Postcard from camp: Bengals
Carson Palmer looks fully recovered from torn elbow ligament
Marvin Lewis' team is better, but competing in this division is tall order
Laveranues Coles is capable possession WR to replace T.J. Houshmandzadeh
SI.com has dispatched writers to report on the 32 NFL training camps across the country. Here's what Ben Reiter had to say about the Bengals' camp in Georgetown, Ky. For an archive of all the camp postcards, click here.
Setting The Scene
Billy Ray Cyrus once played baseball for Georgetown College, an hour's drive south of Cincinnati in Georgetown, Ky., before dropping out to pursue both a career in music and the procreation of a teen pop idol. In many ways, Georgetown, which is where the Bengals have conducted their training camps since 1997, is the perfect location for an NFL camp. It's nice enough, but definitely not plush -- there is no indoor practice facility here. There are also few distractions, unless you consider an abundance of nearby Waffle Houses to be a distraction, which Andre Smith (more on him later) might. The players live their entire training camp lives -- sleeping, eating and practicing -- on a plot of land no larger than a few acres, though some of them have taken to getting around on Segways, more, it seems, for the novelty than for the convenience.
1. Carson Palmer is back. If we are to agree with Browns All-Pro left tackle Joe Thomas, who told me last week, "As Carson Palmer goes, the Bengals go," then the Bengals will be going this season. During one practice earlier this week, Palmer dropped back and effortlessly launched a gorgeous 40-yard bomb into the outstretched arms of a tightly covered Andre Caldwell. Caldwell promptly dropped the pass, but Palmer looked every bit the Pro Bowler he was in 2005 and 2006.
That's impressive for a man who, last December, was one day away from undergoing Tommy John surgery to repair the partially torn elbow ligament that limited him to four games last season. "We got the final MRI back, and [the ligament] was back together," says Palmer. "The doctors were all high-fiving me." Bengals fans who suffered through the dozen '08 starts from Ryan Fitzpatrick, whose 70.0 quarterback rating was the NFL's second-worst, ought to be high-fiving as well.
2. The Bengals defense should be their best in years. The Bengals finished a surprising 12th in the NFL in total defense in '08 (it was by far their best performance since 2001), but that ranking was inflated in that they spent so much time way behind in games, allowing opposing offenses to ease up on the accelerator. "The offenses may have been running a little bit more, because we weren't playing from ahead a lot, and I don't think we were quite top 10 material," says second-year defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer. "But we're more talented than we were a year ago, there's no question about that."
The Bengals will benefit from the return of talented players whose '08 seasons were derailed by injuries, like cornerback Johnathan Joseph, linebacker Keith Rivers and ends Antwan Odom and Robert Geathers, and from the addition of rookie linebacker Rey Maualuga, the second-round pick out of USC.
But equally important will be the contributions of players whom the Bengals signed, as Lewis says, "Off the junk heap" -- and he means that in a positive way. Starting middle linebacker Dhani Jones, for example, was picked up by Cincinnati after the Saints cut him at the end of training camp in 2007, and he's started 24 consecutive games for the Bengals, and in '08 led the team with 116 tackles.
Strong safety Roy Williams came from that same junk heap -- the Bengals signed the five-time Pro Bowl selection in May, after the Cowboys released him in March -- and the Bengals are expecting similar things from him as they have received from free safety Chris Crocker, whom they picked up last October after the Dolphins cut him. Anyone who watched the first episode of the great HBO series Hard Knocks last could see the impact Crocker has on the defense (least of which is his ability to get in the heads of receivers, as he memorably did to Chad Ochocinco in the episode).
"Crocker played lights out for eight weeks [as a Bengal] last season," says Zimmer. "I had him before, when I was in Atlanta for one year, and right now he's playing the best he's ever played. When some of these guys get cut or are on the streets for a few days, or weeks, or whatever it is, then they realize what it was that really made them NFL football players."
The 53-year-old Zimmer, one of the NFL's most respected defensive coordinators for a decade now, counts himself among a group that includes a number of men with something to prove. "I thought I was going to be a head coach a lot sooner than this," he says, candidly. "That's why I tell them, I include myself in all this stuff. I've interviewed for jobs and no one's wanted me. I throw myself in there with all of them."
