Jeff Erickson is a co-founder of RotoWire.com and the only two-time winner of Baseball Writer of the Year from the Fantasy Sports Writers Association. He roots for the Reds, Bengals, Red Wings, Pacers and Northwestern University (the real NU).
The 2007 season for the Bengals started with a win over bitter AFC North rival Baltimore. And that was pretty much the highlight to their season. They lost their next game in a shootout to the previously lowly Browns, 51-45, hinting at how frustrating the team's defense would be. They lost their next three games as well and didn't win two games in a row until the last two weeks of the season. It all added up to a bitterly disappointing 7-9 season, leaving many to wonder if the potential of this team would ever be fulfilled.
What went wrong in 2007? The better question is what didn't go wrong? The Bengals were in the bottom third in virtually every significant defensive stat, including points allowed, yards per attempt (ground and air) and sacks (dead last, with only 22). The one thing they did well was create turnovers, forcing 35, tied for third in the NFL. The defense lacked a big run-stopping defensive tackle, started two inexperienced corners in Leon Hall and Jonathan Joseph, and had lost six linebackers due to injury or suspension by Week 4. After the season, defensive coordinator Chuck Bresnahan and linebacker coach Ricky Hunley were fired, and Mike Zimmer was hired away from the Falcons to be the new coordinator. Zimmer will oversee the incorporation of a new defense, a move that should ensure that defensive end Robert Geathers can better focus on his pass-rushing abilities. Geathers often played out of position last year in reaction to all of the Bengals' linebacker injuries and dropped from 10.5 sacks in 2006 to 3.5.
But the Bengals have never been a defense-first team, even with head coach Marvin Lewis' defensive pedigree. It was their offensive output that was so disappointing. They were 11th in scoring (23.8 points per game) and 10th in yards per game (348), but both were short of expectations and what is necessary when a team is an offense-first franchise. The running game ran aground, thanks to injuries to Rudi Johnson and to most of the offensive line, including franchise cornerstone RT Willie Anderson. Chad Johnson had 1,440 yards and eight touchdowns, but went through an eight-game touchdown drought. Even Carson Palmer had a down year, throwing 20 interceptions.
This is now Marvin Lewis' sixth season coaching the team. While there's a feeling that the Bengals owe him as many chances as he needs after turning the franchise around, he's starting to lose some popular support and he's losing his players. Chad Johnson has made it perfectly clear that he wants out. Chris Henry has been summarily waived after his latest off-the-field transgression. Expectations for this franchise remain high, though the hope for fulfilling those expectations is pretty low.
Chad Johnson repeatedly expressed his desire this offseason to be traded, with the Bengals steadfastly vowing not to part ways with him. He has since skipped all of the team's offseason minicamps and looms as a potential holdout at the start of training camp. Will this impasse get resolved once Ocho-Cinco starts losing paychecks? The Bengals turned down at least one pre-draft offer that included a first-round pick in the 2008 draft, plus another pick in 2009. Coupled with the loss of Chris Henry, the once-potent Bengals receiving corps will undergo a massive overhaul if they can't coax Johnson back into the fold. T.J. Houshmandzadeh returns after a career year but his numbers dropped off over the second half after he started drawing more attention from opposing defenses. Thus, the Bengals will have to rely on their two rookie draft picks, Jerome Simpson and Andre Caldwell, and hope that a sleeper emerges between Glenn Holt and Antonio Chatman.
CAN RUDI FAIL (AGAIN)? Rudi Johnson was drafted in the first round in most 12-team leagues last year and was one of the bigger busts, rushing for only 497 yards and three touchdowns, after rushing for 12 in each of the three previous seasons. Ironically, he was considered one of the "safe" running backs heading into last year's drafts, because of his year-to-year consistency, but hamstring woes sidelined him for five full games and parts of others. When he was on the field, he was far less productive than normal, averaging just 2.9 yards per carry. Was this the result of his hamstring injury, an offensive line that suffered its own share of injuries, or has Rudi lost a gear? The Bengals will have more options to supplant him in 2008. Chris Perry is finally healthy, Kenny Watson has established himself as a credible alternative, and in May the Bengals even dallied with Shaun Alexander, who remains a free agent at press time.
"YOU KNOW, SEVERAL, YOU KNOW, DOZENS OF PEOPLE SPONTANEOUSLY COMBUST EACH YEAR. IT'S JUST NOT REALLY WIDELY REPORTED."
The Bengals went through linebackers last year like Spinal Tap went through drummers. Odell Thurman's suspension was continued for another season. Ahmad Brooks was lost for the season after the first game. Rashad Jeanty missed the first five games of the season. Caleb Miller was lost for the season by the third game of the year. Lemar Marshall tore his ACL in the fourth game of the season. At one point during their Game 4 loss to the Patriots, they had just one healthy linebacker at their disposal. They've overhauled their linebackers this offseason, losing leading tackler Landon Johnson and cutting Thurman, and restocked by drafting Keith Rivers out of USC to be an immediate starter.
Rising: Chris Perry has a long way to go to prove he's durable enough to handle a full season in the NFL but he has a gear that Rudi Johnson doesn't.
Declining: Rudi Johnson had a hard time staying healthy last year and then was ineffective more often than not. He could start losing carries to a healthy Perry.
Sleeper: It's been awhile since the Bengals have had a fantasy-useable tight end. Ben Utecht might just end that drought.