While yesterday’s rumor about a possible trade of wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh to San Francisco was later debunked, the flap raised an important question: at 0-5, is it time for the Bengals to start thinking about 2009?
Yes, the defense is improved versus last season (though not by a great deal) and yes, the offense is finally showing signs of lashing itself together, but does anyone really believe that the Bengals are poised to rip off 10 or 11 wins and make the playoffs? If you do, I would recommend seeking professional help.
And in that case, there are issues and players, including Houshmandzadeh, that need to be considered. Today, we’ll take a look at the offensive side of the ball.
1. T.J. The 31-year-old Houshmandzadeh is in the final year of his contract, and despite having oodles of cap space, the Bengals have made no move whatsoever to extend his deal. Some observers chalk that up to the team’s usual reluctance to pay big bucks for players over the magic 30 mark. Others, including myself, wonder if T.J. hasn’t worn out his welcome with head coach Marvin Lewis thanks to two straight offseason of non-participation. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that his year’s final cuts included lots of veterans — Willie Anderson, Deltha O’Neal, Rudi Johnson — who blew off voluntaries earlier this year.
If the team is prepared to let T.J. walk next March, trading him now has to be considered. At least that way, the team gets something in return. There’s also the option of using the franchise tag on him. The non-exclusive franchise tag cost for a wideout was a bit more than $6 million in 2008, which wouldn’t be an unreasonable cost.
2. Chad Ocho Cinco (nee Johnson). After spending the offseason squawking like a loon in an attempt to force a trade, Chad has been quiet…so far. To get him back into the fold, the Bengals promised to review his contract after the season, but his injured shoulder and lackluster performance to date don’t augur well for such a second look. Here again, the idea of trading Chad needs to be seriously considered by the front office. If he doesn’t get a raise, he will likely go back into trade-me mode. There’s also the young wideouts to consider. Last April, the Bengals spent a second and a third on Jerome Simpson and Andre Caldwell. If the Bengals are just going to cling to Chad and T.J., not to mention their continued tolerance of Chris Henry, then what exactly was the point?
3. Stacy Andrews. This year’s franchise player has been adequate at right tackle. Not great, but not bad. The fourth-round project player is finally paying dividends, and the Bengals have to stanch the bleeding on the o-line sooner or later. The last three years have seen the team lose center Rich Braham, guard Eric Steinbach and Anderson, and the lack of continuity is one reason for the line’s struggles since. Back the Brink’s truck up to the kid’s locker and pay him whatever it takes to get a long-term deal. I’m doubtful that this will be a popular position, but consider that the Bengals also need to deal with…
…4. the rest of the offensive line. Left tackle Levi Jones, who just got a $40 million extension a couple years ago, has looked old, slow and disinterested in 2008. Whether that’s the result of lingering knee issues, or part of the attitude problem that popped up in 2007 when he got upset over not starting at the beginning of the season, and continued this year when he requested (and was refused) a trade, I don’t know. But he isn’t the player he was last year, not to mention two years ago. Just as they did with Willie Anderson, the Bengals may have to consider eating the cap hit on his contract. In that event, a trade would be better, but I’m not sure what value Levi would have.
Fortunately for the Bengals, they have a ready replacement in Andrew Whitworth. But that opens a hole a guard. More important than that, though, is center, where Eric Ghiacuic continues to get beat by top-tier competition. Ghiacuic is also in the last year of his rookie contract, and the Bengals need to decide if he’s the future at center or not. From this chair, it looks like the answer is, “not.”
5. Chris Perry. To date, running back Chris Perry has been a disappointment. While he has flashed some ability to get to the second level, his ball security issues have completely negated his utility. The arrival of former Bears RB Cedric Benson is a sure sign of coaching displeasure with Perry, and between Benson, third-down stalwart Kenny Watson and promising youngster James Johnson on the practice squad, Perry’s days in Cincinnati look numbered. I doubt there’s any trade value here, just another first-round pick gone kerblooey.
5. Bob Bratkowski. No seat in Cincinnati is hotter than offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski’s, at least as far as the fans are concerned. Put simply, teams around the NFL appear to have deciphered his schemes and playcalling, and are shutting down the Bengals’ offense with depressing ease. Bratkowski’s defenders point to the deterioration of the offensive line, and to the lack of reps among Carson Palmer, Chad and T.J. during the offseason, and there is more than a little truth to that. But the lack of adjustment in playcalling to deal with those shifts is also at fault. The Bengals no longer have the offensive strength to impose their will on defenses like the did in 2005, especially up front, and the game plan needs to change accordingly. It hasn’t.
If, as seems possible, we could see the exodus of familiar names that began before this season continue in 2009 with the departures of Chad, T.J., Levi and/or Perry, then there’s a strong case to be made for changing the guy running the offensive show as well.