Bells ring across Bengaldom

12-28-03, 1 a.m.

The Grinch is looking out over Bengaldom this morning with smoke coming out of his ears.

Here it is, the New Year is rolling through the Christmas decorations, and Paul Brown Stadium is full, two Bengals are going to the Pro Bowl, the NFL Coach of the Year wears stripes, and the playoffs are close enough that next week's Wild Card playoff game here is sold out.

We thank you for reading all through the year, as well as for your nice thoughts and kind words. We wish everyone in and out of Bengaldom the best of holidays and the happiest of new years.

The regular season's final words from e-mail in this week's Hobson's Choice:

**Have Willie Anderson and Chad Johnson patched things up? I know there was a rift created between them b/c of Chad's victory garauntee over KC, and that Willie has been apologizing ever since, but after Willie's garauntee of reaching the playoffs, have they buried the hatchet?

Also, what kind of uniform change will Marvin institute next year? Just the black pants? I like the current jersey design, and I'd hate to see it go. Also, I really would hate to see the orange 3rd color jerseys become standard. I can't stand those. I know it's not up to me, but whatever the uniform change is, I'd hope the black pants become more of a rotating uniform element than the default. Just my two cents.

I'll be cheering for the Bengals (duh!) and the Steelers on sunday! Even if the Steelers can't pull out a win, as long as we beat Cleveland, we will have a winning record, and that's all I asked for at the beginning of the season. Marv Lewis has already given this team more than we fans could have hoped for, and that's an awesome thing. WHO-DEY for LIFE!

-Andrew, a loyal Bengals fan from Louisville, KY**

ANDREW: You eloquently speak for the majority of Bengaldom, we're sure.

As for Willie and Chad, it was pretty clear that Chad was peeved at Willie's playoff guarantee, which was a surprise to us. Willie said his original rip job of Chad before the Kansas City game was pretty much a gag and more to set up the Chiefs. Willie said he even told Chad before he was going to do it.

Bottom line? Don't know if they had to patch up anything, but it doesn't mean a thing. Neither guy has a vindictive bone in the X-Ray and they both have high regard for what the other brings to the table.

You would think we'll see the black pants, for sure, next year, and that probably means slightly modified home-and-away jerseys, but mum has been the word. **

Hey Geoff !! Merry Christmas from the Bluegrass State !! One quick question for you today, are we heading toward salary cap problems in the near future ? I know this has devastated some good teams in the past. Jon Kitna has been great this year , but we know that Carson Palmer is the future , and I think he'll be able to be the next Peyton Manning or better.

With money being an issue at running back, and we still need some impact defensive players , are we going to look more in the draft to stay competitive , or we will be able to sign free agents ? I believe Bengal management will do everything possible to keep the team competitive , I just dont want this good feeling to be short lived due to the salary cap. What are you thoughts ? Mark Ashland , Ky**

MARK: Even though the Bengals are heading into their most successful offseason in years, it looks like it could also be the busiest. We know that sea-change regimes such as what Marvin Lewis has brought to the Bengals can have as much, if not more, roster changes in Year Two once the system is firmly in place.

Mike Brown and the Blackburns have done an effective job structuring long-term contracts so that they aren't hamstrung in future years, but 2004 looks to be their tightest yet under the cap. They can keep

what they've got, but they simply may not have the room to grab that mega free-agent defensive playmaker. Or, they may have to do some major surgery with players under contract through '04 and beyond to make any kind of moves.

ESPN.com and other sources have reported the Bengals have about $13-14 million under the cap for next season, but they've also got only about 35 players signed and that doesn't count the $3.5 million or so for draft picks.

Nobody could have anticipated the Pro Bowl play of Jon Kitna or the 1,000-yard emergence of Rudi Johnson, which tightens things up even more. With $50 million tied up in Palmer, and Kitna set to count for about $4.5 million against the cap in '04, it's pretty clear they probably can't take both salaries once Palmer starts hitting his triggers. And who knows when that is?

But how can you cut or reduce Kitna? How can you let Johnson go?

