"OHMYGOD, football is back!"
How many times have these outbursts crept up on you throughout the week? Some of you are like little girls at a Beatles concert. We've watched Yay. Eck. OHMYGOD, football is back. It happened Friday night when Pitt cleaned Boston College of every scholarship. It happened continuously on Thursday night when the Seattle Seahawks, the team that everyone loves because they're so damn hip, hosted (and crushed) the Green Bay Packers. That same Packers squad has been picked by many experts to qualify for the Super Bowl.
The Cincinnati Bengals are cruising into their regular season launch party on Sunday against a divisional rival in Baltimore. Collective winds have shifted and soon we'll go from "OHMYGOD, football is back" to "OHMYGOD, Bengals football is back." Don't worry, the negative Nancys will be back. Within a few months, things will head into the direction of "Marvin is terrible" or "Brown has to go", but those comments usually come from irrelevant lips who fail to recall the Dave Shula and Bruce Coslet era.
Let's take a look at five questions heading into week one.
1) ROOKIE RUNNING GAME
Giovani Bernard deserves every description of excitement, especially when we're focusing on Cincinnati's running backs. Seriously. Look at this guy:
He's stronger and quicker this year; when you think about that insanity, your mind might collapse within itself. Bernard isn't a question -- he's a constant, a certainty.
His position-mate, second-round rookie Jeremy Hill, adds more depth and excitement than what's already there. Mind. Blown.
That's only half the question... Hill joins Bernard in the backfield, while rookie Russell Bodine, selected in the fourth round of the 2014 NFL draft, will start at center. Can Bodine neutralize second-year nose tackle Brandon Williams? Will Hill prove to be the upgrade that we believe him to be?
2) Mohamed Sanu: The New No. 2
The Cincinnati Bengals have already applied the "next man up" philosophy this year -- the three-word phrase that kept Cincinnati in the hunt last year with role players stepping up their production. With Marvin Jones rehabilitating a broken foot, Cincinnati needs players to neutralize his absence. Remember, this is a guy who posted over 50 receptions, 700 yards receiving and 10 scores last year.
There are options, sure.
Tight ends Jermaine Gresham and Tyler Eifert are often promoted as physical freaks with wide receiver mentalities. Of course, in Jay Gruden's system, we never actually saw much more than two tight ends that usually played tight end... but there's a new offensive coordinator in town, so we'll see. And that doesn't even consider that both were constant injury reminders during the preseason. Rusty? Need a little time to workout the kinks?
Giovani Bernard and Jeremy Hill are fantastic options out of the backfield too.
In the end, you need another wide receiver.
You need Mohamed Sanu... because there's no one else. You're not going to rely on Dane Sanzenbacher or Brandon Tate. If there was no special teams units, there would be no Dane or Tate. Dane-Tate. Tate-Dane. And if you're immediate reaction is "they just need a chance" then fine. Let's see how long your coaching career lasts.
In the meantime, back in serious-ville, Sanu posted comparable receiving numbers to Jones last year, falling three receptions shy of 50. Where Jones separates himself from Sanu, aside from the 10:2 touchdown ratio between them, is the average receptions. Jones averaged 14 yards per catch and Sanu finished 2013 at 9.7 yards. Jones flanked wide. Sanu played slot.
Sanu has the ability though.
In preseason games against the New York Jets and Arizona Cardinals, Sanu combined for seven receptions for 126 yards receiving and was the recipient of a perfectly placed Andy Dalton touchdown toss that went 43 yards against New York. During a three-game stretch (week 10-12) in 2012, Sanu helped secure blowout wins against the New York Giants, Kansas City Chiefs and Oakland Raiders with a combined four touchdowns. Unfortunately Jones shoved him aside during his breakout last year.
3) Hue Jackson's Xs and Os
Let's take the preseason and place it on a piece of canvas in the backyard. Grab the shovel that you bought specifically for this task, and dig a hole. Once a depth of six feet has been reached, take the preseason and kick it into the burial site. Now fill the hole and forget everything you saw coming out of of Hue Jackson's offense. What you saw is what they wanted you to see. However, the real offense is being described as the bastardization of Bob Bratkowski's version of "Air Coryell" and Jay Gruden's "West Coast".
"You got to do a little bit of whatever it takes to win," Jackson says via Bengals.com. "Whether it is West Coast, East Coast, Side Coast, North Coast, Whatever Coast. We’ll be whatever coast you need us to be to win games. It will be Bengal Coast. That's what it is going to be."
And how long have you been waiting to say that? Clever, Hue. Regardless, the popcorn is popped for the premiere of this new showcase we're about to witness. And in case it goes horribly wrong (a la, Michael Bay movies), shot glasses and Jack Daniels whisky is already prepped for immediate blackout consumption.
4) Paul Guenther's defense
Losing Mike Zimmer wasn't just about losing the excessive personality of a fun coach... it was the loss of a defensive coordinator in Cincinnati for six years. Teams lose coordinators all the time and this adjustment for Cincinnati won't be much different than those teams who have lost coordinators in the past -- despite both coordinators in 2013 leaving for head coaching positions.
Our question... how will Cincinnati's defense look with Guenther calling it? Will he blitz safeties to an unhealthy degree? Will tight ends continue to face soft coverage? How will Guenther call plays to replicate Michael Johnson's lost production, who departed for Tampa Bay over the offseason?
5) The Infirmed Return
Geno Atkins returns from a torn ACL against the Miami Dolphins. Leon Hall returns from a torn Achilles against the Detroit Lions. Clint Boling returns from a torn knee against the San Diego Chargers. Also returning from season-ending injuries last year are Sean Porter, Emmanuel Lamur, Taylor Mays, Robert Geathers and Kevin Huber.
These players are a combination of superstars, starters, role players and the unproven -- all of whom return this year in some fashion. We won't see Porter this weekend, but Lamur and Geathers, along with Hall, Atkins and Boling, will have significant playing time.
How will they recover from injury? Boling appears fine but needs intervals of rest. Atkins simply doesn't have the confidence in his knee to leave it unprotected (which is usually expected for a while). Hall seemed a bit rusty but he should be fine, having already dealt with this injury before. Lamur missed a few tackles during the preseason but hopefully that's just rust.
The infirmed return.