By taking David Pollack and Odell Thurman, the Bengals drafted two defensive players with their first two picks for the first time since 1998 (linebackers Takeo Spikes and Brian Simmons).
My old school
Four times since 2000, the Bengals have drafted college teammates: 2000, wide receivers Peter Warrick and Ron Dugans, Florida State; 2001, wide receivers Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Oregon State; 2005, linebackers David Pollack and Odell Thurman, Georgia, and offensive linemen Eric Ghiaciuc and Adam Kieft of Central Michigan.
In Marvin Lewis’ first two seasons as coach, the Bengals were 11–5 when they had an advantage in time of possession, 5–11 when they didn’t.
Light it up
In 2004, the Bengals had a scoring advantage, 374–372, for the first time since 1996.
NFC killers The Bengals were 4–0 against the NFC in 2004, sweeping the East. They were 4–8 against the AFC, including 2–4 against their AFC North rivals.
The Bengals allowed an average of 162.8 rushing yards in six games against the AFC North in 2004, 108.5 in the other 10 games.
The Prophecy: “The strong-armed Carson Palmer is expected to provide a deep passing game that Jon Kitna couldn’t.”
The Lie: “Outside of Chad Johnson, Kelley Washington and Peter Warrick figure to get most of the work.”
— Athlon Sports Pro Football 2004
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The Bengals have started 1-4 in both of their seasons under coach Marvin Lewis. And though they rallied to win seven of 11 games to close in both 2003 and '04 , they fell short of breaking what has grown into an albatross of a streak: an NFL-worst 14 consecutive years without a playoff appearance.
The pieces, finally, would appear to be in place to snap the run of parity-defying futility. Quarterback Carson Palmer is back for a second season as a starter after showing great improvement in the last half of 2004. Key unrestricted free agents in running back Rudi Johnson and wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh were re-signed to keep a potentially high-scoring nucleus of offensive talent together.
And, for the first time since 1998, the Bengals used their first two draft picks on defensive players. Linebackers David Pollack and Odell Thurman, both from Georgia, figure to be part of a defensive rebirth in Cincinnati.
Palmer, in his second go-around as an NFL starter, would figure to get off to a better start. He has dropped from 250 pounds to 230 in an effort to add mobility and endurance. He had thought he needed to be bigger to absorb punishment. He, too, is looking for a quick beginning, the opposite of what happened in 2004. In Games 1-through-7, his passer rating was 62.6. In his final six starts, before suffering a knee ligament strain in New England, his rating was 96.9.
"You can't say enough about what experience does for you," says Palmer, who finished with 18 touchdown passes and 18 interceptions. "As the season went on I felt more comfortable."
Jon Kitna returns as one of the league's top backup quarterbacks. He was 2-1 in three starts, stepping in to throw five touchdowns and four interceptions.
Rudi Johnson signed a five-year contract and returns for his second season as the team's featured back. He did well in his first, setting a single-season franchise record of 1,454 yards on another record 361 carries. Johnson gives the Bengals a durable, between-the-tackles runner that they like. Second-year back Chris Perry, attempting to come back from surgery to repair a sports hernia, can give the Bengals a pass-catching threat out of the backfield if he can remain healthy. He is expected to be cleared in time for on-field work in June.
Kenny Watson returns as the third-down back and valuable special teams player. Jeremi Johnson will likely be the starting fullback for the third consecutive season. He came into offseason workouts lighter and fitter than last year.
Houshmandzadeh and Chad Johnson, former teammates at Oregon State, developed into an effective one-two combination in 2004. Houshmandzadeh, returning as a unrestricted free agent with a new four-year contract, had a career-high 73 catches after taking over the No. 2 job from Peter Warrick. Warrick spent most of the season on the injured reserve list with knee and shin injuries and was attempting to make a comeback. He might be released heading into the final season of a six-year rookie contract.
Johnson, developing into one of the league's best receivers, is looking to reduce what he terms a "ridiculous" number of dropped passes, 11. He finished with 95 catchers, nine for touchdowns.
