The first quarter of the season is over for the Cincinnati Bengals, and the picture isn’t pretty. Obviously, I was wildly optimistic in my prediction of a 10-6 year. At this point, the team will be lucky to finish 6-10.
What’s gone wrong? In a word, the offense. My preseason prognostication was based on the idea that an offense finally 100% healthy for the first time since 2005 could be expected to return to playoff form. Not only has that not happened, but the Bengals offense has in fact morphed into one of the most ineffectual squads in the NFL.
In 2005, the Bengals had the No. 4 offense in points, and the No. 6 offense in yards. Over the following two seasons, injuries (such as Carson Palmer’s knee) and suspensions (see Henry, Chris) would chip away at that firepower — but still, the offense’s previous worst was last season’s 10/11 points/yards mark.
Four games into 2008, the Bengals rank 27th in both measures.
Personnel changes account for some of that falloff. The offensive line has never really recovered from the loss of Rich Braham at center, and the front office’s decision to allow Eric Steinbach to walk in favor of re-signing the aging and now-departed Willie Anderson only made the situation worse. Anderson’s and Braham’s replacements, Stacy Franchise and The Pushover, have been servicable and insufficent, respectively.
And there’s the attitude problem. Coming off injuries to both knees last year, False Start Jones spent the preseason pissing and moaning about the decision to play Andrew Whitworth over him at the beginning of the year, a decision that appeared amply justified to everyone but, apparently, Jones when he was inserted against Kansas City and was repeatedly owned by Jared Allen. Jones — who got a $40 million contract extension in 2006, including $16 million guaranteed — followed that up with a trade request this past offseason. I guess it shouldnt be a surprise then, that not only does Jones suddenly look old and slow, but he doesn’t appear to care very much, either.
Likewise, Chad Ocho Cinco spent the offseason emphasizing that he was all about Numero Uno, while T.J. Houshmandzadeh blew off voluntaries while auditioning for an NFL Network job. The result has been a passing game completely out of sync.
But even with all that…a 16-17 point drop in the offensive ranking? No, something more is at work here. Remember at the end of last season, there was talk about how the offense had gotten stale, and Sideshow Bob Bratkowski promised to tear up the playbook and come up with some new stuff for ’08? Uh-huh. And what do we get? Run-run-pass-punt. Bob, I hate to break this to you, but the rest of the league has you sussed. Our playcalling is horribly predictable, and so predictably horrible. And yes, I understand that the injury to Ben Utecht has taken out some of the shiny new bells and whistles you had planned on using, but the bottom line is that “more passes to the TE” wouldn’t be enough even were Utecht healthy.
What’s to be done now? Immediately, the Bengals are screwed. Four games and four losses in, it’s too late for major changes. It would be nice to get an extended look at OT Anthony Collins under live conditions (he’s popped in on teams and in short yardage packages) since OL will clearly be a need going into free agency and the draft next year. Assuming the hammy injury isn’t too bad, it would be good to see more of RB DeDe Dorsey as well. Chris Perry is not impressing, though some of his struggles are due to the poor o-line play.
The one bright spot for the offense, such as it is, has been the emergence — finally! — of WR Antonio Chatman. After four games, Chatman is on course to have the second-best year of his career. His performance so far, 10 catches for 118 yards, should keep him ahead of the returning Chris Henry on the depth chart.
Defensively, things have played out about the way I thought. At the quarter mark, the Bengals defense ranks 19th in points and 23rd in yards. This is a modest but noticeable improvement over last year’s 24 and 27 marks. I tagged CB Johnathan Joseph as this year’s breakout defender, and JJ was definitely showing signs of earning that tag before an ankle injury cost him the last two weeks. Keith Rivers has been as advertised: a solid player who the Bengals could plug in on the weak side and forget about, but who wasn’t going to be a difference-maker. My prediction for biggest disappointment, third-round DT Pat Sims, has been inactive for all four games.
The defense continued to get better with the return of S Chinedum Ndukwe in the last couple weeks. Orien Harris was a smart post-final-cuts pickup. Antwan Odom has been…OK. Robert Geathers looks overpaid. I would like to see some of Sims, but unlike Sideshow Bob, Mike Zimmer appears to know what he’s doing. Another year and a little more talent, and the Bengals’ defense ought to find itself, at worst, in the middle of the pack. At best, with continued good coaching, a skosh more talent and a bit of luck, it looks right now like it could challenge for a top 10 ranking in 2009.
Of course, that would be much easier if the offense could stay on the field and put up some points. But the Bengals never can seem to put it together on both sides of the ball at the same time.