With his QB fully healthy, Chad will be hanging with the All-Pros again.
Scott Boehm/Getty Images
NEW ENGLAND (M)
at Kansas City
at San Francisco (S)
The King 500
340Leon Hall, Cornerback
The first thing you notice watching the first-round rookie from Michigan is how comfortable he looks. Smooth. In training camp the 5' 11", 199-pound Hall clung to Chad Johnson in coverage and didn't let the trash talk distract him. "Practicing here is the best thing I could do to be ready to play in the league right away," Hall says. "When Carson throws it, if I'm not right there, it'll always be complete."
They insist they've made the mental adjustments needed for a Super Bowl run, but there's still the matter of that porous D
When a gimpy Carson Palmer can throw for 4,035 yards, as he did last year,
for a team that blew two games on special teams gaffes, it's easy to picture
Cincinnati making its second playoff appearance in three years. In training camp
this summer Palmer looked picture-perfect and more mobile than last fall. Look
for him to be closer to the 68% passer he was in 2005 than the 62% he was last
year. With Chris Henry suspended by the NFL for half the season after four
arrests in seven months, Palmer will turn to Chad Johnson even more on deep
balls. The Bengals will need to score plenty because the defense, with the
exception of rookie cornerback Leon Hall, isn't any better this year.
WHERE THEY'RE HEADED
Biggest question about the Bengals leaguewide: How can a team with this
talent have gone 8-8 in three of the past four years? Answer: Maybe they're not
as talented as people think.
Or maybe, as Palmer believes, there are fixable flaws late in important
games. Cincinnati, needing one win in the last two games to make the playoffs,
lost in Denver on a botched extra-point snap and fell to Pittsburgh when kicker
Shayne Graham shanked a 39-yard field goal attempt. Boom -- a 10-6 wild-card season
becomes an 8-8 lead balloon. "The good teams play great some weeks," Palmer
says. "The great teams play great every week. It makes me grind my teeth when I
think about the breakdowns we've had."
To that end, Palmer walked into coach Marvin Lewis's office early in the
off-season and handed him a book by Capt. Michael Abrashoff. It's Your Ship:
Management Techniques from the Best Damn Ship in the Navy describes how a
lackluster vessel became a model for the fleet thanks to a captain who empowered
his crew to want to be the best. "It's a significant book with a good
story for a football team," Lewis says. "[Abrashoff] took an underperforming
group, had a vision and made it an exemplary ship."
Lewis has stressed just such a teamcentric message to his players,
emphasizing that individual success doesn't necessarily mean victory. "Last
year, coming off a division championship, was a great lesson," Lewis says.
"Dealing with success, dealing with players wanting new contracts -- I don't think
we dealt with that well at all. They need to understand that quality preparation
during the week makes Sundays easier and gives us a better chance to win. The
message now is, Just play your butt off and good things will happen, both for
you personally and for the team."
No doubt good things will happen on offense, even after the speed threat out
of the backfield, rookie Kenny Irons, tore his left ACL in the first preseason
game and was lost for the year. Rudi Johnson still gives Cincinnati a reliable
every-down back. (He's averaged more than 1,400 yards over the last three
seasons.) A competent, pile-driving left guard, Stacy Andrews, should be O.K. as
the departed Eric Steinbach's heir. When your biggest concern on offense is
replacing Henry as the third receiver (Tab Perry or college sprinter Bennie
Brazell will assume the role), it's a sign that your offense, eighth in scoring
in '06, should be just as effective.
Part of that assured feeling is Palmer's being more comfortable this year
after gutting out a 2006 season that kicked off just 34 weeks after major knee
reconstruction. "Last year was frustrating," says Palmer. "I missed three passes
against Atlanta [in a 29-27 loss] I should have completed in my sleep. My rhythm
just was a little off all year. Passes I might normally hit 10 out of 10, I was
hitting seven of 10 last year. I feel so much better this year because I've been
able to practice and throw like I normally do."
Curiously, other than drafting Hall, the Bengals did precious little to
improve a 30th-rated defense. The teams they'll have to beat for AFC
supremacy -- New England, Indianapolis and San Diego -- strafed them for 38, 34 and 49
points, respectively, last year. That inaction could haunt them in December.
Defensive end Justin Smith is a nice fellow, a hard-tryer, a soft-spoken,
cog-in-the-machine type that every defense wishes it had. But he is not a
franchise player, not when he has averaged seven sacks and 44 tackles a season
in his six years. He is, however, the closest thing the Bengals have to a great
player on defense. (Who did you think we were going to anoint here? Domata Peko?
Rashad Jeanty?) It's great to have a 4,000-yard quarterback, but if your defense
is surrendering a league-worst 3,818 passing yards -- as Cincinnati did -- isn't that
a wash? The Bengals needed to improve their front seven, but instead of entering
the Joey Porter sweepstakes they settled for a linebacking retread, Edgerton
Hartwell, whose last two years were plagued by injury.
If young players like Hall and second-year middle linebacker Ahmad Brooks
don't mature in a hurry on that defense, all the naval lessons in the world
aren't going to make this the best damn ship in the NFL. -- Peter King