So big-ticket players whose roles don't fit their price may have to be scrutinized if things are to get done on a Palmer-Kitna roster. And not just Corey Dillon goes under the microscope. **

I'm really proud of this year's Bengals. To have a chance to make the playoffs going into the last game is beyond what most fans could have imagined for this season. I can finally give Mike Brown a positive affirmation - thanks for hiring Coach Lewis. Only an insider knows what really goes at the PBS offices but we can only assume that after so many years of losing, the Bengals head coach finally has control of his job (i.e. if you expect me to win with my plan, then give me the means to do it).

This has to be the latest in a season in the last decade that everyone is focused on next week instead of next year. I hope the entire Bengals organization realizes the joy the fans experience with them for this great turnaround and the sheer relief that we don't go out with the negative energy that seems to permeate every off season.

One thing I do hope the Bengals fans focus on for next year is to buy so many tickets that we keep the opposing teams' face painted, towel waiving, obnoxious drunks out of our house. They can watch their teams lose from their own house.

Steve Crestview Hills**

STEVE: One thing that's been overplayed this year, particularly by the national media, is how Mike Brown has given Marvin Lewis the power no other Bengals head coach has ever had.

That may be true in some areas (strength and conditioning foremost), but Brown has always given the head coach a lot of the sway in football operations.

One thing that has been underplayed is how important it was to bring in an outsider who had done things differently, and had done them for teams that had won recent championships. Maybe Brown gave his other head coaches sway, but they knew how to do it only one way and couldn't or wouldn't challenge the status quo.

Maybe. Just a thought. **

Geoff, I am having trouble understanding the rules for this particular play. Usually when you see offsetting penalties, if they truly offset, neither team gets penalized. On this particular play, the bengals were the only team to get the brunt of the penalty because the ball was placed where the bengals stepped on to the field. I haven't seen or heard anyone talking about this. Please enlighten me on this or point me in the right direction. Sincerely, Clarence Miller Jr.**

CLARENCE: You are speaking of Bengals cornerback Jeff Burris' 102-yard punt return last week that was called back to inside their 30 because both teams sent their other units on to the field during the play.

They were off-setting penalties. It was a post-possession penalty, and the ball was spotted where the officials though they saw illegal players from BOTH teams first come on the field. **

Geoff, I thought I read earlier in the season about a RB that had spent a great deal of time working out and actually decreased his 40 time by about .2 seconds. Was that Johnson? I found his college scouting report and it listed him as running a 4.6, but he sure doesn't look like a 4.6 guy to me.

Thanks, Stephen**

STEPHEN: We don't think Rudi sheared two seconds off his 40 time, but like you, we know he didn't run a 4.6 on the 49-yard TD against the Niners two weeks ago. That's because Rudi is the kind of player that makes computers belch. He runs fast only with the ball in his arms, and he looks like a football player only when someone tries to tackle him.

We do know he has worked hard the past couple of years to keep off the fast food that dogged him his rookie year at about 225-230 pounds. Now he's closer to 215, and, like everyone else, he seems to benefit from the new strength program. That scouting report might as well have been written on parchment. **

Geoff, While Jon Kitna has clearly engineered one of the best QB seasons in Bengals history, it's only a matter of time until the inevitable -- Carson Palmer goes under center. Because of so many close games, and the fact he's playing behind ironman Kitna, it's unlikely Palmer will see any action this season. Obviously there exists the real possibility this year's scenario could play out again in '04.

With most experts agreeing there's no substitute for real-game experience, my question is this: In the absence of real-game experience, what typically happens in the 6 days and 21 hours between games (and the 7-month offseason) to develop and best prepare an heir-apparent QB such as Palmer? With being in the playoff race all season, I assume Kitna has gotten the lion's share of first-team snaps in practice. So, what's happening everyday behind the scenes to promote and facilitate Palmer's growth and maturity as a professional QB? And, what do you think happens next year? Who's under center for Game One?

Thanks for this site, it's by far the best in the NFL!

A lifetime Bengals fan,

Timzilla**

TIMZILLA: Thank you. There seems to be no question that Kitna is the Opening Day quarterback. How could he not be?. They could try and trade him, but wouldn't that be ridiculous? His salary cap number is friendly for a quarterback, but the man is on the verge of leading a team to the playoffs. You don't throw away guys like that.

What's wrong with giving Palmer at least another September and October to learn if he's going to be the man for sure in '05? He's gone through all the game-plan preparation and he talks about virtually every snap in every game with veteran backup Shane Matthews as it happens. And, as the scout team quarterback at every practice, he is continually exposed to first-team speed and reaction on defense.

