32 teams in 32 days: Cincinnati

Cold, Hard Football Facts for Mar 16, 2008

We continue our team-by-team early off-season look at the NFL with the ... 
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2007 record: 7-9 (380-385)
Record vs. Quality Opponents: 2-5
Expected W-L (based on PF/PA): 7.9-8.1
All-time franchise record: 268-343-1 (.439)
Playoff record: 5-8 (.385)
Last five seasons: 42-38 (.525)
Best game of 2007: 35-6 win at home over Tennessee (Week 12). This breakout win was out of character for the Bengals, who were astoundingly mediocre on the stat sheet over the season. Over all 16 games, they were outscored by a total of five points and outgained by 12 years. And Cincy was the embodiment of the mediocre, able to lose to lesser teams and beat better ones (like Tennessee). Seven Cincy games were decided by 7 or fewer points, and only New England blew them out by 15-plus (34-13).
Silly-season activity: It hasn't been a smooth offseason. The Bengals signed DE Antwan Odom, but lost DE Justin Smith, and failed in their bid to trade for DT Shaun Rogers. Two of their better defenders, LB Landon Johnson and S Madieu Williams, were lost in free agency, adding to a growing list of talented ex-Bengals.
Strength: Passing game. It wasn't perfect last year, but the Bengals' passing game still has to be considered one of the best in the league going forward. Carson Palmer was criticized for taking too many sacks in 2006 (36). But in 2007, he should have taken a few more: his INTs jumped from 13 to 20 while the sacks fell to 17. His passer rating was 86.7, which is pretty poor considering his past performances and the talent around him. T.J. Houshmandzadeh's catch and TD numbers have increased four years running, and Chad Johnson's consistent brilliance has been overshadowed by his flash. Under Lewis (2003-07, Johnson has caught between 87 to 97 passes every year, with 1,274  to 1,440 yards and 7 to 10 TDs. Few receivers in NFL history have ever had five straight seasons of such similar productivity. He's the Manny Ramirez of football, unpredictable from week to week but a picture of consistency in the aggregate.
Weakness: Linebackers. At one point last year, the Bengals would have been happy with one of the CHFF trolls at linebacker, as long as the fat bugger could stay healthy. The Bengals started eight different LBs last year, only one of whom (Ahmad Brooks) is likely to start in 2008. The loss ot 2006 draftees David Pollack (injury) and Odell Thurman (off-field stuff) has been a killer, and the problem showed as the Bengals couldn't stop the run (4.22 YPA) or the pass (89.2 Defensive Passer Rating).
Most underrated player: LT Levi Jones. He's never made the Pro Bowl, and has been alternately injured and disgruntled for much of the last three years. That said, he's also allowed a total of 10 sacks over his last 33 starts on a pass-first offense protecting the not-so-speedy Carson Palmer.
Unit on the rise: Cornerbacks. Three members of Cincy's rookie class started at CB last year, and it showed in the team's No. 27 rank in Defensive Passer Rating. However, The Bengals will have No. 1 picks from 2006 (Jonathan Joseph) and 2007 (Leon Hall) starting there in 2008, a year older and wiser. With veteran ball-hawk Deltha O'Neal likely back as a nickel back, Cincy could be set here for a half-decade.
2007 Draft grade: C+. First-rounder Leon Hall started 10 games and nabbed five INTs. But second-round pick RB Kenny Irons was injured in preseason. If healthy, Irons will compete with Rudi Johnson for the starting job in 2008. The rest of the class (no third-round pick) was underwhelming.
2008 Draft power: 1st (9), 2nd (47), 3rd (78), 4th (109), 5th (140), 6th (171). (Note: the Bengals will add a third- or 4th- round pick for losing G Eric Steinbach in free agency).
General Draft strategy: Believe it or not, the Bengals have actually drafted quite well going back to their breakthrough 2001 draft class (Justin Smith, Chad Johnson, Rudi Johnson, T.J. Houshmandzadeh). They've had several second-day steals and added some blue-chippers. Of course, they also picked enough bad seeds to paint them into a corner – to the point where their 2007 was noted as the safest possible in terms of character. They're not known much for moving around on draft day, so don't look for fireworks in the Cincy war room – just a lot of picks for the defensive front seven.
Youth/experience: The Bengals were in their prime last year, with 12 of 22 starters 28 or older. They have a good mix of youth in there as well, but will face more big decisions as their star offensive players – all 28-32 years old – climb up and over the NFL's age threshold.
Coaching: Marvin Lewis is starting to feel the heat, and for good reason. He came to Cincinnati and inherited Johnson/Houshmandzadeh along with T Willie Anderson, T Levi Jones and the No. 1 overall pick (QB Carson Palmer). As a defensive specialist, it was a dream scenario – but Lewis's defenses have ranked no better than 17th in scoring and no better than 19th in total defense over his five seasons (last year, the Bengals were an abysmal 24 and 27, respectively, in these two major defensive categories). A lack of talent in the back seven has been a problem throughout his tenure, but a defensive head coach should be able to find a way to at least be competitive on his specialized side of the ball. Perhaps Lewis and the Cincy organization stayed too long with DC Chuck Bresnihan, replaced by the respected Mike Zimmer. Offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski returns to try and iron out the kinks with that talented offense.
Overview: Cincinnati reminds us a bit of Mike Tyson in his later years, still in possession of a knockout punch but always undone by flaws. The Bengals have a great passing game, which is the single most important part of winning football games in today's NFL. Yet they are so poor everywhere else that it doesn't matter. Injuries, free-agent defections and some missed draft picks have doomed the Bengals since their one shining 11-5 season in 2005. And like Tyson, they are aging. It's a make-or-break year for Cincinnati, both for the stars and for coach Marvin Lewis. The offense, even with struggles on the offensive line and in the passing game, was still excellent (11th in scoring) last year. As constituted, the Cincy attack will be better in 2008. The defense, it remains to be seen. If Lewis gets his defense somewhere firmly in the top 20, the Bengals have a shot at 10+ wins at the playoffs. Anything less, and it's time to make some changes.  

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