Geoff, I'm an Englishman living in Cincinnati and a mad keen football fan (but the soccer kind). Now that the Bengals are on their way to the play-offs I need your help to be able to talk to my neighbours and work colleagues knowledgeably about the Bengals.
So what would you say are the top 3 or 4 facts about the Bengals that I could slip into casual conversation that might convince people that I actually know what I'm talking about?
Thanks for your considered help.
Alan, West Chester, OH ALAN:
A couple of key phrases around the water cooler:
"In Marvin We Trust. He should be Coach of the Year by acclamation."
"Carson throws the ball downfield with the aggressiveness of Boomer and the precision of Kenny."
"Oooh, those turnovers. They'll kill you all the time."
And, just to let them know you're really a fan, you have to gripe about something:
"They gotta stop the run."
Marvin Lewis is the guy driving this bus. In his first 40 games, his passion, vision, and energy have put the Bengals on the cusp of the playoffs with an overall record of 22-18. In the previous 40 games, they were 10-30, and that's why he ought to be Coach of the Year.
Tony Dungy of the Colts is going to get a lot of votes and so, no doubt, are Tampa Bay's Jon Gruden, Atlanta's Jim Mora, and the Giants' Tom Coughlin.
But none of those guys are doing what Lewis is doing. Dungy, Gruden and Mora have already gone to the playoffs with their teams. True, Dungy has done a great job overhauling that defense to get them over the AFC title game hump, but Lewis had to change a lot more than Xs and Os.
He had to start with the culture and literally went right down to the uniforms. The roster is now teeming with "Lewis Players," guys who are fast, smart, and committed. Maybe you can argue that Coughlin has done some of that in New York, but the Giants haven't had to come as far as the Bengals.
The other key guy is the quarterback. Carson Palmer is truly having an MVP year. He's on pace to break virtually every 16-game season mark in the Bengals' record book, ranging from Ken Anderson's 29 touchdown passes (he's on pace for 32) to Boomer Esiason's 3,959 yards (he's on pace for 4,074 yards).
The key? Another year older, another year wiser, and a healthier offensive line. After the first eight games last year, he had six touchdown passes and 10 interceptions and had been sacked 19 times. After the first eight games this year, he's got 16 TDs to five interceptions with 12 sacks.
Circle Nov. 20, Palmer vs. Peyton Manning. They can put Manning and Tom Brady on the cover of Sports Illustrated, but they could have done the same thing next week with Manning and Palmer when the Bengals host the Colts in a duel of two overall No. 1 draft picks with a movie theater heading, "The Real Deals."
Lewis likes fast guys on defense because he thinks they can cause turnovers, one of the biggest factors in deciding games. They've forced a league-leading 28 and lead the NFL with 84 points off turnovers. But, just as importantly, they've only given it back eight times for a turnover differential of plus-20 that puts them in range of the record 43 of the 1983 NFC Champion Redskins.
Since Lewis has been the Bengals head coach, they are 15-1 when they are plus in turnovers. Since 2000, teams that are at least plus-1 in turnovers during a game win 66 percent of the time.
In the locker room, the players say, 'It's guys making plays.' But you've got to have the guys that make plays, they just don't come out of thin air. In the three seasons before Lewis arrived, the Bengals had 21, 28, and 20 turnovers in 2000, 2001, and 2002, respectively. And the next one gives them No. 29 already for this season.
Since Lewis arrived, he's had trouble fixing the run defense, particularly against division rivals Baltimore and Pittsburgh. That's why Sunday's game in Baltimore is so important. Everyone knows with their No. 1 quarterback out, the Ravens are going to run the ball against a Cincinnati defense that two weeks before gave up 221 yards on the ground to the Steelers.
There are a lot of reasons. They haven't had their two starting safeties all year and their best defensive player, free safety Madieu Williams, is out for a season he only played four of the first six games. In the three games he started, the most yards they allowed on the ground were 106 against the Bears. Plus they've got two rookie starting linebackers in David Pollack and Odell Thurman and a defensive end starting for the first time in Robert Geathers.
But it's not just the defense. In a game like one against the Ravens, the Bengals have to score points early so Baltimore has to throw to get back into the game.
It's as simple as that. If the Bengals hadn't dropped a touchdown pass on their first drive against Pittsburgh, they would have been up 10-0 and now it's a different game instead of taking a 3-0 lead into the second quarter.
Two more stats: They are 5-0 when leading at halftime and 5-1 when scoring 20 points or more. That's the best defense.
Hope this helps you out with your friends and neighbors. It looks like you guys will have plenty to talk about the rest of the way.