Bengals Camp Questions
Next week, the Cincinnati Bengals will converge on Georgetown, KY for training camp ’08. Once, this assembly promised to be the heart of a media circus, as sports writers and pundits swarmed the rolling bluegrass hills to document the carnage wrought by WR Chad Johnson. Alas, after Ocho was replaced by a pod person, the circus looks to have been scaled back from a full Ringling Bros. affair to one of those local carnies that features a dog act inside a big top about the size of a dining fly. These days, Ocho Cinco doesn’t even make Vic Carucci’s list of things to watch in NFL training camps. Lo, how the mighty have fallen.
So, with the Chad Johnson sideshow promising to be just that, a sideshow, what are the big questions for the Bengals headed into camp? Glad you asked.
1. No Injuries. I’ve written before about how injuries decimated the Bengals last year. One point to add is that many of them occurred in — or before — training camp. The summer of ’07 saw the Bengals limp into Georgetown. Both bookend tackles, Willie Anderson and Levi Jones were nursing knee injuries. Anderson would suffer further dings in the preseason, while Jones would miss the first several weeks. Starting CB Jonathan Joseph, coming off a solid rookie campaign, suffered a stress fracture in his foot during minicamp which hampered his play all year. RB Chris Perry and LB David Pollack were both still rehabbing from injuries in 2006. Both would miss all of last season, and Pollack has since retired. More guys would get hurt in camp and preseason games, the most prominent of which were second-round pick RB Kenny Irons — currently ticketed for the PUP list by most observers — and K Shayne Graham, whose hip pointer would lead to several weeks of poor kicking to start the ’07 campaign.
This year is a welcome turnaround — so far. Most of the players who were hurt last year appear to be back and ready to go. The offseason hasn’t seen any new injuries of significance. Two players still to watch are Perry and LB Ahmad Brooks. Brooks, who tore his groin in week 1 of last year and missed the rest of the season, was limited in minicamp this year due to lingering soreness. Perry reports being almost but not quite 100%. If those two can complete their recoveries, and the Bengals can avoid another flood of camp and preseason injuries, the odds of the team making some noise this year rise dramatically. (And yes, Chad Johnson’s recently cleaned-out ankle bears watching too, but all indications are he’ll be ready to go by September.)
2. Run Rudi Run. RB Rudi Johnson was another injury casualty last season, suffering for much of the year from a pulled hamstring that limited him to just 497 yards on 170 carries, a sucktastic 2.9 yards per lug. The performance left Bengals fans wondering not just about his health, but whether Rudi had finally hit the wall. His straight-ahead, pounding style isn’t one that produces RBs with long careers, and from 2003 through 2006 he had carried the ball more than 1,250 times. Others wondered how much impact an apparently ill-considered attempt by Rudi prior to last season to drop some weight and develop his receiving skills had on his performance in 2007. Rudi’s defenders pointed to injuries on the offensive line as key to Rudi’s poor showing, but their case wasn’t helped by the fact that backup RB Kenny Watson (763 yards on 178 carries, a 4.3-yard average) ran much better behind the same line.
The Bengals need Rudi to return to his pre-2007 form. To date this offseason, signs have been good. Johnson spent the offseason working out, bulking back up, and has impressed observers ranging from Marvin Lewis to John Clayton. He’s still listed at No. 1 on the RB depth chart, ahead of Watson and Perry. If Rudi struggles in camp, look for the team to take a second look at still-unemployed ex-Seahawk Shaun Alexander.
Paging No. 3. Former WR Chris Henry’s off-field antics got him suspended for the first eight games of the 2007 season, depriving the Bengals of their No. 3 wide receiver during the most difficult part of their schedule. That wasn’t the only reason they floundered to 2-6 over that span, but it didn’t help. Initially, it was hoped that former Green Bay WR Antonio Chatman could fill the gap, but as has been his fate in Cincinnati, Chatman couldn’t stay healthy. He missed week 1 completely, failed to appear in weeks 2 and 7, and caught just 3 balls for 53 yards in the intervening weeks. In his absence, No. 3 duties were handed to WR Tab Perry, a late-round draft choice who had shown some promise as a role-player in 2005, but who had also been injury-prone, missing most of 2006 with a hip injury. The Bengals played Tab extensively in preseason and Carson Palmer threw every pass he could at him — and Tab couldn’t catch a thing. Their inability to connect continued into the regular season, but would quickly become a moot point when Tab re-aggravated his hip injury and was lost for the year following week 2.
Without a No. 3 and with Rudi slowed, the Bengals offense faltered. Teams didn’t need to commit extra to stopping the run and could focus on Chad and T.J. Houshmanzadeh. While what looks like the return of receiving back Chris Perry, as well as the addition of TE Ben Utecht, should give Palmer options that weren’t there last year, the Bengals need either a healthy Chatman (which they have at the moment, knock on wood) or one of the many young wide receivers they drafted to emerge in the No. 3 spot. The early favorite among the rooks seems to be third-round pick Andre Caldwell.