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Bengals' Top Draft Picks Position Them for Wins in the Fall

By Bill Peterson · April 27th, 2005 · Sports
Jerry Dowling

In every major league town reside a fair number of professionals in other fields who are weekend warriors in the sports journalism trade. Generally, they're credentialed through small radio stations for whom they probably sell ads during the day.

As these fellows don't earn their real keep by learning the inner workings of the locker rooms through which they carry their tape machines, they're usually strapped for questions to ask. But if they don't ask questions, they won't produce sound bites.

So they ask questions. Usually, their stock of questions is limited to three: 1) With these big games coming up, do you feel any pressure? 2) With these big games coming up, does the team feel any pressure? And 3) Talk about your home run. True, the last one isn't a question, but it might draw an enthusiastic response.

Seldom in the history of spectator sports has any coach or athlete answered the pressure question thoughtfully. In fairness, why should a thoughtless question receive a thoughtful answer? Sometimes journalism pros ask the pressure question, too, especially when they're under no pressure to ask thoughtful questions.

Unless the athlete questioned truly feels pressure, in which case he turns testy, the answer comes in two flavors: 1) We don't feel any more pressure than we feel for any other game, because we try to win them all; and 2) the fans and media don't put nearly as much pressure on us as the pressure we put on ourselves.

In more than 25 years covering professional sports, we've heard the pressure question answered correctly only one time. Late during the 1990 baseball season, as the Reds drove toward the National League pennant, a man named Eric Davis said, "If you feel pressure, you shouldn't be here."

The Bengals are here now, following last weekend's NFL draft in which they added two linebackers in the first two rounds.

Our little local 11, who haven't begun a winning season since shortly after Davis uttered those memorable words, will go to the fall with expectations.

The past couple of falls have been fun. We didn't expect much from the Bengals, and they didn't deliver much. But they gave us much more than we've seen in years, competing on most every play, winning as many as they lost and hanging in the playoff hunt until very late.

Marvin Lewis has capitalized on the luxury of low expectations, figuring slow and steady would win this race. The Bengals were so poor for so long that only the babies expected a playoff team, or even a winning season, within two years.

New NFL coaches talked about five-year programs in the old days, before true free agency and salary caps. The way the NFL operates now, every team is within three years of the Super Bowl except the Bengals, who were within five or six when Lewis came to town.

Free agents would come to Cincinnati, talk a little, eat a nice dinner and go away without signing up. The Bengals' best player at the time, linebacker Takeo Spikes, so tired of losing that he shuffled off to the Buffalo Bills. The team has been much worse off for it, ranking 26th in NFL run defense last year.

Lewis has fixed the Bengals' image, making them fun to watch even when they don't win. They've come a long way. Right before the Bengals made their first draft pick on April 23, ESPN reporter Chris Mortenson identified the Bengals as the dark horse to unseat the New England Patriots in the AFC. No one laughed.

It's going to be fun this fall, because it might actually be followed by a winter for the Bengals. That's a legitimate expectation. The Super Bowl can wait a while, but the Bengals will be under the gun for a winning season, with playoffs right around the corner.

The Bengals opened the draft by taking David Pollack, a three-time All-American at Georgia who registered 36 quarterback sacks during his college career as a defensive end. Despite his achievements, some of the draft wonks remarked on his 30-inch arms, which are supposed to be too short for disengagement from pro tackles at the line of scrimmage.

But that won't be a problem for the Bengals, who will put him at outside linebacker opposite Brian Simmons. Pollack will give the Bengals an aggressive, sticky tackler as well as a dangerous pass rusher from the edge. At 6 feet 2 inches, 265 pounds, he's talking about dropping 15 pounds, which should increase his considerable quickness.

The Bengals' second pick, Georgia middle linebacker Odell Thurman, is said to be unrefined though highly talented with a flair for clutch play. Some mocks had him going late in the first round, so the selection is good value for the Bengals not just because he gives them a push against injured middle linebacker Nate Webster but because he came to the Bengals in the middle of the second round.

For all the despair about the Bengals against the run last year, the problems weren't terribly widespread. Lewis insists that the Bengals didn't give up long runs through the middle last year. And the Bengals weren't so terrible that teams unable to run against anyone else could run against them.

But their inability to stop running teams is especially damaging in the AFC North, where they play four games per year against Pittsburgh and Baltimore. The Bengals clearly needed a couple of good run defenders more than they needed anything else. Without them, the Bengals would make no progress.

Lewis blew a bit of smoke last week about how the Bengals didn't need to worry so much about immediate help. The Bengals, after all, don't have to worry about graduations. But they do have to worry about free agency and salary caps.

It's not at all uncommon for teams to cast off productive players so they can fit under the cap. The time frame for NFL teams with most of their players isn't a lot different than the time frame for college teams.

So the Bengals had to address their biggest area of need effectively right away, thereby maximizing their chances with the players already on hand. They've done it with their first two picks, from whom they will need immediate contributions. Two players who can make plays ought to make them two games better.

The rest of the Bengals' draft isn't so exciting, mostly interior line projects and back-up wide receivers. If any of them plays a lot this year, it's probably not good news, as it means someone else went down. The Bengals need nothing to do with that.

Eyes are on them to become a playoff team because they have that look. By fall, they should be good enough. And if that's pressure, then the Bengals shouldn't be here.



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