Bengaldom at the turn

11-4-03, 10:40 p.m.

The focus of Bengaldom as it reaches the half-way point of the season is hazy and scattered, kind of like its team's focus in the first seven minutes of Sunday's 17-14 loss in Arizona.

Segments of the countryside are in revolt because of the abandonment of the running game in the second half. The Artrell Hawkins' bashers and Jon Kitna double agents have re-surfaced from the underground to form the One-Game Panic Society. The Carson Palmer movement has picked up steam again and is threatening to come out of exile from Heismanland. The think tanks are putting together a position paper on how get the defensive playmakers and running game of the future.

Indeed, the only thing uniting Bengaldom heading into the second half of '03 is the growing concern of the health and effectiveness of the long-time crown prince of the offense, Corey Dillon.

A sampling of mails in this week's Hobson's Choice:

**Hey Geoff, I won't say I'm panicking...but I'm getting really nervous about this season. The Bengals look better now than they have looked in over a decade, but they haven't held up in the clutch. It appears they haven't been able to stop the 3rd and long or 4th and whatever when it counts. What do they need to do to finish out their games? Besides that whipping they received in Denver, the Bengals should have won everything else. Imagine that...7-1!!

Now losing to Arizona is what really worries me. Will it be a sign of things to come or a strong wake up call for everyone to step up and send this thing into the post season? Please send encouraging news. Thanks, Lance, Georgetown, KY.**

Is this what they call growing pains? Nine days ago against Seattle, they made play after play in the fourth quarter to beat Seattle, a division leader. On Sunday, they needed just one play to beat the lowly Cardinals, and couldn't get it. If you compare Marvin Lewis' regime to a young player, guys like left tackle Levi Jones and left guard Eric Steinbach, then this team is going to have to fight consistency problems like those first- and second-year players are fighting now. Everyone, particularly the offensive line, had a setback in Arizona.

Of course, the one good thing about the NFL is you can go from Armageddon to Athens in a week. If they play at home against Houston this Sunday like they have the last two PBS games, and St. Louis does what it's supposed to do at home and score a lot of points against Baltimore, then the Ravens' lead is back to a game with seven to play. **

This was a team loss period. It didn't seem that the Bengals bought into Coach Marvin Lewis's scheme of, "They circled us since their first game ". Maybe playing a game with too much confidence can be a bad thing.**

CIRCLED: That was the one disturbing thing about this one. All last week, Lewis went to great lengths to pound away at them that they can't get fat and happy after

winning two in a row. Plus, he had them for the last 48 hours of preparation and that's what he does best. So for them to go out there in the first seven minutes and look like they had just started the week's prep in the parking lot two hours before the game has to be very disconcerting for Lewis. It must tell him he's still got guys on this roster not doing what needs to be done and that's going to be a bad thing for them. **

This week's game certainly wasn't pleasant, but it didn't seem to be as horrible as the losses usually are. This is the first week since opening day that I didn't think we were going to pull it out as the second half unfolded. I wish I could guess how your e-mail will run this week. Without being really down on Jon about the game, wouldn't this be a good time to give Carson a start.

Even in a weak division it will be hard to overcome a two game deficit in the second half of the season. I love Jon's openness in proclaiming his faith and I very much want him to succeed, but even he has said that Carson is more physically gifted as a quarterback. Carson would get to start against a relatively weak Houston team and get used to the NFL action, before facing a very strong KC team. He has now seen how wins and losses go and is bound to have a good feel for the speed of the game.

I am still excited about our prospects for the future, whether Carson starts or not. But it seems now is the ideal time to put him in and see if he can push us over the top for this year or at least get some experience for next year. Ben.**

If they don't want Palmer to get shell-shocked like Klingler and Smith, then they probably ought to wait until they get the running game straightened out.

(Trivia: How many games did David Klingler and Akili Smith start combined in which the Bengals had a 100-yard rusher? Six in 41 starts. Klingler two in 24 starts and Smith four in 17 starts.

