary expected, the Bengals are firing up their base with the intension of getting to the quarterback with frequency.
Personally speaking, I feel more energized about this season because this defense is expected to be the best during the Marvin Lewis era. Now, I've always been an optimist, so it could be "blowed up" in my face. Depth-wise, this defense is better. Talent-wise, the starters are good, some very unproven though. Coaching-wise, this schemes are projected to be much more aggressive. I'm on board, but many aren't reciting the historical let-downs during high-optimistic off-seasons. Hell, we've had a lot. But I don't remember a time that this team, with Marvin Lewis leading, that's been promoted as enthusiastic as this since Lewis' first season.
So yea, I'm pumped for this season.
Oddly enough, it's the defense that has me optimistic.