In late winter, when big league baseball clubs begin camps, we always say, "Hope springs eternal." Do Bengals fans in late summer get to say "Hope falls eternal?"
This might be the year we'll find out. It takes only one good football season to falsify the endless doom to which we've been conditioned through 14 consecutive years without a winning record or playoff appearance. Almost every one of those years began with some kind of hope.
The last two seasons haven't completely mocked our hopes, but they began that way. Two straight seasons of 1-4 starts not only added fuel to the Bengals' 11-41 September record since they last made the postseason in 1990, but they took most of the thunder out of the team's late bids to reach the playoffs.
So training camp comes this year with a twist, specially designed to bring the Bengals out of the gate quickly. Night time workouts will enable players to come back stronger for the second half of two-a-days in addition to cooling down the jets so they don't burn out in the summer heat. We know, going in, that the Bengals can score 17 points without scrimmaging against chairs and tackling dummies.
It now can be predicted with confidence, based on the progress of two straight 8-8 seasons, that the Bengals will put up a winning season and, if they're just a little better than that, could go to the playoffs. Some knights of journalism who've made pro football their domain are lined up behind the Bengals as the team that's just about ready to take over the AFC. After all, how long can New England stay great while the Bengals stay not-so-good? All of that can be confidently predicted. And it all remains to be seen.
As much as we all love to see the ball go into the air, winning football requires two attributes — the ability to run and the ability to stop the run. Now that Chris Perry evidently is ready to go, he'll team with Rudi Johnson to give the Bengals a stiff running attack, provided their offensive line steps up. Willie Anderson and Levi Jones give the Bengals a reliable pair of tackles, but can the Bengals reliably run between the tackles when they see third-and-three?
Center Rich Braham is 34, injuries limited him to 10 starts last year and he isn't extremely well reviewed, despite his tough performances for the Bengals since 1994. Left guard Eric Steinbach and right guard Bobbie Williams both are durable, but neither is impenetrable. To say the interior line is the weak point of the Bengals' offense isn't to say much, because the remainder of the offense is strong. But can the Bengals improve that weakness or work around it? And how?
Stopping the run, of course, is the true weakness dooming the Bengals to their slow start and futile playoff drive in 2004. The Bengals can beat teams that can't run. Last year, four of their wins came against opponents among the NFL's bottom five rushing teams. And if the Bengals' offense takes off so well that a competent rushing opponent goes into passing catch-up mode, the Bengals can win that game, too.
But they're not becoming a serious contender until they can stand straight up against a team that's average or better at running the ball. They're not for real until they can tackle Baltimore's Jamal Lewis or Pittsburgh's Jerome Bettis and Duce Staley. Until they remove the chance that some other group will show up and run them off the lot, they're suspect. Do they have the athletes to change that?
The Bengals signed defensive tackle Bryan Robinson as a free agent, but head coach Marvin Lewis insists the Bengals weren't torched up the middle last year, which raises the burning question of training camp.
The Bengals drafted the athletes to improve against the run, but they weren't to be found when camp began last weekend. The Bengals took two defenders from Georgia, David Pollack and Odell Thurman, and immediately put them on top of the depth chart as linebackers. They finally signed Thurman Aug. 2, but the clock continues to run on Pollack. If either player is going to help this year, let alone start, the Bengals need to finish that job quickly.
Holdouts are a problem throughout the NFL this year, in large part because the collective bargaining agreement is about to expire, veterans hate it that their money isn't guaranteed and rookies don't have enough control over their agents.
But the Bengals are uniquely positioned to be scarred by holdouts. This franchise hasn't managed a winning season in 14 years, it's right on the verge and now it's playing holdout with an athlete who would directly address their most debilitating flaw. The reasons and technicalities undermining the Bengals and their rookie linebacker must be fascinating, but nowhere near as fascinating as having him in camp so he can tackle ball carriers.
Based on the first-round contracts signed through July 31, Pollack, the draft's 17th pick, would slot in for a five-year deal worth $10 million, with about $7.5 million guaranteed. The pick right in front of Pollack, Houston defensive lineman Travis Johnson, reportedly signed for five years at $10.2 million, with guarantees of $7.77 million. But the Bengals were working off the deal for last year's 17th pick, Denver linebacker D.J. Williams, which came in around $9 million, with about $6 million guaranteed.
The Bengals have evidently missed the point about salary slotting for draft picks: The slots are based on this year's signings, not last year's.
Basically then, the Bengals are missing their top draft pick over almost nothing. Bad news, though not an unprecedented performance by the Bengals. Before they win on the field, they'll have to clean up their game a little more off the field.