From the noise currently being made around the Bengals these days, you would not think that the team is 2-1 or that it has a very real chance of being 4-1 before its bye week. Instead, you might think that it won't be long until Marvin Lewis is fired and Carson Palmer is forced into retirement. Rather than enjoy the positives, everyone seems to obsess over the negatives.
I can understand the paranoia surrounding the passing game—after all, it doomed Cincinnati a season ago. The difference, however, is that last year, receivers failed to get open; this season, Palmer can't accurately deliver the ball to them. If it weren't for one important fact regarding all of this, I too would jump on the-ship-is-sinking bandwagon, and that fact is: we don't need to pass well to win.
Yes, eventually, it could become a glaring, if not irreparable problem that could block the road to the Super Bowl if it continues, but can we please allow a little more time to pass before we all head for the lifeboats? Despite its struggles, the passing offense has showed some promising signs for a better future.
The one thing we all hated in Laveranues Coles was his dropped passes; so far in 2010, the only one dropping passes is our beloved Chad Ochocinco but we still love the guy because we're confident he will get it together. The rookies we have collectively put so much faith in are making plays and becoming the third-down weapons we had all hoped for. Terrell Owens still hasn't broken out for a huge game or a long touchdown pass, but he has contributed nicely when he is given the chance to make plays. The sky isn't totally falling, ladies and gentlemen.
Offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski has been dished his regular heaping of justified criticism already and has even been called out by Marvin for over-thinking his predictable scheme and running a needlessly complicated offense. His unit has produced eight field goals and five touchdowns in three games and have struggled converting on third down. The offensive line doesn't resemble the group of no-names from last year who "rose from the ashes together", as Marvin once said. Their pass-protection has been average at best and the running lanes we grew used to seeing Cedric Benson run though just aren't there right now.
Nonetheless, through all the muck and the mire, through the criticism and whining, the offense is still averaging more yards than any other AFC North team at a reasonable 328.7 yards per game. Beyond that, among their four turnovers, none have come on the opponent's side of the field. They aren't scoring at a juggernaut pace by any means, but they also aren't squandering their chances for field goals. It ain't always pretty, but it wins more often than not.
I don't know how much Palmer can or will improve. He isn't a youngster still coming into his own, but rather a veteran with multiple injuries in a steady statistical decline. I have become comfortable with the idea that his best days are behind him and that he will never reach the hall-of-fame potential I once thought I saw in him. I would even go as far as to say that a thorough search for his eventual successor should begin next off-season. For now, he's our man, and that just has to be good enough.
The good news is, what the offense leaves to be desired, the defense picks up the slack. After a roasting in New England, the pass defense appears impregnable once more as the dynamic duo of Johnathan Joseph and Leon Hall, as well as backups Adam Jones and Morgan Trent, have covered receiving corps like a big wooly holiday sweater. The defensive line's increased pressure on the quarterback hasn't resulted in more sacks, but has equaled more interceptions. The linebackers too bounced back from a rough first game to plug running lanes and play well in coverage in the next two. Mike Zimmer's boys completely dominated the field-position battle last week in Carolina, and even though the Panthers briefly threatened, the defense never lost its stranglehold on the rookie quarterback and the game never seemed in any serious jeopardy.
Also critical to the style of play the Bengals feel most comfortable in is the special-teams production which has been stellar thus far. Mike Nugent is an alien from Planet Leg whose kicking prowess frightens women and children and is being investigated by the CIA. His right leg is so large, he has to order special pants to appear normal. The left leg has developed an inferiority complex, constantly subjected to the unfair comparison with the right. The man has been perfect on his field goals (including two from +50) and his kickoffs are regularly deep. What was a worry in training camp has suddenly become something the team can brag about. And to think I secretly wanted Shayne Graham back; silly me.
Bernard Scott's big kick return against Baltimore allowed the go-ahead fourth-quarter field-goal, and Kevin Huber's three punts inside the five felt like watching golf. I was most vociferous in my complaints against Darrin Simmons a year ago, but the way he has his operation performing these days, well, I think he deserves a big hug.
The young season so far feels much like last season—which the Debbie Downers would point out concluded with a tough wild-card loss—but that doesn't mean it has to end the same way. It feels safe to say that the Bengals peaked too early last year, and, despite my stubborn attempts to discredit such a thing, teams that head into January with a stream of momentum do the best. Even though Cincinnati has two wins in three games, the team has come nowhere near to peaking already. They can do nothing but improve, and when that happens, they will feel like a real contender once more.
In the meantime, remind yourself that in most games, the Bengals are still expected to win. They are still the AFC North champions, still unbeaten in eight tries within that division and still not yet at their best. There will be plenty of time to brood over everything wrong with this team, but for now, let's try to embrace what is right.
Mojokong—when a victory is not victorious, we have lost our perspective.