In an astounding and incredibly surprising turnaround, the Cincinnati Bengals went from a 4-12 team, which was the team's worst record since 2002, to a 9-7 team in 2011. Not only did they finish the regular season with a winning record for only the third time since 1990, they went to the playoffs for the second time in three years. Considering what transpired in the offseason, the success that the Bengals found on the field in 2011 was incredible. They have successfully built a foundation on which they can build lasting success and give their fans something they haven't had in over two decades -- a consistently good team.
The greatest improvement from the 2010 team to the 2011 team may not have been seen on the field, though. One could argue that their greatest improvement was in the locker room when it came to the team's chemistry.
In 2010, the Bengals came into the season as heavy favorites to be one of the six AFC playoff teams and one or two analysts even predicted they would go to the Super Bowl. They were coming off a 10-6 season in which they used a strong running attack and an aggressive and talented defense to sweep the AFC North and go to the playoffs as the division winner. Before the season, they signed future hall of fame wide receiver Terrell Owens in hopes that he could provide a shot in the arm to the team's struggling passing game.
That didn't happen, of course.
Instead the team went on a 10-game losing streak and the team's core started to break down. Both Chad Ochocinco and Terrell Owens criticized the Bengals coaching staff and they seemed to be more involved with their off-field projects than the team. It wasn't actually until they were both out that the Bengals passing offense finally took off.
Then, of course, in the offseason Carson Palmer dropped a drama bomb in the form of a trade demand and a threat to retire. Nothing could have hurt the team's chemistry or divided them amongst themselves more and as a result, the every NFL analyst and their cousins predicted the Bengals to be the worst team in the NFL. I have to admit, I didn't necessarily disagree with most of those analysts. I didn't see much hope.
However, hope came in the form of the draft and a few well-placed trades.
The Bengals chose not to re-sign TO (not a big surprise) and drafted a wide receiver who is just as talented (with better hands) and doesn't have the mouth or attitude. Then they drafted a quarterback that had the ability to fit into the team's new West-Coast system and was a proven winner. Furthermore, he was a vocal leader, something that Carson Palmer never was.
Then the team, somewhat surprisingly, traded Chad Ochocinco to the New England Patriots for two draft picks. Considering what Green did in 2011 and considering what Ochocinco didn't do in New England, I'd say we got a deal. The team found success early in the season and they did it without their all-time leading receiver or without their ex-franchise quarterback. Once it was clear that Andy Dalton could lead the Bengals, the team shed Carson Palmer, trading him to the Raiders, for a first- and second-round pick.
As a result, the locker room is now filled with true leaders, both young and old, who can lead this team to the next level. With a few new faces at a handful of positions and saying goodbye to a couple others, the Bengals can have the locker room that we've always heard about it places like New England. For the first time since Marvin Lewis has been patrolling the sidelines of Paul Brown Stadium as the team's head coach, it seems that the players, all the players, are buying what he's selling. So far, it seems to be working.
With a couple adjustments to the roster, we could see the Bengals steadily improve over the next couple of seasons. If that happens, the lack of drama in the locker room will be largely responsible,