> 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.
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."
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."
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.