Palmer, defensive additions keys to growth
After two straight 8-8 seasons, the Bengals believe they're ready to get over the hump and make the playoffs in 2005.
The NFL is geared to be a league of parity, as evidenced by the number of teams that annually fall somewhere between 9-7 and 7-9. But the toughest move sometimes is making that next step, getting to the 10-win level.
Being stuck in the middle of the pack can become a dangerous rut because fans and often owners get frustrated. Good coaches can't become great coaches without having playoff games on their résumés and many good coaches lose jobs by not advancing to that next step.
The Cincinnati Bengals are perhaps the most promising team in the middle of the pack. Coach Marvin Lewis has made miracles in putting together back-to-back 8-8 seasons. For one, he's brought the organization into the 21st century. Thanks to Lewis, veteran free agents now have their agents accepting phone calls from the Bengals. Before Lewis, Bengals offers were used only as leverage against more promising franchises. In addition, Cincinnati has drafted well under Lewis.
Coming out of the offseason workouts, the Bengals have a different buzz. While many prognosticators may put them behind the Steelers and Ravens in the increasingly competitive AFC North, the Bengals have earned a tag as one of the sleeper teams to watch. This could be their year to contend.
How things come together in training camp will ultimately tell whether they will be one of the surprise teams. Thanks to parity, a couple teams can jump from worst to first. The Chargers did that last year in the AFC West. So did the Falcons in the NFC South. Visits to training camps sometimes tip off those jumps. Other teams, like the Chargers, just get on a roll during the season, stay healthy and simply defy the odds.
2004 SEASON STATISTICS Att Comp PaTD RuTD Int Rat 432 263 18 1 18 77.3
"Carson is more deliberate,'' Lewis said. "He knows the things he likes. Last year, he might have wanted to have all passing plays called. Now, he knows and he wants to incorporate more [running]. Plus, he's grown as a leader. Carson was really demanding of getting guys out on the practice field before we had a chance to get to them in the coaching sessions.''
It's only natural to think Palmer will make that next step in becoming a big-time quarterback. He earned the honor of being the first player taken in the 2003 draft, and Lewis groomed him the right way. Far from the Bengals' past history of mistakes, Lewis didn't rush Palmer. He let him sit and watch as a rookie, much as the Titans did with Steve McNair.
In Year 2, Palmer was named the starter. Still, taking over wasn't easy. Palmer adjusted by having his teammates believe in him. Remember, Jon Kitna was the players' choice at quarterback after making a push for the playoffs in 2003. His offensive players loved him for his leadership and fire on the field. That passion didn't evaporate during Palmer's 2004 campaign.
To keep his starting job, Palmer had to perform, and he did. He won over his teammates as the leader, which creates the best of both worlds for the Bengals. Should anything happen to Palmer because of an injury, the offense won't lose much going back to Kitna. Suddenly, the Bengals have depth and success at the quarterback position.
Getting over the hump Here's a look at some other teams who have been around the .500 mark and their chances to make the playoffs in 2005. Jacksonville (9-7 in 2004): Byron Leftwich is ahead of Carson Palmer in his development at the quarterback position, and the Jaguars added needed help at defensive end with the signings of Reggie Hayward and Marcellus Wiley. Their season may come down to one thing the health of running back Fred Taylor. Taylor admitted he had two major knee ligaments repaired and he hasn't participated in any workouts this offseason. If the Jaguars can't get at least 1,200 yards out of Taylor, they won't take the next step. Buffalo (9-7): It's going to be hard to do better than nine wins as they make the adjustment from Drew Bledsoe to J.P. Losman. Losman has the chance to be a great quarterback, but he's in the same position as Palmer a year ago. He has to learn on the job. Too bad Losman doesn't have Levi Jones at left tackle. The Bills are patching that vital spot with journeyman guard Mike Gandy. The Bills may have to step back a game or two before making a move the next season. New Orleans (8-8): Coach Jim Haslett has had the talented Saints in contention every year. He's simplified the offense and plans to run more with Deuce McAllister. Quarterback Aaron Brooks needs to get back into the 60-percent completion range after a 57-percent season in 2004. The Saints have enough talent to make that jump. Houston (7-9): Their story may be much like the Bengals. Quarterback David Carr is ready to make that next step. His stats were pretty good last season, competing 61.2 percent of his passes and having a respectable 83.5 quarterback rating. The plan is for more running and quicker releases of his passes after a 49-sack season. The Texans made a concerted move to get younger at lineabacker and in the secondary after finishing 23rd in defense last season.
-- John Clayton
Henry has displayed a lot of promise during the offseason program. In fact, he's already moving past Washington. The question will be how much he will press Peter Warrick for time as the third receiver behind Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh.
"Chris Henry has been tremendous,'' Lewis said. "It has not only been his speed, but he's a big target getting up there and making catches and coming back to get the ball. As a blocker, even though we haven't had pads on, he's shown he's willing to go in there and be physical. He's really been impressive.''
While Palmer's development was expected, the moves that could really put the Bengals over the top were at linebacker. David Pollack and Odell Thurman are the inside-outside tandem that should complete the defensive transition of the team. Prior to Lewis' arrival, the Bengals figured Takeo Spikes and Brian Simmons would be the heart of their defense for 10 years. However, things changed.
Spikes got tired of losing and celebrated when the Bengals didn't stop him from heading off to Buffalo prior to Lewis' first season as head coach. Lewis used the big money it would have taken to keep Spikes to bring in veterans to change the work habits and attitudes on defense.
Getting Pollack and Thurman finally puts Lewis' athletic stamp on his defense.
"They are both tremendous athletes,'' Lewis said. "More than that, they are very well-rounded, well-coached football players. The games aren't going to be too big for them. They are going to be able to handle the flow of the game and not let things get out of their hands.''
The buzz of their additions to the linebacking corps compares to what the Jets did last season in adding Eric Barton and Jonathan Vilma and promoting Victor Hobson to the starting lineup. In 2003, the Jets were decent but slow on defense at linebacker. Marvin Jones and Mo Lewis were on their last legs. Sam Cowart struggled to stay healthy with knee problems.
In case you're wondering, the Jets finished seventh defensively, thanks to the contributions of Vilma and Barton. They made the playoffs with 10 wins. The value of tough linebackers is even more valued in the AFC North than the AFC East because the division features more physically imposing running backs such as Jerome Bettis and Jamal Lewis.
Pollack is a linebacker who is big enough to be a defensive end, and he brings pass-rushing skills and toughness to the outside. Thurman may not be as gifted as Vilma, a Pro Bowl middle linebacker in the making, but he's close. He's got great speed and leadership. With Pollack, Thurman and Simmons, the Bengals have one of the best linebacking corps in the league, and Lewis knows the value of athletic linebackers.
"Good athletes at linebacker shed blockers or beat the block to prevent larger plays from occurring,'' he said. "Other times, they are going to make a big play with that athleticism.''
For a couple of years, the Bengals tried to plug the linebacking corps with veterans. Kevin Hardy helped to get the Bengals to that 8-8 level, but the NFL is a league that needs infusions of youth. The energy and excitement created by Pollack and Thurman put the Bengals' defense in position to jump into the top 10.
The Bengals are indeed ready to take the next step.
John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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