Klingler had nothing around him (Jeff Query was his go-to-receiver and Tom Scott was his left tackle) and Smith had no wide receivers with NFL experience. Put Palmer behind the next-to-last running game in the league and it could get ugly quickly.

Hey, Palmer is going to get his chance. You said yourself it's going to be tough to win the division. So why rush him and doom yourself to repeating history by putting a rookie quarterback in a struggling offense that might get him pummeled. **

Dear Geoff,
Jon Kitna has had a great season up until Sunday's game. But this week he single-handedly lost (or at least failed to win) a key game for us. He had two key interceptions and should have had six as three easy picks were dropped and one was called back.

I'm sure you are getting mail suggesting we switch to Carson Palmer but I would like to offer an alternative. I believe Jon Kitna should remain the starter but we should give Carson Palmer a package of plays and give him a few series of experience each game. This is how Atlanta handled Michael Vick during his rookie season and he became all pro his second year. I'm sure that Vick's first year game experience was invaluable to his development as it would be for Carson Palmer.

At this point we are 3-5, two games out of first. The only way to make the playoffs will be to win the division as we can do this with a worse record than will be required to get in as a wild card. With Baltimore at 5-3, I expect the minimum number of wins to achieve this will be 9 which means we would have to go 6-2 the rest of the way. I just don't believe we are capable of doing this as we can't run the football and we can't stop the run.

So why not use Atlanta's strategy and build for the future without throwing in the towel? Who knows, it may even help us win some games. Worst case, we lose a few games we could have won and end up with better draft choices.

I believe we are still a few players away from being a serious contender. In order of importance they are:

  1. Linebacker We can't stop the run up the middle so we need an Urlacher/Lewis type (or as close as possible). 2. Cornerback Tory James is solid but we need another shutdown corner and use Jeff Burris in the nickel package. Artrell Hawkins is a great guy and a good player but we need to upgrade.
  1. Center/Guard Our tackles and tight ends are solid so I think the priority to help our running game would be at guard and center. 4. Defensive tackle The D line is a big upgrade from last year but I think we need a big Sam Adams type tackle to use on running downs.

Finally, the coaches will have to decide what's the problem with Corey Dillon. One of three things is happening: He is still hurt, the line is not giving him anywhere to run, he is not the back he used to be. If the third option is it, I would put getting a top running back as the third priority above. Just my mid season musings. Best regards, Randall, Potomac, MD.**

RANDALL: You make a lot of sense. Easing in Plamer is what Bill Walsh and Sam Wyche did with Joe Montana and Boomer Esiason, respectively, when they were rookies. It's going to be hard enough for Palmer next season. It's going to be all that much tougher if he goes into next season with not many snaps from this season.

Your priority list is pretty solid. Besides a shut—down corner as No. 1 for us, we would also put playmakers at free safety and outside backers, guys who can change a game. Of course, you can't get everything you need all at once. But who can? Name five guys who play defense for the Patriots (Richard Seymour doesn't count because he's hurt), but they're still 7-2. For that matter, could you have named three Cardinals on defense before they No-Named the Bengals on 47 rushing yards? No team has everything.

We just find it hard to believe that Dillon could go from a 1,300-yard guy to virtually nothing overnight, so we think it's a combination of his health and not enough blocking. Yes, Rudi seems to be able to juke more than Dillon right now, but we think that's the groin talking. Dillon admits he's not 100 percent, but you also have to fight through an injury mentally as well as physically. **

First of all, I enjoy your columns and coverage of the Bengals and appreciate how your website keeps a Bengals fan in touch. I have been a Bengals fan since 1981, and now live in PA, so I only get to see the Bengals 3 to 6 times a year, and have seen them twice this year, which is really not enough to judge need. But looking at the statistics, I have concerns about line play on both sides.

