It's time, starting this week, for the Bengals to finally be somebody.
Training camp opens Thursday in Georgetown, Ky., where the Bengals will try to shake off their laughable designation as underachievers and perhaps outlive their less-humorous reputation for lawlessness. The police blotter is relatively quiet this year, and, as developments have left them, it's hard to mark the Bengals as the dregs of society. It's not like they're into dog fighting.
Training camp is good news this year for every team except the Atlanta Falcons, who hired Bobby Petrino away from Louisville to coach and then traded away esteemed back-up quarterback Matt Schaub only to learn last week that starting quarterback Michael Vick is under federal indictment on dog fighting charges.
The details in Vick's case are well known, gruesome and about as low as human life can descend. If you ever need a conversational icebreaker guaranteed for immediate agreement, try, "Boy, that Michael Vick is really screwed." Within a week of the indictments, talk prevails that well-connected NFL officials would like Vick to take a leave of absence, which would slightly insulate the league from further developments.
Vick can't possibly make it through the season anyway. How is he going to concentrate? How many dog biscuits can football fans throw at him? How much whoofing can he take? And, one supposes, a good number of NFL defensive linemen are dog lovers.
Innocent until proven guilty is an important principle, but it only flies in court.
Thankfully for the Bengals, that's someone else's problem. The Bengals don't have problems right now.
They're primed for contention, needing only to bolt themselves together and make a run at it. The early line says they'll battle the Baltimore Ravens for the AFC North title while Pittsburgh starts a new program and Cleveland continues rebuilding.
Last season, following their first division championship in 14 years, the Bengals took every kind of a beating named on the wheel of fortune. Injuries gutted the offensive line, suspensions dented other parts of the team and one of the league's toughest schedules exerted constant pressure while the star quarterback looked for his legs after knee surgery.
Meanwhile, the Bengals still hadn't solved the big problem, their run defense. The fates of two second-year linebackers drew this team's limitations: One, David Pollack, went down with a career-threatening neck injury and the other, Odell Thurman, took a fool suspension of one year.
Improving yet unstable, the Bengals of 2006 never found their footing. One day, they allowed 42 points to San Diego in the second half at home for a 49-41 loss. Right away, though, the Bengals bottled up the New Orleans offense in a 31-16 win, pitched a 30-0 shutout against Cleveland and outslugged Baltimore 13-7.
Somehow, the Bengals showed an 8-5 record into December as they angled for a playoff appearance. But that schedule never relented.
Of their last three games, the first came in Indianapolis, a 34-16 loss to the burgeoning Super Bowl champions. Next was a game at Denver, where a bad extra-point snap in the snow cost a chance to win at the end. Finally, the Bengals returned to Paul Brown Stadium for a crack at the Pittsburgh Steelers, who celebrated Bill Cowher's last supper with a 67-yard touchdown pass on the third play of overtime.
The Bengals were about as unlikely a playoff team as 8-5 can be, and they played like it. Three straight losses dropped them to .500 when one win would have put them into the playoffs.
But it's over now, and, if it really didn't seem so bad, it's because you still remember how 4-12 always felt. And you knew this year would feel better.
Of 16 games on the Bengals' upcoming schedule, only six come against teams with winning records in 2006, including two against AFC North champ Baltimore (13-3) and one each against Seattle (9-7), New England (12-4), Kansas City (9-7) and the New York Jets (10-6).
Concerned about the Bengals' defense this year? Naturally, the Bengals should be improved by better health and more players, but it won't hurt that 12 of their games come against teams ranked 16th or lower in total offense last year. Eight games come against teams ranked 20th or worse in rushing offense.
Carson Palmer returned strong last year and is supposed to be aiming at a 70 percent completion rate this time. Only a handful of games this year come against pass defenses that were better than mediocre in 2006. It remains to be seen if a play-making third receiver will show up while Chris Henry serves an eight-game suspension, but anyone good enough for the NFL ought to thrive in the arrangement.
Published interviews with Lewis indicate that he really believes the team is no more than that longest yard away from winning a Super Bowl. Furthermore, he seems to believe the resources for covering that yard are found in last year's struggles, especially those last two losses.
Knowing how close they are, maybe players will be more attentive to detail and consistent performance. That's the hope one hears from Lewis. That's how he plans to cover the longest yard.
We're not talking here about a football team that barely lost a conference championship game. The Bengals still haven't approached that level. But they seem to be right about on it, always a fingertip from winning.
The Bengals are a motivated football team that experienced 8-8 against a tough schedule as a terrible disappointment. While they focus, the league has kicked in with a schedule that plays very easily against the team's weaknesses. It all starts to add up.
They still have to play it, of course. That's the good news.
The bad news? Maybe we had enough last year.
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