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Offseason blues lead to interesting Bengals training camp stories

The offseason, a period of boredom that the NFL pretends doesn’t exist, is nearing its end. We talk about that and ask a few questions about training camp.

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Student Spellers Compete In 2018 National Spelling Bee Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Between the formation of Cincy Jungle (March 15, 2006) and my resignation 10 years later, my approach to the NFL offseason evolved.

Originally — as young hipsters like to call it “back in the day” — we reacted to news and built themes around conversations. Our aim was to create a site written for the fans, by the fans. Here’s the news and everyone’s reaction. A symbiotic relationship even existed between CJ and the local media. Those were fun, carefree days.

But the worst part about running a site centered around the NFL, or an NFL team, is the offseason.

The NFL pretends to be a year-round operation, but it’s not. There were 38 days between the Super Bowl and free agency in 2018; 43 days between the start of free agency and the NFL draft; 47 days between the NFL draft and Cincinnati’s mandatory minicamp; 44 days between mandatory minicamp and training camp.

So there’s plenty of time during the offseason, like a void between galaxies, that’s filled with draft previews, free agency predictions, and so much roster building that you’re desperately counting down until training camp starts. NFL shows on television and league-specific articles fill your sports itinerary with meaningless ramblings and predictions until meaningful football things happen: “And now we present, the top-20 NFL left-handed quarterbacks who made the perfect lasagna while standing on one foot.”

Our first foray into the offseason at Cincy Jungle was 2006, and if you remember, it was a pretty turbulent time for the Bengals. There were at least 10 incidents with law enforcement that year – we covered nine of them – from drunk driving, providing alcohol to minors, unruly behavior, and even drunk boating.

We didn’t want to be a news reporting entity/aggregator at the time. Aside from those arrests, turning Cincinnati into caricatures that exists today, and Carson Palmer updates, our original goal was to create a community where your voice, not the writers’, was more prominent. That was the focus entering 2006.

We had to evolve almost immediately. We became obsessed with news, discussed articles other folks had written, and reacted to off-putting national pundits and analysts. This evolution became a draw for our community, even providing a sense of unity with a common theme: No one understood us more than us.

As our audience expanded, so have our conversations.

It was always easy providing fresh content during the season; film reviews, game reviews, game previews, statistical analysis, complaining about Marvin Lewis. And yet, it was impossible during the offseason, especially as players became well-behaved, to generate fresh content. With a community starving for information, we had to keep pumping content but had to avoid becoming complacency.

We obviously figured it out, but eventually I had to resign — focusing on career and family. I was ready to give this role to someone else, so they can work 14-hour days during the offseason.

Now my offseason has transitioned away from the dull drums of boredom. I almost immediately stopped obsessing about every news bit, article written, and the opinion of the national media. Who cares? I checked in during free agency and the NFL draft, but the offseason began to apply to my fanaticism as well. Time to recharge the ol’ batteries, as they say. This approach has had it’s pluses and minuses; on one hand, I’m free to do more but on the other, I realize that I don’t know as much about the team as I used to.

Maybe it’s me. Maybe it’s my age. Maybe it’s the state of the Bengals franchise, beating our generous expectations into a gratuitous pulp of routine. I love the Bengals. I despise ownership. You can do both. It’s possible. Many of us have been doing it since the 90s.

Then again, NFL coverage is like an open bag of chips after five days. The same stale stories are written every year with different names; Player A is holding out; Player B is focusing more on nutrition; a Pittsburgh player is contractually bitchy. Human interest stories are similar; the authors/writers produce quality work, but the core of these stories carry the same structure – what did this player overcome, how did it start, how did he overcome it, and how peaceful is he after his personal tribulation? You either need something new to hook your continued interest, or step away and appreciate it after being absent for a period of time.

Free agency circulates the same stories around the same teams spending too much money on overrated players that whom rarely reward those teams. The NFL draft, the annual crapshoot, is mostly a collection of one-word descriptions from hard-working analysts that review a handful of games of nearly 400 college athletes. The media’s coverage of spring practices highlights a handful of plays, surprising athleticism from no-name players, but the only thing people care about is injury news (or lack thereof). Even the play-by-play, color analyst dynamic in the television booth is lacking:

Play-by-Play: “The quarterback threw an interception.”
Color Analyst: “That was a bad pass/decision.”

