In the last 20 years, the Cincinnati Bengals have been caught in a massive whirlpool (named Mike Brown) and have been slowly but surely dragged under the surface of the dark water. Mavin Lewis, acting as a life raft, has been the only thing that has allowed the Bengals organization to see the light of day, giving them two playoff seasons, one in 2005 and one in 2009.
Unfortunately, those two playoff seasons aren't enough to stop the Bengals from being, what Sports Illustrated's Peter King calls, a second-class or maybe even a third-class NFL team and, unless they make some major changes, they'll never be able to get the kind of players that they want in free agency.
Cincinnati is always going to have to overpay players to get them to sign, or take players on a downward path (Nate Clements), or be the haven for guys looking for a career jumpstart (Manny Lawson). Sorry. That's just the way life is, and will be as long Cincinnati is perceived by players and agents as a second-class NFL team. Or third-.
And it's not just King who has been in a Bengals-bashing mood today. CBSSports.com writer Paul Dehner Jr. writes that even though teams don't need a roster of superstars to win a Super Bowl (citing everybody on the Green Bay Packers other than Aaron Rodgers and Charles Woodson), the Bengals need smoke and mirrors to convince any free agent to sign with the team. However, when Carson Palmer, the face of the franchise, finally had enough and decided he'd rather quit the game he loves than play another down in Cincinnati, "Smoke machines and mirrors officially went out of stock."
Palmer's public stance supported by the departure of Ochocinco choked the popularity out of the Bengals. In the National Signing Day-style free-for-all of this hectic, new NFL world, that means quite a bit.
For now, it means the Bengals are about $49 million under the salary cap as of Saturday morning and currently without anyone willing to take large chunks of their cash.
The Bengals are starting over with a clean slate -- new quarterback, new wide receivers, new defense, new everything. Unfortunately, they won't be able to start over without the perception that the team is a black hole that free agents should avoid at all costs. There are players, like Tank Johnson, who are happy and excited to play for the Bengals, saying, "Whether guys want to come here or not, that is up to them, but I think guys here are excited about being here and starting an opportunity with a clean slate."
There are also those, though, who are extremely frustrated with the situation, like defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer.
"It's more frustrating," Zimmer said. "If a guy gets hurt, he gets hurt. If he just leaves, that's a different feeling."
Well, we're frustrated too, Mike. And we've been dealing with it for a much longer period of time and we'll be dealing with it much longer after you're gone.
At least a fan of a second- or third-rate team would be considered a first-rate fan, right?