Posted: 6:50 a.m.
GEORGETOWN, Ky. - Marvin Lewis is always looking for hungry players. On Friday he sets the table for a veritable feast.
There are 30 players who are either working on one-year deals or heading into the last year of their contracts. More than a third of his roster in the crossroads of achievement and potential.
And then there are multiple Pro Bowlers like wide receiver Chad Ochocinco and quarterback Carson Palmer talking about atoning for the worst seasons of their careers. And don't forget ballyhooed youngsters like linebacker Keith Rivers, a No. 1 pick still looking to play in his first NFL victory, or a coaching staff that has won just 19 games in the three years since it won 11 and the AFC North.
"This team has a lot to prove; I don't look at it that way," said Palmer when asked if this is a do-or-die year for this group. "I look at it more that time is now. You can't count on next year. You can't think if we get off to a slow start we'll do better next year.
"The time is now. We have to take advantage of the opportunity we've got because we've got a good team. We've got a lot of talent. We've got good people, good individuals. But as far as make or break, I don't think of it like that. I think of it more that this is our opportunity. We have to take advantage of it and seize it."
There is enough talent brimming on the Bengals roster to get even cynical veterans, hard-bitten career NFL coaches, and exasperated fans excited about Friday's start of training camp.
The Ocho can feel the potential, too, after a couple of seasons he wasn't so sure.
"But we've never been able to put it together the right way," he said, "and succeed like we should. I think this is our year to do it."
Palmer and The Ocho didn't get a chance to throw together in California earlier this month ("conflicting schedules," The Ocho said), but Ochocinco says no problem because if Palmer "doesn't hit anybody who's wide open, something's the matter."
Palmer also agrees with Ochocinco's assertion that he and Palmer have the most to prove on a team with a lot to prove.
"That's a fair assessment," he said. "With me having an injury and Chad having a down year, we have a lot to work on."
The Bengals are a lot like three guys working on the one-year deal: Safety Roy Williams, defensive tackle Tank Johnson and wide receiver Chris Henry.
The amply-talented Johnson and Henry look to be over their well-publicized off-field problems. Williams, who also on Friday launches his Safety Net Foundation effort to raise $1 million for struggling single mothers and their children, is trying to regain his five-time Pro Bowl form at age 29 after a broken arm virtually wiped out his entire '08 season.
Williams doesn't like the do-or-die term, either. It's like any other year, he says, except he thinks this team has got it.
"There are many expectations; either we meet them or we tank it," Williams said. "I think this team is going to make it. I really am happy about this opportunity. This team is very good. With everybody healthy coming in, we're going to really shine."
Tank certainly doesn’t think the Bengals will tank it. He says they're young fast, and physical. "A good base," he calls it.
"You've got to be excited about the young talent. Andre (Smith), Rey (Maualuga) and Mike (Johnson). You got to be excited. It's a new season," Johnson said. "It's a huge year for a lot of people. If we have success this year this group can be together for a long time. We're a good group."
Johnson, in what he calls his "sixth lap" at age 27, shrugs at a one-year deal.
"You can only play one year at a time, anyway," he said. "Everything is a one-year deal."
Williams, who drove into camp with Johnson, has pretty much the same outlook. Not only is he not thinking about the long-term, he's not even thinking about the depth chart that has him starting even though he just arrived in May.
"I'm not worried about a one-year deal," he said. "I'm just happy to be back playing … I don’t really consider myself the starter. I was told from the jump I'd have to compete and nobody gives you anything."
Palmer, of course, is looking for no holdouts. He felt so strongly about what has happened in the three previous seasons that he stepped up his leadership back in the spring when he addressed the team about seizing the moment.
Probably because he's not such a young man, but he's still in a hurry. He turns 30 the last week of the season and he's one game under .500 for his 65 starts at 32-33. Division rival Ben Roethlisberger has two Super Bowl rings. Palmer's backup in college, Matt Cassel, has a .667 winning percentage. Another division rival, Joe Flacco, has been to a conference championship game.
"I'm not looking at it that way," Palmer said. "This is training camp. It's one practice at a time, one meeting at a time, one hour at a time. Then once you get through training camp, it's one game at a time. There are a lot of quarterbacks in the league that have what I want. But as far as worrying about it, or thinking about it, that's not my concern. My concern is what we're installing and getting better at it each day."
Ochocinco says the Bengals must get back to the high-rolling days of offense "and the key to that is Carson."
But maybe it's even simpler than that. Rivers played only seven games last year because of a broken jaw. But there was more pain than that.
"Last year, it was terrible," he said. "4-11-1. I don't think I lost that many games in my whole life. They were definitely trying times and no one wants to go back to that. The taste of losing is so bitter."
But it helps the hunger pains.