They are 20th in the league in giving up sacks and 31st in rushing yards per carry. I know some of the rushing yards can be attributed to CD being hurt, but even last year when he was healthy, they had problems in short yardage. Defensively, they are 18th in rushing yards per carry and 20th in sacking the opposing QB. Their sack leader is Clemens with 4. I know a lot of things can contribute to some of these poor numbers, but it seems to me they need to upgrade both signs of the line in the draft or free agency. Would you agree? But, if Chris Gamble is available when they draft, he would be difficult for me to pass up. Where do feel they need to go with this years draft (I know it is early).

Thanks, Jason Wheeler**

JASON: Thank you. With the center and both right guards unsigned for next season, it certainly appears as if they're headed in a different direction in the interior. It would be nice to have a big run stuffer in the middle, but they gave John Thornton an awful lot money for five years to do that. Plus, they are extremely tight on the salary cap for next season so it won't come in free agency. The draft seems to be a corner and then a guard/center in rounds one and two, doesn't it? Of course, there should be nothing wrong with taking a guard or center No. 1. Look at Pittsburgh. Their best lineman is a first-round guard, Alan Faneca, who has had to play some tackle. **

Butch, Thanks for your time and effort you devote to every week. It's nice to get a good solid accounting of what's happening on and off the field. It's too bad some of the sports talk shows have to take a negative slant on events all of the time. I can remember when everyone thought Trumpy was controversial. I don't think Bob has mellowed that much, it's just that everyone else has taken such an "in your face" posture that it is really getting old. Whatever happened to good old "X's and O's" sports talk? On with my question.

There is no doubt Corey Dillon has the talent, but what I see missing this year is what I would call a lack of desire. Corey doesn't run with the enthusiasm he's had in the past. Instead of pushing forward making a couple of yards out of nothing, he appears to wait for something to develop and that gives the defense more time to converge on him. After the Arizona game, all we have heard is that the Bengals do not have a running game.

After evaluating the performance, I disagree. The name of the running game right now is Rudy Johnson. Rudy only carried the ball 8 times last Sunday, but he averaged over 4 yards per carry. I call that a pretty solid average. I think the problem is that Brat is a great offensive mind, but he needs work on the play calling. I can't remember any time in the 2nd half where Rudy was called on to run 2 times in a row. Even Shipp got stuffed a few times on Sunday, but Arizona kept going back to him time and time again. It was obvious Kitna was off his mark all day, and if turnovers are a critical component for winning on Sunday, the running game should have been our best option down the stretch. If the Bengals would have given Rudy the chance to carry the load, I really think we would be looking at 4 and 4 right now. Will our team ever commit to the pound it up the middle running game so we can take advantage of our outstanding corps of receivers?

Dennis Liberty Township**

DENNIS: Thank you. We've been in trouble in this building a few times for our frequent cheerleading for the running game. To us, with a 14-10 lead at any point in the game, the best three plays are three runs whether your quarterback is Peyton Manning or Jon Kitna. (Of course, you would give more freedom to a Manning.) If you don't get the first down, so what? You've drained three minutes off the clock and didn't risk a turnover. And if you've got the kind of quarterback you're trying to protect from making a big error, why not hand it off?

That said, appreciate Bratkowski's dilemma. His best back isn't healthy and his offensive line isn't moving a soul. Both Dillon and Johnson are the kind of backs who need at least 20 carries to get in a groove, so if Dillon starts but can't finish (as happened against Oakland, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and Arizona), Rudi isn't going to get rolling either.

