In the Age of NFL Parity, Is 2004 the 'Some Day' for Bengals Fans?

Autumn arrives in new clothing, a modification of the Bengals uniform complete with a football team that might not look too foolish in anything. And Autumn arrives with a new message of hope from

Jerry Dowling



Autumn arrives in new clothing, a modification of the Bengals uniform complete with a football team that might not look too foolish in anything. And Autumn arrives with a new message of hope from the local professionals, who are finally serious about their mission.

No one questions if the Bengals are serious enough but it remains to be seen if they're good enough. One must assume the Bengals are in the playoff mix as they kick off Sunday against the New York Jets. But any prediction that they will will survive the regular season rests on an offense engineered by a rookie quarterback.

That's pretty shaky ground even if Carson Palmer isn't truly a rookie, as everyone knows. But you keep wanting more. You look at the Bengals and see 2-14 two years ago before Marvin Lewis, then it's 8-8 last year with Lewis and the trajectory is upward, so the Bengals shouldn't be any worse. And if they're even a little better, they're in the playoff hunt.

Then you look at the team and see a load of questions, starting with Palmer and echoing throughout their situation.

Their best players are wide receivers, who will rely on the rookie quarterback to get them the ball. Between Rudi Johnson and top pick Chris Perry, the Bengals are well-stocked for running backs. But they're known for running between the tackles, which isn't where the offensive line is strongest.

Confidence runs high, though, and that's worth a couple points. We see the progress and have faith in the rest. The Bengals already have taken the fast way to the middle of the league, which is fast. The fast way to the top of the NFL is about as fast, but it appears the Bengals are planning to top the NFL and stay there, which is slow.

So the rebuilding of the Bengals enters Phase II, in which the new coach introduces the new quarterback who'll take them as far as they can go. Where have we seen this story before? We saw it in the introduction of David Klingler, which sounded the death knell for David Shula, then we saw it with the debut of Akili Smith, which signaled the end for Dick LeBeau.

Now we see it again, the coronation of a new savior. But this effort is clearly more reliable. It began with choosing the path of enlightenment in Palmer's development, since the reports from his Heisman Trophy senior year at Southern California indicated that he'd need and would respond to coaching.

The Bengals gave him a year to hang around and learn the language. The key to being good and staying good begins with a quarterback, where so few teams have made the investment to be great.

Admittedly, that's a little unfair. Many teams, including the Bengals, have made the initial investment and couldn't finish the job. Going back just five years, to the 1999 draft, we've witnessed the mixed results of star-making in the NFL. In the year the Bengals took Smith with the third overall pick, the Cleveland Browns chose Kentucky quarterback Tim Couch with the top overall pick as their signature franchise player.

By the time the Browns made the playoffs two years ago, though, Couch watched from the sidelines while the coach who staked his career on Couch, Chris Palmer, watched from afar. Now, a year after the Green Bay Packers turned Smith out of the league for good, they appear to have done likewise with Couch.

That same year, 1999, New Orleans coach Mike Ditka traded his entire draft for the Heisman Trophy winner, Texas running back Ricky Williams. The results weren't good. Soon both Ditka and Williams were out of New Orleans, and now Williams is out of football entirely.

The draft can broadcast skill position success stories, but it's been a long time coming in the land of Klingler and Ki-Jana Carter. From that 1999 draft we still have one of the most perspicuous draft picks of recent years, Philadelphia quarterback Donovan McNabb as the second selection. That draft also brought running back Edgerin James to Indianapolis, quarterback Dante Culpepper to Minnesota and wide receiver Tory Holt to St. Louis.

A new season begins, then, with Lewis staking his claim as coach by breaking in his first quarterback. Under ideal circumstances, the Bengals would start Jon Kitna and phase in Palmer gradually. But the Bengals already have paid Palmer a grand sum to not play for a year, so it's his turn now and all eyes will be on him as a bellweather for the difference Lewis will actually make.

After only one year, Lewis already has made much of the difference between entering the season with real hope or not. He couldn't make all of the difference and he hasn't made all the difference we would have expected (witness the Bengals' defense). But the Bengals went to the end of last year as a playoff contender instead of a laughingstock, and that's a big difference.

The building of this team as a consistent winner figures to be a slow process. We'll see the back and forth of this all year. Lots of rookies are in the defensive mix. They can't be worse than the fellows they're replacing, but none of them is a star, and neither are the veterans brought in for the same purpose.

Maybe the defense Lewis makes out of the players on hand will suffice. More likely, the defense will leave the Bengals a year short of the playoffs and, at some point, they might have to address Lewis' proven specialty with a Reggie White type of signing, in which they pay high for the real deal to establish their legitimacy.

Until then, regrettable performances by the defense stand to intensify the pressure on Palmer to ring up touchdowns. With their skill among receivers Chad Johnson, Peter Warrick and others, the Bengals might even be able to win a few that way.

The Bengals have been on the bottom for so long that we don't realize how close they were all along to the middle of the league, which makes them good enough to gun for playoffs in a division featuring no dominant team. The Baltimore Ravens are the cachet pick to make the Super Bowl, especially now that they've brought Deion Sanders out of retirement, but they're hardly the total package.

Cleveland and Pittsburgh are no better than the Bengals, as both fight their own kinds of disarray. The Steelers have bled away good players for years, and now we hear that Bill Cowher doesn't have that whole world in his hands anymore. The Browns are starting all over with Jeff Garcia as the quarterback, Kellen Winslow Jr. as the big receiver and no one at running back.

No one else in the division has a unit as good as the Baltimore defense, which is enough to make them the favorite. But if the Bengals can score points and hold onto the ball, well, anyone who does that is hard to beat.

It appears the Bengals have the materials to be that team some day. But will that day be this year?

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