The Injury Factor
As a long-time (and, by definition, long-suffering) Bengals fan, I know that it rarely pays to be optimistic about their chances, especially in June. So it’s tough to object to predictions of 5-11 or 6-10. Been there, done that, anyone want a slightly used Akili Smith jersey?
Still, I can’t shake the feeling that those writing the team off already might just be jumping the gun. Most of these dismissals point to the tough schedule and off-field distractions as the main reasons why the Bengals will fail in 2008. The trouble is, the off-field antics are nothing compared to two years ago, when the team had its infamous string of 587 Bengals arrested in a however-many-month period it was, and as for the schedule, the Bengals had one of the toughest roads in the league last season, too, and despite massive personnel losses to injury and suspension, still went 7-9.
What about Chad Johnson? Well, what about him? Some think he’s poised to be a major distraction which will blow up the team this season. I’m not one of them. Not that I think Chad will behave; probably the best we can expect is a sullen silence, but he wasn’t exactly Mr. Happy-Go-Lucky last season, and some games he looked like he was giving all of about 10%. In short, he was a pain in the arse last year too…and the Bengals still went 7-9.
No, that isn’t an acceptable record, but let’s go back to that point about injuries and suspensions. Everyone focuses on the big names who went missing — David Pollack, Odell Thurman and Chris Henry — but the list of guys who missed time or played hurt was ridiculously long. These include (starters marked with *):
LB Ahmad Brooks *
LT Levi Jones *
RT Willie Anderson *
LB Rashad Jeanty *
K Shayne Graham *
RB Rudi Johnson *
RB Chris Perry
RB Kenny Irons
DB Ethan Kilmer
WR Antonio Chatman
DE Eric Henderson
The first name on that list I’d single out is Shayne Graham. Graham didn’t miss any games last season, but he struggled in the early weeks after suffering a hip pointer trying to make a tackle in the preseason. He didn’t start routinely booting kickoffs into the end zone until after the week 5 bye. The Bengals’ six-point loss to the Browns in week 2 and three-point loss to Seattle the week after both featured plenty of short kicks, which did absolutely nothing to aid a kick coverage team that was itself hampered by injury (Kilmer, for example) and losses in 2007’s free agent period (such as LB Marcus Wilkins). In particular, does a healthy Graham shank that kickoff out of bounds with 2:42 left in the Seahawks game and the Bengals up 21-17? That set Seattle up at their 40 for the winning touchdown drive.
The second guy worth considering is Brooks. Yes, as I’ve said before, he’s inexperienced and still largely an unknown, another in a long line of “potential” types who all too often never live up to the hype. But in the one game he had before tearing his groin last season, Brooks was a monster. Against Baltimore, he had six tackles, a sack, and a forced fumble (which was recovered by Robert Geathers and set up a 39-yard touchdown pass to Chad on the next play). Moreover, his loss was the straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back at linebacker. With Brian Simmons released in the offseason, Thurman suspended again before camp, Henderson (then a ‘backer) IR’d thanks to a broken wrist in preseason, Pollack still out from his neck injury and Jeanty lost for the first six games with a preseason leg injury, the Bengals were forced to plug in third- and fourth-stringers and any street free agents they could grab. It would be halfway through the season before anything resembling normalcy would return to the LB corps, by which time it was too late.
The third guy to remember is Chris Perry. To say that Perry has been a huge disappointment would be an understatement. The bitch of it is, his one healthy year, 2005, showed exactly what he and Rudi could have accomplished. Rudi had arguably his best season as a Bengal, piling up 1,458 yards and 12 TDs on 337 carries, a 4.3 yard average, while Perry averaged 4.6 yards on 61 lugs, in addition to 51 catches for 328 yards and a couple of TDs. Between them, they rolled up more than 2,000 total yards and 15 touchdowns. His return would instantly make the Bengals’ offense more dangerous.
Except for Kenny Irons, all of the walking wounded listed above will be returning in 2008. There are still some questions about Brooks and Big Willie, who have lingering injury issues, but I for one am cautiously optimistic. If, unlike last year, the Bengals can stay healthy in August and early September, they’re going to be much better than many right now believe.