So in a lot of ways, as I’m dusting off the cobwebs of another offseason, I’m playing catch-up. Who are the draft picks? I know their names and their schools. Who did the Bengals sign as college free agents? Was Cordy Glenn a good trade or an overreaction? Why is the national media projecting Cincinnati unfavorably? We’ll review most of these questions over time, largely to help me recover from offseason freezer burn while providing a winter/spring recap.

Hey, training camp is finally here!

NFL: Cincinnati Bengals-Training Camp Cincinnati Enquirer-USA TODAY NETWORK

The Cincinnati Bengals open training camp Thursday and, like every training camp before it, there are questions.

Reconfiguration of the offensive line. “It starts with pass protection,” Bengals owner Mike Brown said earlier this year. “We’ve got to get that up to standard. We have to run the ball more effectively than we did over the course of the year. At the end of the year, we were (more effective). So perhaps we’re closer to putting together one of those pieces that has to be corrected. The pass protection issue is still out there and we will work to try to make that what it needs to be.”

Cincinnati’s offensive line was clearly in a state of decline after the departures of Andrew Whitworth and Kevin Zeitler. Cedric Ogbuehi hasn’t worked out and Jake Fisher has been dealing with heart arrhythmia issues (I’ve been dealing with arrhythmia issues since last March so I’m pulling hard for Fisher). Cincinnati replaced Paul Alexander, the team’s offensive line coach from 1994 through 2017, with former Cowboys coach Frank Pollack. The team also acquired Cordy Glenn via trade with the Buffalo Bills and used their first-round pick on Ohio State center Billy Price.

The left side of the offensive line, with Glenn and Price joining Clint Boling, introduces two unknown and yet highly optimistic, elements. Pollack brings intensity and offers different techniques that could help struggling players thrive. There are many questions still remaining, including who will be the team’s starting right guard and tackle? However, if we’re offering one-word descriptions on the offensive line, things appear to be “encouraging”.

Collection of pass rushers.

NFL: Cleveland Browns at Cincinnati Bengals David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports

Let me be clear: I love this team’s direction with pass rushers. Carlos Dunlap (64.5 sacks), who surpassed Reggie Williams (62.5) with the second-most quarterback sacks in franchise history, is 19 shy of tying Eddie Edwards’s all-time record of 83.5. Geno Atkins (61.0) should surpass Williams this year.

Both defensive anchors are entering their final year under contract. Cincinnati will focus on extending their contracts prior to the start of the season.

However, there’s youth at defensive end and it’s exciting. Carl Lawson, a fourth-round pick from the 2017 NFL draft, led all NFL rookies with 59 pressures last year and finished behind Geno Atkins with 8.5 sacks. Joining Lawson is third-round rookie Sam Hubbard, who finished his three-year Ohio State career with 17 quarterbacks sacks and 30 tackles-for-loss. General consensus is that Hubbard probably won’t be a perennial pro bowler, but could be an excellent rotational player.

Pro Football Focus, projecting Cincinnati with the 10th-best pass rushing unit, recently wrote:

Don’t be shocked when the Bengals have one of the best pass-rush units in the NFL, because with a blend on youth and experience, they have the talent to give opposing offensive coordinators fits this upcoming season. On the defensive interior, Atkins was a terror in 2017, racking up 10 sacks, 10 hits and 50 hurries. On the edge, Dunlap provided a solid complement, with eight sacks, 14 hits and 50 hurries, along with seven batted passes. The wild card in 2017 was Lawson, as the rookie added 59 total pressures in a limited role. With a bigger role expected in 2018, he could be the player to push the Bengals into the top-five in terms of pass-rush production.

Who will be the backup quarterback? AJ McCarron sought an opportunity to start in Buffalo (he’s fighting off a serious challenge from Nathan Peterman). Cincinnati needs to find a new backup.

There’s an interesting mix of youth and experience.