And you can talk about Rudi's 4.3 average against Arizona, but when they needed it late in the third quarter and early in the fourth, he got eight yards on his last four carries. Now, is that because Bratkowski gave up too early on the run with six run calls in the second half? Maybe. But that's the old Catch-22. They were getting 2.5 per on the ground. How can you stick with it? But how do you run it if you don't stick with it? Maybe you wouldn't want to wear Brat's headsets. It's a tough place to be. **

Hi Geoff, Sunday I watched a must win, or a game the bengals should of won in disgust. This was the first time this season that they looked like the bengals of old. Each week, it seems to be something new, they get the running game going one week, then non-existent the other. Kitna no doubt at this time is the bengal's best starting quarterback, however Mike Holmgren said it best, he is inconsistent in his decision making, for he should of by my count had 6 picks on Sunday. With that said, with the offensive line providing much better protection than in the past, When do we get to see Palmer, let's start developing him now, let's get him out of the gate strong next year because we are definitely going to need him. I have this feeling Corey will be a bengal no longer and we will need a strong passer with two very good wide receivers maturing who have proven this year that they can get the job done. Kitna's strength to get the ball down field is questionable, for all long passes seem to have Chad slow down to get it, rather than in stride. Let's give Palmer the rest of the season, good protection, good receivers, much more than Akili & Klinger had in the past, I would rather watch them lose developing Palmer than to sit through more on the inconsistent Mr. Kitna? When will we see Palmer?

Jeff, Canadian Bengal Fan**

JEFF: No question that Palmer has the stronger arm and that Chad's 41-yard catch on the sideline in Arizona probably would have been a 55-yard TD catch if Palmer was chucking. But would Palmer have put the offense in the right pass protection to give himself time to throw it? That's what Kitna gives you in lieu of the physical gifts.

At some point, you have to take the coaches' word for it. Yeah, they really do want to play the best guy because, yeah they really want to go the playoffs because, yeah, their reputations are at stake. Why not see how the division plays out if they don't think Palmer is ready?

Then, if and when the Ravens hit the magic number, the magic number in Cincy becomes No. 9. What does it matter if it's seven games, six games, or four if you can stay in the race?

Actually one of the reasons Dillon could be here next year is to make sure Palmer has a running threat. And don't underestimate how much they would detest taking that $4.2 million hit on the salary cap it would take to trade Dillon.

**Jeff, Thanks so much for allowing us fans an opportunity to comment (vent) about are beloved Bengals. I am a daily visitor on the site and look forward to all the information you give us.

At the midway point in our season, I have to I admit that I think that this team is definitely overachieving. I know that at 3-5 this may sound strange, but I think that Marvin has done more with less talent than they have had with previous teams. They released or let go of players that had similar or more talent than what they have now that either underachieved in the past or were not buying into the system.

Not to take away from the talent of a Kevin Hardy but I think he was brought here because of his veteran leadership and not because of his dominance as a linebacker. They had to move him to the middle because of his lack of speed (he has really looked slow on many plays and has difficulty covering running backs or tight ends when needed) and has played rather poorly at times against the run. Nevertheless it has been a good move because of his leadership and experience.

I also saw in the Seattle game that the defense looked confused several times and seemed to have difficulty getting defensive plays called in from the sideline. They have had to rely upon turnovers to win their games which means that you are not great defensively or offensively but if you can get the ball back it cancels out some of your deficiencies and gives you more chances or better opportunities to score more than the opponent. Kansas City, Minnesota, Tennessee and Carolina are 21st or worse statistically on defense (yards allowed) but they are very much in the playoff hunt because of the turnover margin. KC and Minnesota have the 1st and 2nd best margin respectively with Tennessee fifth best and Carolina is not terrible at 18th.

What helps these teams are their offensive "identity" to quote Marvin Lewis (not to mention special teams) of which the Bengals have not had consistent play from either this year. The Bengals are 23rd defensively (yards allowed) but are in the top 10 (tied for 10th best in turnover margin at + 3). Another disturbing statistic is that the Bengals were 30th (I think it was?) in the league, going into the Arizona game, with the most 3 and outs on offense.

To try and keep myself from rambling here, I would like to ask your opinion that if you think that the Bengals are overachieving at this point and do you think it will still take a year or so to filter out the rest of the players who are not up to par and for the defense to adjust to the new system?

