You can call it bias if you want, but it's also
a serious point: The Bengals are on the rise to being Super Bowl contenders. Although they didn't make the playoffs in '03, they accomplished their
first non-losing season since 1990, and have disposed of the "loser" image that has plagued them for the past decade-and-more. Now, behind head-coach
Marvin Lewis for a second season, the Bengals have their eyes set on a playoff berth, and already have their nucleus set.
While QB Jon Kitna, who came out of nowhere to be the NFL's Most Improved Player last year, won't be starting, the NFL's first-overall draft pick in
2003, Carson Palmer, will. To help his cause, Cincy also has WRs Chad Johnson, coming off a tremendous season last year, and Peter Warrick, as well as
up-and-coming RB Rudi Johnson. The defense may not be one of the best, but if it can hold, while the offense lights up the scoreboard, the Bengals
will find themselves in the postseason, and its fans will party like there's no tomorrow.
Carson Palmer, QB, 2nd year 6-5, 235, Rudi Johnson, RB, 4th year 5-10, 233, Brian Simmons, OLB, 7th year 6-3, 248, Willie Anderson,
OT, 9th year 6-5, 340, Chad Johnson, WR, 4th year 6-2, 192
Deltha O'Neal, CB, trade from Denver 5-11, 190, Nate Webster, MLB, free agent from Tampa Bay 6-0, 235
Corey Dillon, traded to New England
Shayne Graham, K, 4th year 6-0, 197, Eric Steinbach, OG, 2nd year 6-6, 300, Levi Jones, OT, 3rd year 6-5, 310, Peter
Warrick, WR, 5th year 5-11, 195
The Cincinnati Bengals, the butt of many NFL
jokes for the better part of a dozen years, leapt from 2-14 in 2002 to 8-8 last season, the team's first under head coach Marvin Lewis. Though Lewis
had the Bengals in the playoff hunt until the final week, he couldn't direct the franchise's first postseason berth or winning campaign since 1990.
Joining forces with Lewis in a quest to take the team to the next level will be quarterback Carson Palmer, who will start under center following a
rookie year in which he served as an unused apprentice to Jon Kitna. The presence of Palmer, along with a few key defensive acquisitions, has sent
hopes soaring in the Queen City to a level not known since Ickey was still shuffling. The Bengals made the inevitable decision to appoint 2003 No. 1
draft pick Palmer their starting quarterback this season, a move that relegated Kitna (3591 passing yards, 26 TD, 15 INT) to second-string. Kitna
comes off his best year as a pro, but has taken the shift to backup with understanding and class. He will serve as a key insurance policy should
Palmer go down or be terribly ineffective, and will also tutor the multi-talented youngster as he takes his first NFL snaps. Casey Bramlet, a
seventh-round draft pick out of Wyoming, figures to win the No. 3 job.
Rudi Johnson is the starter now with Corey Dillon in New England, and he will likely share time with first-round draft pick Chris Perry. Johnson is a
tough runner between the tackles, but he lacks the speed to bounce outside and he must prove that last season was not a fluke. Perry is a shifty
runner, but he can also run with power. He has good size, quickness, and speed, and he picks up yards after contact. He has good vision and instincts
for finding the hole, he possesses good cut-back ability, and catches the ball well in the flat. Kenny Watson will fill the No. 3 role, but he is
little more than a special teams player. Jeremi Johnson will start at fullback, but the Bengals plan to open up the offense this year so he may not
get a lot of playing time.
If the Bengals can take advantage of Palmer's
big arm, this receiving corps could be explosive and among the best in the league this year. Chad Johnson and Peter Warrick will return as the
starters with second-year wideout Kelley Washington coming in as the third receiver. Johnson is the top receiver on this squad and one of the elite
receivers in the league. Warrick, who is a great fit at No. 2, can play on the outside in two-receiver sets and move inside to the slot in
three-receiver formations. Washington, who will play on the outside in the No. 3 role, has a ton of talent, but he slipped to the third round of the
2003 NFL Draft because of health concerns. He is a big physical receiver with good speed and soft hands, and he should benefit from the offense's
desire to stretch the field vertically. He could emerge as one of the more dangerous third receivers in the league. T.J. Houshmanzadeh, Patrick
Johnson, Kevin Walter, and rookie Maurice Mann will battle for the remaining spots on the roster. Reggie Kelley is penciled in as the starter at tight
end, and he is one of the leagues better blockers, but he does not have good receiving skills and is not a big factor in the passing attack. The
Bengals are hoping Matt Schobel, who was hampered with a hamstring injury in ‘03, can emerge as a receiving threat and they will likely use him in
obvious passing situations.
The Bengals have the unmistakable emblem of a team on the rise. Palmer has the physical and mental tools to be one of the league's great quarterbacks
down the line, but for this season he'll just have to make good decisions while relying on his vast weaponry. Rudi Johnson, Chad Johnson, and Peter
Warrick should ease Palmer's transition. Defense, which is Lewis' area of expertise, should benefit from Hardy's shift to the left side as well as the
addition of O'Neal and Herring in the secondary. Barring a rash of significant injuries, the Bengals look to have the pieces to battle Baltimore for
the AFC North crown, and should have little trouble posting their first winning season since 1990.
[Edited on 13/9/04 by TRD]