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There is talent, and there is trust. Don't let the Cincinnati Bengals use one as currency to buy the other.
Deep down, if you live outside Cincinnati, you are probably having a tough time reconciling your feelings about this team. They've been the league's rust-bucket for so long, you got used to the reliable failure and predictable disappointment (waaaait for it … waaaait for it … aaaaaaand, yep, Odell Thurman(notes) blew another chance somewhere in the world). Now all of the sudden, the Bengals have the new packaging, and it's hard to know how real it really is. Without that "Under New Management" sign, can you really trust where this franchise is going?
Come to your own conclusions, but I'm not there. I still don't trust that something ridiculous isn't around the corner.
Don't get me wrong; I am impressed. A 4-1 record with wins over the Baltimore Ravens, Pittsburgh Steelers and Green Bay Packers tell me the talent is legitimate. I've even gone so far as to say that if you replayed that tipped ball to wideout Brandon Stokley(notes) in Week 1, Cincinnati beats the Denver Broncos 99 out of 100 times. But, hey, the Bengals have gotten their own share of breaks too. An errant pass by Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco(notes) and a dropped touchdown by Pittsburgh wideout Limas Sweed(notes) flipped the script on a pair of potential losses. And really, who's bragging about that 23-20 win over the Cleveland Browns in the deepest reaches of overtime?
That said, I think the Bengals are good. The offense is solid and getting better, and quarterback Carson Palmer(notes) has been remarkably clutch late in games. And on defense, I think they're extremely good. For my money, there isn't a better young tandem of cornerbacks than Leon Hall(notes) and Johnathan Joseph(notes). And linebacker Keith Rivers(notes)? He's going to rack up his share of Pro Bowls before he's done.
But five weeks in, I still don't have faith that something disappointing isn't around the corner – both on and off the field. On one hand, I want to see how this team handles success. One of the underrated downfalls of the Bengals under head coach Marvin Lewis is that they've never been all that mentally tough. Now that Cincinnati feels perception turning in its favor, this is when the Houston Texans and Chicago Bears come to town and pull the rug out. The Texans are a team Cincinnati should beat, and that's an expectation that becomes a hurdle. When was the last time we expected the Bengals to beat anyone – OK, excluding the downtrodden Browns? And Chicago is, quite frankly, a better team than anyone realizes.
Then there's the Week 8 bye, which may actually be the toughest opponent of the season. For all the talk about wideout Chris Henry getting his head screwed on straight, and Tank Johnson(notes) turning over a new leaf, and the majority of the troublemakers getting swept off the team, the checkered histories are all still there. If you were like me, you watched running back Bernard Scott(notes) in the preseason, and thought, "What in the world was this guy doing at tiny Abilene Christian?" Then you dug a little deeper and found out that he was kicked off his high school team for a pretty violent fight, and dismissed from his first of three college stops for running into trouble with police and hitting a coach at Central Arkansas.
And it's nearly impossible to erase the story I heard about a linebacker-needy NFC team going around the war room before its pick and debating the pros and cons of Rey Maualuga(notes). Let's just say the conversation ended on Rey's reputation for enjoying the Southern California nightlife a little too much. So much so, that I later heard from a completely separate NFC team that its scouting dossier of Maualuga actually contained the phrase "party monster." So, yeah, forgive me if I'm a little worried about the party monster and the coach puncher, not to mention the guy who famously wore his Bengals jersey as he simultaneously broke the law (Henry) and … well, you get the point.
Remember that in 2005, this team started 4-1 and ended with a postseason berth. Along the way, Thurman and Henry were largely well-behaved, and suddenly it looked like the franchise had turned the corner. But in hindsight, the seeds of larger problems were being planted in that same season. So while the talent is there for something special and lasting in Cincinnati, the trust that it will actually be realized and sustained is not.
Here are some of this week's other inconvenient truths …
Giants' Reese is headed for executive of the year
Team president John Mara called Jerry Reese the "right man at the right time in the right place" the day Reese officially succeeded Ernie Accorsi as the New York Giants' general manager in January 2007. And there has been very little to contradict that statement almost three years later. Only now, however, are we truly seeing the effects of a Midas touch that could pave the way to the Giants' second Super Bowl appearance in Reese's three seasons.
Thus far, Reese has avoided making the catastrophic roster blunder, and such deft avoidance can often be the foundation of a great personnel man. Three years from now, maybe we'll be pointing at the rich free-agent deal given to defensive tackle Chris Canty(notes) as his first glaring error. But for now, Reese is almost entirely unscathed. He stood pat this past offseason when others (including me) opined that he had to acquire a star wideout to replace Plaxico Burress(notes). He got Eli Manning(notes) locked down through 2015, which should be the bulk of his prime years. Both of those decisions were widely criticized in the preseason. They now look remarkably sound.
And while it's too soon to tell how Reese's latest NFL draft class will pan out, his selections from 2007 and 2008 have been filled with a wide range of value. It's been particularly noticeable with the mid-to late-round picks – choices which often create the backbone of a championship team. Already, Ahmad Bradshaw(notes) has proven to be one of the league's more explosive running backs, and likely has a future as a centerpiece. Wideout Steve Smith is leading the league in receiving yards and tied for the league lead in touchdown receptions, while fellow wideout Mario Manningham(notes) is close behind in both categories. Smith was a second-round pick in 2007, but Bradshaw didn't come off the board until the seventh in '07; Manningham was a third-rounder in 2008.
Among the others, cornerback Terrell Thomas(notes) (second round), tight end Kevin Boss(notes) (fifth) and safety Michael Johnson (seventh) have all become solid starters. And only circumstance is stopping several promising players from contributing. Among them, cornerback Aaron Ross(notes) and safety Kenny Phillips(notes) – both first-round picks – have the makings of good long-term starters. And defensive tackle Jay Alford(notes) (third round) should be a valuable rotational player for years.