There are just too many holes at too many key positions on this team, in my opinion, for them to make a consistent run at the playoffs this year. I think Marvin has done a great job and I'm certainly not throwing in the towel (well maybe I am), I just have to think realistically here. It is very hard to come in here and add a few bits and pieces here and there, along with developing the new kids, into a playoff team right away. I think six or seven wins at this point would be a great year for this team and I believe it will have been successful because he has already changed the perception of this team, which other coaches could not do. Your thoughts? From Joe in Columbus**

JOE: Vent away. Here's the thing about the NFL. If you can win six or seven, then you ought to be able to win eight or nine because of how goofy and tight the games are. We keep looking at the Patriots' roster and the Bengals' roster and wonder about records.

Yes, they need some pieces, but how many do you need to contend for the playoffs? Of the teams you point to, (Kansas City, Minnesota, Tennessee and Carolina), all but one is in the top six rushing the ball. You can argue if they had any sustained running game at all, they would have won their close games with Oakland, Buffalo and Arizona with the same defense.

They've certainly got a top six back, but even if he's hurt, they should be able to control the clock enough in those close games to win more of them. That's not overachieving. That's just doing what you have to do. If you can't get 3.5 per lug, you shouldn't be in the Fort Ancient Valley Conference, never mind the NFL. Their biggest priority right now has to be running the ball, and if they can figure it out, they can contend with what they've already got.

Yes, they need a shutdown corner. Yes, they need two more playmakers on defense. Yes, they need to figure out the middle of the offensive line. But run the ball, and it covers up a lot of holes. Just ask KC, Carolina, and Baltimore.

As for the defense being confused against Seattle, it appears they put together a much thicker game plan that usual against Holmgren, probably because of how multiple the Seahawks are. But on the whole, the scheme is simpler than last year and we think that shows because the play has been more decisive, although everyone is waiting on the results.

**Hi Geoff Kitna totally (. . .) you know it, you just cant say anything negative on the site which i understand because obviously you work for the Bengals.Maybe you can email me and tell me in private why Marvin is not sending Kitna to the Cfl or the arena league i mean come on hes a been every where hes been he is so bad that he even got released after leading his team to the playoffs(Seattle).I can understand not wanting to rush Palmer but why not try Matthews Kitna has lost too many games for us and has made too many mind boggling plays were you have too question how he ever made it too the NFL.

He just totally stinks ive been saying it all along and i know you know he stinks .Anyway Geoff you do have the best website in the leauge and perhaps all of the 4 major sports i love your up to date articles there awesome keep up the great work.

Take care Matt From ONTARIO,CANADA**

MATT: Why don't we just e-mail you publicly? If you don't think we can say anything negative on the web site, would you please inform the offensive line so they won't take exception for what we wrote from Tempe?

Look, Kitna doesn't "just totally stink." He's not Manning or McNair, but he's not Kordell Stewart, either. He had a brutal game, but he still has a better passer rating than Tom Brady, Drew Bledsoe, Kerry Collins, Jeff Garcia, Donovan McNabb and Joey Harrington.

We never said he was Boomer, but the guy is like 78.2 percent of all NFL quarterbacks. He has good stretches and bad stretches. Marvin hasn't sent him to the arena league because leadership, brains and chemistry count for something at quarterback.

That said, he is 11-24 here as the starter and Kitna is a class, candid guy who knows that is the ultimate quarterback stat.

Besides, the team already told you what they think when they made a $50 million decision to make Palmer the quarterback starting in 2004, so why get all hot about it? Does it matter if in Game 8, Game 12 or Game 14 that you won't have Kitna to kick around any more? If it's true they are out of the race, then why rush Palmer? But since they are in it, why not give the veteran one last shot as long as they are in it?


