It's hard to say where it all went wrong. It's easy enough to point to the 2005 draft, since that's what everyone blames. A rather dramatic series of snafus, fortunes and misfortunes issued from that spring weekend in 2005, which at once seeded the team's only winning season in the last 17 years and set the path for long-term stagnation.
The release of linebacker Odell Thurman this spring sealed the Bengals' 2005 draft as the most star-crossed among AFC North teams this century. The top pick, David Pollack, probably is finished after a neck injury killed his career two years ago. The Bengals ignored character questions about Thurman (second round) and wide receiver Chris Henry (third round), then realized a short-term benefit as both performed like lions to help the Bengals win a division right away.
But we all know what happened next: Carson Palmer snapped his leg; the Bengals lost that only playoff game; Henry, Thurman and a cast of other recent draft picks have run afoul of the law; the Bengals cut most of that cast loose; and they now have little to show for five years of rebuilding a desperately awful franchise.
We can point to 2005 as the most dramatic example, but there's really not a lot better to say about their total draft performance since Lewis came to town.
During those first five drafts, 2003-2007, the Bengals made 43 picks, 16 of them in the first three rounds. Of those picks, 18 players are on the training camp roster, but only five were selected in the first three rounds.
Building through the draft requires hitting a lot more than missing in the first three rounds. You might find a diamond in the rough on the second day, but it stands to reason that the real players are to be found in those first 100 or so picks. The task involves finding players who combine Sunday talent with durability, the ability to improve and some minimal aptitude for keeping the cops from their door.
Then you have to sign them, which the Bengals are generally reluctant to do. The Bengals finally signed most of their highest draft picks last weekend, but linebacker Keith Rivers, the first round pick, remained unsigned.
Then you have to keep them around when the good ones prove themselves, which is a lot easier said than done and certainly not a strong suit for the Bengals. As a matter of course, useful players will come and go in the NFL, but one hates to see building blocks for the football team depart so easily.
In deep contractually with offensive linemen Levi Jones and Willie Anderson, the Bengals let Eric Steinbach's contract linger until the 2003 second-round pick jumped to Cleveland on the first day of free agency in 2007. Steinbach made first Pro Bowl alternate last year, while the Bengals learned blocking on the job.
This year, the Bengals start without linebacker Landon Johnson, a third-round pick in 2004 and last year's leading tackler. He signed as a free agent with Carolina.
So in two years, just by free agency, the Bengals have lost their top tackler and a Pro Bowl caliber offensive lineman, and we haven't even mentioned the free agency departure of defensive end Justin Smith, the fourth overall pick in 2001. That's no way to gain traction when your game is all about blocking and tackling.
The Bengals' depth chart opening camp shows 10 starters from the drafts of 2003-2007. Only three of them -- Palmer, corner James Joseph and offensive guard Andrew Whitworth -- are high draft picks with two or more years of experience. The Bengals actually drafted much better than that from a talent standpoint in the first three rounds, but the various foibles involving Steinbach, Johnson, Pollack, Thurman, Henry, Chris Perry and Kelley Washington have blown enormous holes in their roster.
Under more stable circumstances, half of the Bengals' starting lineup could be picks from the top three rounds with three-to-five years of NFL experience. Combined with even better seasoned players like Jones, Anderson, Chad Johnson and Rudi Johnson, that's a young, veteran team on its way to the playoffs.
Instead, the Bengals have stayed behind the Pittsburgh Steelers and fallen behind the Cleveland Browns. And it won't be any easier this season.
This time last year, one figured the Bengals ought to pounce on an easy schedule and return to the playoffs with about 10 wins. As it turned out, the schedule came up even easier.
The Bengals played seven games last year against teams with the NFL's seven worst records. They won five of them. They managed a fourth quarter rally for a 38-31 win against the New York Jets (4-12). They lost games to the San Francisco 49ers (5-11) and the Kansas City Chiefs (4-12). They beat only one playoff team (Tennessee, the last AFC wild card) and beat one other team with a winning record (Cleveland).
Against an easy schedule, the Bengals could finish only 7-9. How will they hold up against a tougher schedule in 2008?
This year the NFL drew them up against the NFC East and the AFC South, the two divisions in which no team finished last year with a losing record. That means the Bengals will play only four games against teams that finished 2007 on the losing side -- two against the Baltimore Ravens and one each against the Jets and Chiefs.
The Bengals don't appear to be any better now than a year ago, they weren't as good last year as the year before and 2006 certainly was no match for 2005. This year won't be a match for 2005, either, which raises question about what we can reasonably expect.
As camp begins for 2008, it's not lining up as a season in which the Bengals will improve on a 7-9 record. Nothing from the last two years indicates they can even match it.
Five years into their rebuilding, how much better off are the Bengals? They've added a quarterback and a very young secondary. The wide receivers were already here. Rudi Johnson was already here. The defensive line and linebacking already were ineffective. They've added no star power to the offensive line.
Five years after Lewis brought hope, he's on the verge of delivering a 6-10 or a 5-11 season. He's not quite back to where he started. It's still a long way to 2-14, but it's looking a bit like two straight losing seasons. If the Bengals wind up there, does Lewis get another chance?