Add it up, and at least nine of Reese's first 16 draft picks have shown the ability to either be stars, valuable starters or significant contributors. That's the kind of draft performance that will earn you a genius label if you can keep it up consistently. Only time will tell if Reese can.
Sixty-million dollars for Orton? It could happen this offseason
One of the interesting footnotes of the Broncos' 5-0 start is the fairly equitable one-year $995,000 deal quarterback Kyle Orton(notes) is playing with. Normally, he'd be slated to hit unrestricted free agency this offseason at the peak age of 27. In turn, the Broncos would normally be inclined to belly up to the negotiating table sooner rather than later. But for now, the uncertain state of the collective bargaining agreement is killing his leverage.
It appears almost a lock that 2010 will be an uncapped year, barring the owners reaching a new deal with the NFL Players Association on the CBA. In the event the cap disappears, players with fewer than six accrued seasons can only qualify for restricted free agency. Orton will only have four accrued seasons (he missed the entire 2006 campaign), so if the cap goes, Denver can tender him a very modest one-year deal. That means the Broncos can ride out the remainder of this season with almost no incentive to sign Orton to a lucrative long-term deal. Indeed, the only reason Denver would be obliged to commit to Orton now is if he allowed them to minimize risk and took a deal with very little guaranteed money. And that's just not going to happen.
Instead, Denver will likely do precisely what Chicago did when Orton got off to a fast start last season: sit on its checkbook and see what happens. The Broncos will allow Orton to play out the string this season and then start working on an extension. It's the safest route to avoiding a megamistake contract, especially considering the kind of figures which will be flying around. One league executive with negotiating experience said that if Orton maintains his current pace, the framework for his contract will likely begin in the neighborhood of the six-year, $60 million deal signed by the Kansas City Chiefs' Matt Cassel(notes) last offseason. That deal included $28 million in guaranteed money. If someone had told Bears general manager Jerry Angelo that Orton would ever command that kind of money, it would have induced an aneurysm.
The Seahawks are the best team in the NFC West
Maybe they won't win the division, but you shouldn't be surprised if they do. It's amazing how good this team is offensively when quarterback Matt Hasselbeck(notes) is healthy. The depth of offensive weapons is closer to the Arizona Cardinals than anyone in the division, and that's without T.J. Houshmandzadeh(notes) playing his best football through this point of the season (to be fair, Arizona's pieces haven't hit their sweet spots, either).
Go back and watch Sunday's 41-0 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars. Now, in no way would I call the Jaguars a good team. They are solid at best, and likely to hover just below .500 by season's end. But not only did the Seahawks dominate the Jaguars at the line of scrimmage, they also pitched the shutout without two of their best defensive players – linebacker Leroy Hill(notes) and cornerback Marcus Trufant(notes), who are expected to return from injury in early November. Considering that cornerback Ken Lucas(notes) is just now getting around to his best football and how fast rookie Aaron Curry(notes) is coming on, this defense has the potential to be a wicked handful the second half of the season.
Indeed, maybe the only thing holding this team back from a sustained run will be Hasselbeck's health. Between Houshmandzadeh, fellow wideout Nate Burleson(notes), tight end John Carlson(notes), running back Julius Jones(notes) and increasingly used utility back Justin Forsett(notes), this unit should be able to score with anyone in the NFC. It's Hasselbeck, however, who ties it together. And with the diminishing hope that offensive tackle Walter Jones(notes) will return anytime soon (if at all), Hasselback's going to take his share of licks unless Seattle consistently schemes to protect him. Still, I think Seattle is going to show it this week against Arizona. That talent is there to command the division as long as Hasselbeck is there to lead a roster with ample with talent.
Slaton made a mistake toying with his weight
Yes, I know Steve Slaton(notes) has already come out and said he's "only" four pounds heavier than last season's playing weight of 204, and that he feels like defenses are doing a better job against him. But after reviewing the Houston Texans' past two games against Oakland and Arizona, I'm skeptical. He looks more tentative in his decisions, and even when he is decisive, his bursting ability just doesn't appear to be there consistently.
And it's hard not to go back to the offseason, when Slaton was talking about getting up to 213 or 214 pounds as if it was a good thing. Suddenly, he is off to a slow start, and that number is smaller than what he was saying in training camp. First things first: Never believe what a player says about his weight because it is far and away the easiest thing with which they can be deceptive. And second, though defenses are scheming to prepare for Slaton, the attention is no more than it was in the final month of last season. And Slaton still managed to consistently show his explosiveness in that December slate, despite it being his heaviest four-game workload of the entire season.
The bottom line: If Slaton played from 202 to 204 last season, getting to 214 pounds (even if he's not there now) is a significant change in physique. Ask any 200-pound player who has a compact frame like Slaton's how hard it is to add 10 pounds of "good" weight in one offseason. It's a major change because rarely do skill-position players not named JaMarcus Russell(notes) bulk up with fat. Good bulk is almost always pure muscle, and adding that much muscle can interfere with quick-twitch capabilities and flexibility. It's part of the reason you'll see some players cut down on bulk by lessening the weight-room routine and raising endurance and core workouts. More muscle takes more energy and is more difficult to get into motion. Sometimes, being lean and lithe is better.
That's why it's always a potential pitfall when a successful 200-pound running back decides to alter his weight more than two or three pounds. Even a slight change makes a difference, especially when your game is short-area speed and quickness. And when you are a back in a zone-blocking scheme, your decision-making and ability to quickly execute those decisions are paramount. Watching Slaton now, he looks like a player who might have sacrificed some of that quickness for durability.
For a player who already showed a successful physical formula in 2008, it made little sense to change in the first place.
- Jerry Reese