At this point in life, we all have a decent handle on what the word change is and how it seems to effect every single thing in the universe. It's bothersome and exciting all at the same time. It's big and it's small and it's everywhere. Fine.
Change effects me. For years I have stalked these pages anonymously, firing off comments and opinions behind a veil of secrecy. Today, the Mojokong mask comes off. My name is Bryan Burke, and you will now see that listed under my posts. Fret not, though, worried reader, the rest remains the same...for now.
Change effects football teams too. Both Cincinnati Bengal coordinators were snatched up this offsesason by struggling NFC teams. There was a pause, especially when Mike Zimmer left, when Bengal fans looked at each other and wondered if everything would be okay without him. Eventually, they seemed to settle on that it would be, but nobody felt good about him leaving.
The Bengals front office followed its true character and promoted from within. Some may have viewed the moves as safe and conservative, but the team had compiled a powerhouse coaching staff that was prepared for this exact scenario. The idea of developing people in-house rather than bring in others trained in different ways seems to be on the right course for this team—at least in terms of regular-season wins.
And now it's reported that the Bengals and Marvin Lewis are talking extension. This, of course, would not be a change. It would push the Marvin Lewis era to four presidential terms and allow him to do his job with a total personal investment. Many would call it a mistake to continue to employ leadership that has yet to provide tangible postseason results after so many chances. Others, and most importantly, owner Mike Brown, would point to the fact that he deserves to keep his job precisely because of all those chances.
Yet, Marvin Lewis knows better than to resist change while leading and competing among men. He has allowed his team to transform in a number of variations over the years. The Bengals were first an aerial-assault offense with a young Carson Palmer and then a smash-mouth running one with an old Carson Palmer. They were a safe, training-wheels offense during Andy Dalton's rookie year, but last year, they ran a wily, stats-producing scheme that at times totally dominated and at other times tragically fell apart. Now, under Hue Jackson, the offense is expected to lean more on the ground game and take pressure off of the explosive, yet fragile passing attack.
I think since the Andy Dalton reboot, Marvin has shown to be one of the best coaches out there. I don't blame him for last year's playoff loss. He had a highly competitive team that got stunned on a second-half adjustment. He trusted his coordinators and likely didn't meddle in their play-calling and he didn't personally commit any of the four turnovers in that game. I often criticized him for his game-management skills in terms of handling the clock and challenges, but I felt he improved in these areas in 2013.
Marvin is also highly respected among his peers. He wears some big shoes for the organization. Not only is he head coach, he is an executive in the front office and he is the team's top ambassador to the public and the media. He's been on the Competition Committee for many years now, has developed his own non-profit foundation in the city, and he is still the backbone of legitimacy for the team.
Many close observers feel that Lewis will eventually transition to become the team's full-time general manager someday and the possibility of him working for another NFL team continues to seem remote.
Changes to player personnel aren't likely to be as pronounced as that of the coaching shifts, though. Defensive end Michael Johnson will probably find a new home. Johnson has developed nicely with the Bengals and manned his post with a great sense of reliability and professionalism. Not only is he a strong pass rusher and run stopper, but his ability to annoy quarterbacks with his height and jumping ability has translated into some huge plays in his career. Bengal fans will miss him if he leaves, but their just isn't enough money for everyone and the defensive line would survive without him.
Anthony Collins is more likely to return. He will seek starting tackle money, which is a small fortune to be sure, but he won't find the totals that, say, Brandon Albert, is likely to earn. The Bengals found something they liked when they moved Andrew Whitworth to guard and installed Anthony Collins at left tackle. Now, it seems that they are viewing this setup as their plan for next year. If that were the case, and since Cincinnati has a ton of cap space, why would you not sign him? Knowing the organization, it is possible the Bengals might not offer enough and he could find greener pastures on the open market, but it would seem in their interest to formulate a very competitive offer to Collins. Of course, if Collins does find himself in a different uniform next season, Whitworth can move back to tackle and Clint Boling could then reclaim his starting spot without a drop off in terms of production.
Who they might add is a more interesting conversation—at least the possibilities are interesting anyway. The problem is, they typically make very little waves in free agency, and leave us nonplussed. However, all too often, this turns out to be the right move in the end.
The big names seem increasingly more risky to invest in. Signing a veteran that appears firmly in his prime seems at first irresistible and terrific, but then it's discovered that his prime was only 18 more games and that the fat four-year contract he was given now feels undeserved. It's the mid-grade free agents the Bengals will sniff. James Harrison was one of these purchases. A hall-of-fame player, to be sure, but his age allowed Cincinnati to nab him at a reasonable price last season. His role turned out to be very different compared to what he was asked to do in Pittsburgh, but he played it well nonetheless, and proved to be a nice addition to last year's Zim Clan.
Perhaps the pickup of the year last season was Danny Woodhead, and he certainly was not on the radar of every team. This hobbit of a running back hurt the Bengals in the playoffs and caught 76 passes for the Chargers. Wallace Gilberry was a discount special two seasons ago for Cincinnati and has 14 sacks in 30 games for the Stripes. These are the kinds of players, and only a few at that, the Bengals may show interest in this March.
As far as the draft goes, the Bengals have proven to be well-researched. Because of four consecutive stellar drafts, the team has formed a roster that doesn't require a first-rounder to take on too much at any position in their first year. A lot of teams say they will take the best player available, but in Cincinnati's case, that is a concrete reality to the organization. They could take another tight end and would be fine.
They like versatile players that can play multiple positions. They like to see low pad-level and an exceptional ability to bend one's knees. They have put an emphasis on character and those results are cashing in, on and off the field.
There will be future discussions about who these names will be, but for now, the outline has been sketched, and the general game-plan laid out. So, while Marvin Lewis may keep the same job with same title at the same place indefinitely, there will be tremendous changes within all of that sameness. The million-dollar question, though, which will lurk above this franchise like a threatening rain cloud all season remains: will anything change come January? Until then, many will not see any difference.