Of course, it doesn't come close to game experience. The upside is he'll be the best prepared young quarterback in Bengals' history. **

What is the long term prognosis for Levi Jones post-operatively? You wrote his knee surgery involved excision of 40% of the meniscal cartilage in his knee. That would appear to be a severe injury and possibly career shortening. Since there are 2 menisci in the knee, I would hope his surgery involved excising 40% of only one of the two, as opposed to 40% of the total tissue.

Dave, Boise, ID**

We have been told it's not a career-threatening injury, that he can't do serious damage to it if he keeps playing on it, and that it's mainly a pain issue. If it were that serious, he would have been put on injured reserve. **

Geoff, We have had a great season. However, I feel that we do not have the defense that will take us to the next level. In the off-season we need to address three areas. Cornerback, linebacker (middle) and a run stuffing lineman. What are your thoughts. Mike from College Corner**

MIKE: We're with you. We're looking for playmakers in the back seven, ideally game-changing guys like the Ravens have in safety Ed Reed and cornerback Chris McAlister. We've often thought they need that 370-pound Ted Washington-type anchor in the middle, but Marvin Lewis doesn't seem infatuated with the concept. He had a chance to get Sam Adams, but instead opted for a guy who is almost 100 pounds lighter and certainly 100 times more athletic in John Thornton.

With the season winding down and the Bengals looking as good as they do, my question is what do you think they are looking at drafting in the 2004 draft? I would personally like to see some run stoppers on defense, but I'm not a coach, so what do you think? See you in the playoffs. Thanks for your time. Steve

STEVE: The run hasn't hurt them nearly as much as the pass, so look for some coverage people and maybe a pass-rushing backer. Given the uncertainty of the running backs, they could draft one of those at some point, too.

**I sure have enjoyed football season this year and hope that the Steelers help us to prolong it! I have no doubt we will beat Cleveland and am looking forward to that game!
I want to thank you for keeping us informed all year round about our Bengals!!! I enjoy reading the personal pieces in addition to the many wonderful insights into the team's progress and analysis.

I was surprised at how little we ran the ball again the Rams last Sunday. Corey was doing well but saw little action. Was he still a bit under the weather? Is he still hurting from his groin injury? Thanks for your time, Linda**

LINDA: Thank you. You weren't the only one surprised, if you saw some of the comments after the game. Dillon said he was healthy and that his groin has been fine since he went for 108 in San Diego Nov. 23. But the only explanation why he carried three times for 28 yards in the first eight minutes and then didn't touch it for the last 22 minutes of the second half is that the Bengals didn't do enough on first down to keep drives going. **

To Geoff Hobson, If you could please print this for all us frustrated Corey Dillon fans:

To all the pseudo football experts who think Rudi Johnson is the second coming of Jim Brown. First, I love Rudi. He hits the hole hard, protects the ball well, shows great balance, and on the last big touchdown run against the Niners, surprising speed. When Corey is sick or hurt or even to spell or counter him he's the best.

Don't discount Corey though. What he's done for the last six years is no fluke. He is on another level when he's 100% and he will be again. When Rudi gets a hole so big that he's not touched, he gets no better a result than Corey would. When he's swarmed in the backfield he too is smothered.

Two plays from this year say it all:

Rudi is picking up the stiff-arm and used it for 5 to 10 extra yards on a run Sunday.

Earlier this year Corey stiff-armed a defender for over 25 yards down the field almost ripping his head off. He drew extra yards when the defender threw off his helmet, outraged, crying, conquered!

Keep him angry and give him the ball.

It's the eleventh hour of the season the offensive line and defense have to step up big. Give Corey and Rudi each 20 carries a game. If the holes are there we reach the playoffs. Why are we not more committed to the running game? Early to set up the pass, and throughout? Thanks, The ghost of "Leapin Lee"**

LEAPIN': No has discounted Dillon, especially Marvin Lewis because he has kept him in the starting lineup and in the mix even though Johnson is the guy with all the yards.

A couple of things have come out of the past month or so. Back-by-committee just doesn't cut it, Dillon still has plenty left, and they both get better the more they carry it. Only in two of the eight wins did they have pretty much the same number of carries. But in six of the wins, one of them had at least 15 carries and the other had either none or single-digit carries.

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