August surprise

Posted: 8 a.m.

APPLETON, Wis. - ESPN, like everywhere else, has stood for BRETT the last couple of months.

But if you can ever remember before Brett Favre, the biggest media take in the NFL offseason was that the Bengals had imploded and they had to rid themselves of the poisonous Chad Johnson and his trade demands.

Even Johnson mused at training camp last week, "(Favre) had a pretty good run, but I think I got him over three months."

Yet as ESPN takes to the airwaves Monday at 8 p.m. to somehow wedge in the Bengals during the discussion of the preseason opener in Green Bay, the crew in the booth emerged from Sunday's production meeting at team headquarters with Marvin Lewis, Johnson and some of the team's other top players with a somewhat different take.

"For the last three years they've been a descending football team both record-wise and statistically," said analyst Ron Jaworski. "But there seems to be a renewed sense of energy, particularly on the defensive side of the football."

Tony Kornheiser, the other analyst who has made Chadgate a staple of his various media musings, also surprised with the kinder, gentler observation, "There was a conviction to their optimism I wasn't expecting. I would love to see it because I love to watch them play. I think Carson Palmer is great."

Staying true to his role as the big picture play-by-play man, Mike Tirico put the national perception neatly on the cue card.

"The window is shut. They had their chance and they let it slip away," Tirico said. "I keep being reminded of the Indianapolis game and the Chad proposal game (in '05) and you're thinking the Bengals are going to be around for a few years. But there's been constant slippage. And you wonder if that's related to injuries. Is that related to all the guys that got arrested and you couldn't be accountable for the people on the field?"

Or, as Kornheiser calls it, "I think to the general audience the last two years they were on the verge of falling off the face of the earth and known more for Chad trying to get out of there."

But Jaworski, an NFL Films vault, says the tape shows more than the take.

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Perry

"Oh, the window is still very wide open," he said. "The defense is going to be improved if I'm getting the right vibes. Chris Perry is an excellent receiver out of the backfield and a powerful runner if he can stay healthy, and Ben Utecht gives them a dimension they've never had with the receiving tight end and that will complement the receivers. You put T.J. (Houshmandzadeh) and Chad on the outside and if you keep those linebackers on the inside, they'll get some big windows to throw into."

Jaworski is a big fan of new defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer and says it sounds as if the players have bought in to his "gap discipline, footwork, no free releases for the receivers, breakdown timing. You get a feeling the defense is going to be better."

But the conversation can never stray far from Chad and chemistry. After being apprised of the Bengals.com theory that the Bengals can still win with Chad Being Chad like the Red Sox won two World Series with Manny Being Manny, Johnson has embraced the concept.

Last week before leaving for Green Bay, Johnson reiterated what his complaints were.

"Everything is fine, but nothing is never over," he said. "You have to understand what my fuss was about. It was about us not winning and frustrated by the losses. I've seen significant changes with a lot of things we're doing. There's no need to run them all down."

johnson_chad.jpg

Johnson

"I've learned not to be surprised by Chad," Kornheiser said. "Whatever Chad says at any given moment might be true at the moment but might not be true 10 seconds later. I just don't know. God bless him. He found out they wouldn't trade him. He's always been a terrific player. My only issue is that he's been perceived as playful, but this last offseason he was angry. Sort of desperate. Marvin says it's glad to have him back and Marvin knows him 40 times better than I do."

Jaworski insists, "Chad Johnson is on board," and yes the Bengals can win with him. After meeting with both Johnson and later Palmer, Jaworski think thinks they get along. It got Jaworski thinking about his own NFL career.

"People read too much into these things. The NFL is such a media-driven league every time somebody says something," Jaworski said. "I know when I had receivers, and I had good ones ... Harold Carmichael, Mike Quick. And in Miami (Mark) Duper and (Mark) Clayton, there's always disagreement and challenging each other. You never let that affect how you play. You do what you can to win. There's always going to be some head-butting, but if the ultimate goal is how do we get better, I think it's going to be OK."

But Jaworski also believes Johnson had a down year last season after a dominating three-year run when it came to "route running, catching, all the things you need to do consistently. If he can get back to that, he'll have a better year."

Tirico isn't sure a better year for the team is going to mean much.

"The problem in the AFC is that we know the top three teams are San Diego, Indy and New England," he said. "Jacksonville and Pittsburgh are pretty good and the Jets just got a lot better. Realistically, that's the issue.

"But I think when you stop and realize that the quarterback is still there, the receivers are still there ... teams would kill to have that combo. If Chris Perry stays healthy, and that's a significant if, they've got a better tight end and if the defense is something you can rely on, you can see them able to compete."

In the wake of some player moves, Tirico said he gets the sense of "the coach trying to get control of the franchise back with the players. To try to get some stability. If that can happen pretty quickly, there are still people on offense that scare the heck out of teams."

At least 24 hours before the Big Top went up, the media circus had slowed enough to take a look at the debris.

"I know everybody is optimistic this time of year," Kornheiser said of his read of the team. "But it almost seems genuine. It's almost like, 'We didn't have much the last two years, but the core is good here and we can get it done.' That's a little surprising."

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