Jeff Driskel, claimed off waivers in September 2016, enters his third season with Cincinnati. Driskel suffered a broken arm during the final week last season when he was asked to play wide receiver in practice. Cincinnati added Toledo quarterback Logan Woodside in the draft and veteran Matt Barkley in free agency.

Um, John Ross.

NFL: Cincinnati Bengals-Minicamp Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

From turnovers to questionable routes, second-year receiver John Ross quickly became a card-carrying member of the Marvin Lewis dog house last year. Ross only played three games and 17 snaps.

His initiation into the NFL was slowed last year because he was recovering from shoulder surgery.

“That was the problem,” Ross said this February. “My body didn’t respond the way I wanted it to. Coming in late, I didn’t get to train. I was out of shape. That was pretty tough on my body. Rushing into it. Being out of shape. My body couldn’t take the physical aspects of the game we do every day. I thought I could. I think it kind of wore me out faster than I thought. I really didn’t catch up until the end of the year when I started to have better practices. It all started to click together. It was already kind of too late. It was best to rest, get my body right.”

Conspiracy theories have existed with Ross since his entry into the league, notably that Ross was selected by not-really-a-general-manager Duke Tobin and that Lewis disagreed with the selection. This was never corroborated, but it was a talking point that wouldn’t go away.

Regardless, Ross is winning over his teammates and coaches now.

“He’s got his confidence back,” Green said earlier this summer. “The way he’s working this offseason is unbelievable. He’s healthy and explosive again.”

“I think he’s all the ability we wanted,” Lewis said. “That’s why we drafted him. He had to get fixed. We knew he was injured going in and he got nicked up a couple of times in his lower legs and the other shoulder was bothering him. He’s all fixed now.”

However, it wasn’t just the shoulder that put Ross in Lewis’s doghouse, limiting his games and snaps. He also screwed up — one would think that’s expected from a rookie.

“I’m the one who (fumbled),” Ross said of his early season fumble. “I’m the one who fumbled. I’m the one who ran a poor route. There are always things to correct, always things to do better. Things are going to happen, but it’s not the end of the road. I’ve still got a lot of things to prove, still have a lot of work to do. If it was easy, I wouldn’t want to do it.”

Now the question is: How will he respond?

A spot on the roster is a foregone conclusion. However, with A.J. Green, Tyler Boyd, Brandon LaFell, Giovani Bernard, and a not-really-sure-if-he’s-healthy Tyler Eifert on the field, how much playing time Ross acquires depends on his healthy and productivity during training camp.

Groundhog day, starring Tyler Eifert.

NFL: Preseason-Indianapolis Colts at Cincinnati Bengals Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Veteran tight end Tyler Eifert posted a tweet on Monday reading:

Perhaps he’ll stay healthy this year. One can only hope.

Eifert is recovering from multiple procedures last year, starting with back surgery last October and a month later, the removal of a cyst from his knee. The timing was terrible for Eifert, who was scheduled to enter free agency; durability concerns is an obvious red flag for teams willing to shell out millions. The Cincinnati Enquirer projected his return at 10%, with one writer opining that the Bengals aren’t “interested in going down that path anymore.” So it was somewhat surprising when Cincinnati signed Eifert to a one-year deal, even though it’s worth a manageable $5.5 million — imagine the reward if he remains healthy and returns to his 2015 Pro Bowl form.

That being said, Eifert’s overall health and readiness for training camp hasn’t been entirely clear.

March 15: Eifert says he’s back to full health.
June 13: Marvin Lewis “can’t say” if Eifert will be ready for training camp.
July 24: “It would be a surprise” if Eifert is healthy at start of training camp.

Since being a first round pick from the 2013 NFL Draft, Eifert has only played 39 out of a possible 80 games during the regular season; he’s missed at least half of three seasons with a range of injuries from a dislocated elbow, damaged ligaments in an ankle (during the Pro Bowl, no less), back, shoulder, and knee surgeries, and a concussion.

Eifert missed or was limited during several spring practices this year, but he claims that he’s healthy. Lewis is noncommittal and the mothership added doubt that Eifert would be ready for Thursday’s practice.

What’s the definition of insanity?