The Bengals drafted two receivers in April, Chris Henry from West Virginia (52 catches last season) and Tab Perry from UCLA. The team is expected to take at least nine wide receivers to training camp, and Lewis said just six would make the team. Holdovers Kelley Washington, Kevin Walter and Cliff Russell -- not to mention Warrick -- face competition to keep their roster spots.
The Bengals decided to pass on tight ends in the draft and will return with starter Reggie Kelly and backups Matt Schobel and Tony Stewart. Kelly and Stewart are the best blockers, Schobel the best receiver. Lewis is happy with the trio because of their ability to protect the passer and block in the run game.
The Bengals are expected to re-sign starting center Rich Braham, an unrestricted free agent, to another one-year contract. They apparently drafted their center of the future in Central Michigan's Eric Ghiaciuc in the fourth round. He appears to have the aptitude, size and potential to develop into a starter.
The Bengals also are quietly developing depth behind a pair of outstanding tackles, Levi Jones and two-time Pro Bowler Willie Anderson. The team has drafted a backup tackle in each of the three drafts under Lewis: Scott Kooistra, Stacy Andrews and Adam Kieft. Bobbie Williams and versatile Eric Steinbach return as starting guards.
The line limited defenses to zero or one sack in eight of the team's 16 games last season.
The Bengals were expected to makes some moves on the line in the offseason, but Lewis has repeatedly exonerated this unit for the problems that led to the team's struggles stopping the run. Lewis has said that the big runs did not go through the middle of the line -- where John Thornton and newcomer Bryan Robinson figure to start -- but were the result of missed tackles by perimeter defenders in the hole. Third-year tackle Langston Moore played well after taking over for the injured Tony Williams, who is no longer with the club.
Justin Smith and Duane Clemons should start again at ends. Smith's eight sacks were his most since 8.5 as a rookie in 2001. The Bengals also re-signed versatile Carl Powell to add depth at both tackle and end.
Beside wide receiver, the most intense competition for jobs should be at linebacker. In selecting Pollack and Thurman, Lewis now has brought in five linebackers through the draft in three years. He took Khalid Abdullah in 2003 and Caleb Miller and Landon Johnson in 2004. Johnson replaced the injured Nate Webster at middle linebacker in 2004 and led the team with 133 tackles. Lewis said the job was Johnson's to lose, regardless of Webster's health status.
At strong-side linebacker, Pollack could replace Kevin Hardy, who was released in early May. Brian Simmons appears to have a good grasp of the job on the weak side but will get pushed by the young players. Thurman can play all three spots. The Bengals are anticipating that Pollack can be the franchise's first double-digit sack man since 1992 (Alfred Williams).
The Bengals return their deepest and best secondary in many seasons, though they failed to land a strong safety to their liking in the draft. They released strong safety Rogers Beckett, who suffered a series of concussions and was largely ineffective. Former Raven and Ram Kim Herring looks to inherit the strong safety job and the task of helping slow the run.
Madieu Williams, who excelled as a rookie, should be the free safety, his best position. Tory James earned his first Pro Bowl bid with eight interceptions, and he and opposite starter Deltha O'Neal, acquired last year in a trade with Denver, should hold down the corner spots. Second-year corner Keiwan Ratliff, a natural playmaker and solid tackler, could push both James and O'Neal for playing time. Defensive backs had 16 of the team's 20 interceptions.
Kicker Shayne Graham is vowing to improve the depth and consistency of his kickoffs, though his accuracy on field goals remains a strength. He followed his 22-of-25 2003 season with a 27-of-31 effort in 2004. Kyle Larson got the punting job as a rookie free agent and punted 83 times for a 42.2-yard average. He improved as the season went on under the attentive instruction of special teams boss Darrin Simmons, a rising star in the coaching ranks.
Perry will get a look as the kickoff return specialist. Ratliff should win the punt return job thanks to his 12.2-yard average on 17 returns late in 2004.
Team president Mike Brown gave Lewis another contract extension and raise after the 2004 season, but Brown and his family also have given Lewis the players he wanted. Now it's up to Lewis, who has quickly built the previously lowly Bengals into a competitive team, to get the franchise into the playoffs. The keys are avoiding the slow starts that doomed fragile playoff hopes the past two seasons, playing better overall defense and protecting Palmer so he has time to throw to a talented group of receivers.