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Key to the Season: Offense rides on how much the offensive line improves

Quick. Of everything you know about the 2008 Cincinnati Bengals, which aspect of the team was substantially blamed for going 4-11-1? Was it the players that we placed on IR that could actually fill out a starting lineup? Was it the lack of a pass rush? Was it the league's worst offense, along with a defense that, despite popular belief, didn't step up until late in the season (before playing against the Browns in the 15th game of last season, the defense was ranked 22nd overall). My guess is that all of those things applied to an overall product that left Bengals fans frustrated, ashamed and, by most measures, betrayed.

However, that's not the question, is it? What unit of this team was substantially blamed for going 4-11-1? If you had to pick one, I'd be willing to bet that the poll would be overwhelming. The Bengals offensive line. We know the storylines; we've examined them ad nauseam. But let's go through the basics. Because of the poor protection schemes, Carson Palmer had a broken nose during the preseason and missed 11 games after suffering an elbow injury against the New York Giants. Because of the poor protection schemes, the Bengals allowed 51 sacks; most since 2000. And each time a Bengals quarterback were sacked, the offense lost on average 5.3 yards. Because of the rush blocking, the Bengals offense only averaged 3.6 yards-per-rush. The last time the Bengals rushing offense averaged 3.6 yards-per-rush was 1993. The average gain per offensive play was 4.0 yards -- worst average through the Mike Brown era of Bengals football. Now that's putting it into perspective, isn't it?

While I've always been one to defend the offensive line, you just can't dispute how poorly the offensive line played last year. We could try. We could say that Ryan Fitzpatrick, at times unnecessarily, tried to run out of the pocket when he hinted a pass rush. We could say that Chris Perry wasn't what we'd call an NFL-caliber feature back (third down back, change of pace back, perhaps). We could also say that there were no real receiving options behind T.J. Houshmandzadeh, including an unmotivated and injured Chad Ochocinco. We could say all that in defense of the offense line. However, the line was a problem and defending the offensive line last year would be a futile argument.

So what's happened since? Levi Jones was released. Even though he just turned 30-years old, he's yet to catch on with another team because of questions regarding his health. Eric Ghiaciuc signed on late with the Kansas City Chiefs -- he was released after the Chiefs signed center Andy Alleman. As of this post, Ghiaciuc is the second Bengals offensive lineman that started in 2008 that's now unemployed. Contract negotiations with Stacy Andrews never took off, or taken seriously, because of Andrews' desire to play alongside his brother Shawn with the Philadelphia Eagles. And we're not sure if the Bengals put much effort behind signing Andrews; one statistical breakdown showed that Andrews was responsible for 9.5 sacks in 2008.

When you add it up, three offensive linemen that started the season in 2008, are not with the team this year; two players aren't even employed. To say a lot of work was required this offseason to rebuild the offensive line, would be an understatement. Replacing three starters is one way to go.

Aside from Bobbie Williams at right guard, the Bengals will see four new players -- either starters or in Whitworth's case, a starter moving to a new position. Jonathan Luigs was drafted in 2009 and a competition was setup between Luigs, Dan Santucci and Kyle Cook. Eventually, Cook impressed coaches and teammates like Carson Palmer and Andrew Whitworth enough to win the job. Whitworth surprisingly made the move from left guard to left tackle and Anthony Collins, Jones' replacement in 2008, moved to right tackle. Nate Livings started the final six games at left guard last year and will keep his job to kickoff the season.

Then there's Andre Smith. You know the background. I know the background. Here's a quick version. Bengals draft Smith with a bunch of red flags. Prolonged contract negotiations lasted until late in the preseason. Smith broke foot and is very unlikely to take a snap in the first month of the season. If you want more on Smith, do a search on this site.

The truth of the matter is, how well the Bengals offense moves the football will be, in large part, how improved the offensive line improves. I know that's just basic football. However, it's perhaps the most critical question that needs to be answered this year. Afterall, there's a nervous anxiety among fans because if this line can't protect Palmer and he goes down again... well, you saw what happened last year.