3. This might be Marvin Lewis' last dance. Was it really so long ago -- 2005 -- that this seemed to be a team on the make? That was the season in which Cincinnati went 11-5 and made their first playoff appearance in 15 years, only to watch Kimo von Oelhoffen's helmet destroy Palmer's knee on the first play of their AFC Wild Card game against the Steelers, which the Bengals lost 31-17. Marvin Lewis was in his third year as the Bengals' coach then, and no one could have foreseen the three painful seasons (8-8, 7-9, 4-11-1) that would follow. Now Lewis is in his seventh season -- he is currently the fifth longest-tenured coach in the NFL, after Jeff Fisher, Andy Reid, Bill Belichick and John Fox -- and he appears to have his best and healthiest team since that '05 campaign. There's a largely unspoken notion around Bengals camp that this could be his last chance to win.
Lewis won't admit to thinking as much -- "I think every season is the same. That doesn't change," he says -- but at least one player will.
"I got him," says Ochocinco, one of nine players remaining from '05. "I've got all of us. It won't be any of our last stands, because we are going to compete, and we will make a playoff run this year."
That might seem to be a tall order, as the Bengals play in the same division as the seemingly mighty Steelers and Ravens, but this group just might have what it takes to pull it off -- and, potentially, to save their head coach's job.
New Face, New Place
Laveranues Coles, wide receiver. Coles, whom the Bengals signed to a four-year, $28 million deal on March 4, a week after the Jets released him, should prove to be a capable possession receiver in Cincinnati, if a downgrade from the departed T.J. Houshmandzadeh. A big story in Bengals camp, though, concerns the one new face who is supposed to be here, but is not: That which belongs to the 6-foot-4, 335-pound offensive tackle Andre Smith, the sixth overall pick in this year's draft out of Alabama who remains a holdout thanks largely to the big money given to No. 5 Mark Sanchez (5 years, $60 million from the Jets) and No. 7 Darrius Heyward-Bey (5 years, $38.5 million from the Raiders). The Bengals yielded 51 sacks last season, third most in the NFL. They need Smith to keep Palmer healthy, and they need him soon. Perhaps the reported agreement between the Packers and No. 9 pick B.J. Raji on Thursday will hasten Smith's arrival.
Michael Johnson, defensive end. Johnson might not have a unique name, but he does have unique skills. He's immense (6-7, 260) and fast (a 4.75 in the 40-yard dash at the Combine), and many mock drafts had the Georgia Tech product going in the first round last April, but questions about his work ethic led him to drop all the way to the third round. That's a development with which Cincinnati is so far thrilled. "He's doing a lot of really good things," says Zimmer. "He's got a lot of pass rush ability. He's a tremendous athlete. He's got long arms and strength and size, and he can really run." Bengals ends combined for just 6.5 sacks last year, and the team as a whole mustered 17, second-fewest in the NFL. Johnson could quickly invigorate that stagnant pass-rush.
An intense Kentucky lightning storm rolled in just before evening practice was due to commence last Monday, and as the Bengals awaited word from Lewis as to the session's fate (it was ultimately cancelled, and the players soon hurried off into meetings), they huddled beneath the dripping bleachers of Georgetown's Toyota Stadium. It was, to me, something of a refreshing scene.
"This doesn't look very much like the NFL," I remarked to the gentleman standing next to me.
"It's not the NFL," the cynical gent quipped. "It's the Bengals."
HBO's Hard Knocks crew is here, as I mentioned, and the Bengals are getting a taste of what it takes to produce such fine television. "They're in our shorts," one of them said. Still, they seem to like having the cameras around, and the first episode was generally well-received (except, I'm guessing, by poor fullback JD Runnels, who was shown receiving his brutal, early morning release on Aug. 10).
Palmer continues to enjoy the presence of his younger brother, Jordan, the former UTEP star whom the Bengals signed as a back-up last season and who made the team the first ever to have a pair of quarterback brothers on its active roster simultaneously. "It's been a blast," the elder Palmer says. "Even though last year was tough, we still ended up having a good time because we're obviously good friends. We say, If we get on a roll, how much fun would that be to experience together?" Jordan, who is four and a half years Carson's junior, looks very similar to his brother and possesses identical size (both are listed at 6-5, 235), and appears to have a real shot at overtaking J.T. O'Sullivan for the second-string job.
I had something of a confusing conversation with the always-talkative Ochocinco. Said Ochocinco, "I just want the critics to keep on talking negative about us. I love it. It fuels me. I don't care what they say."
"So if it fuels you, doesn't that mean that you do, in some way, care what they say?" I asked.
"No! I don't care. I just like to hear it," he replied.
About one thing, though, Ochocinco was clear. "Last year I was frustrated during the offseason. I was unhappy. Now the pieces are there to have me back in the right state of mind, and I'm feeling so good about it." That's a positive development for these Bengals -- one of many.
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