When Blake QBed the bengals their opposition always got their arms up at the line due to Blake's shortness. My recollection is they were able to knock down several Blake's pass attempts. Did the Bengals raise their arms at the line of scrimmage Sunday? George, Middletown, OH.**

GEORGE: Apparently not. But those tips usually only happen when he stays in the pocket, and the Cards did a good job getting him out of there and the Bengals also put enough heat on him that he had to get out of there several times. When Blake gets a running game, he'll beat you. He's 3-0 against the Bengals in games his back rushed for 135, 121 and 141 yards. Hard to get the hands up when you think they're going to run. **

I don't understand what the coaches are doing. Lewis says he is going to run CD even if he isn't 100%. That would be fine if you do not have another RB that can get it done. Rudi avereraged 4.25 yards a carry including a short TD run. It seemed to me that we abandoned the run to early against Arizona. We only ran it 15 times. During games, the run usually doesn't produce much till the later part of the game and that's when we abandoned it with a lead of all things.

I don't see a problem with giving CD a chance but when he pulled him we shouldn't have changed our game plan. Lewis said himself, we are crazy if we think we can win it by throwing it. I still can't understand why a pass play was put in that had no chance because the sun would be in Johnsons eyes. You have to take weather into effect on every play. If we are going to be contenders then we have to give our team the best chance to win which means sit CD till he can prove he can do everything he needs to do to help the team and do it in practice instead of a game.

CD is argueably the best player on the team but not when he is hurt and he is not the whole team. We have a great team but the coaching needs to step up and soon. This is the second time I think Lewis has made a pivotal mistake with the running game. With Buffalo Bennett was given the ball to much when he wasn't producing and Rudi was.

I love what Lewis is doing here but there has been just a few decisions that are killing us. I hope CD stays here cause he is awesome but noone can be their best when they are hurt, we are all human. Chris in Middletown.**

CHRIS: Until Sunday, it was our impression that Lewis had used to his influence to make this a more run-oriented than it had been under LeBeau and Coslet. But a 38-19 pass-to-run ratio in a three-point game is surprising, although we're sure the response is, "How can you run it if it's only getting 2.5 yards a carry?" Point. Clearly, they learned a lesson in Buffalo, too, because Johnson is getting his carries now.

**still angry over our disappointing result in Arizona. What a blown opportunity. What really stuck out to me in that game was how badly Artrell Hawkins appeared to play. On third down, it became very obvious they would throw Hawkins' way and time after time Jeff Blake and Co. converted. I bet the play they called in the huddle was "Third and Hawkins".

It says a lot about the lack of development of Dennis Weathersby to me that he can't push Hawkins for playing time. I was not a fan of Jeff Burris last year but yesterday clearly showed that this team needs him. Our play from the spot opposite Tory James was horrendous. I hope we can shore it up somehow the rest of the year. Chad Maineville, OH**

CHAD: Hawkins struggled and he's a stand-up guy, so he'd agree. Of course, Boldin has lit up a lot of people this season, and that's probably as bad as Artrell has played in the new defense. We hate to be bandwagon about it. But we'd also like to see Weathersby get a shot, even if it's just in certain situations in which you can protect him. **

Hi Geoff, I have been a Bengals fan since I was born. I was raised in Cincinnati and now watch every game on NFL Ticket here in Northern California. It is tough being a Bengals fan in this part of the country but I love the Bengals. I enjoy the web sight and your articles.

I have more of an opinion than a question. I think the main reason they lost the game is because Kitna had an off day, which is no big deal, everybody has off days! He was off target all day and they were still in the game.

I know that the offensive line wants to blame themselves, but I don't think it is all on their shoulders. I think the decision to start Dillon was a bad one. I watched him run and he is not hitting the line of scrimmage with any speed or power. Once Rudi was in the game you could see the difference. He hit the line of scrimmage with speed and gained some descent yardage. I think the seven carries of Dillon's were wasted and could have been an extra 20 or 30 yards for Rudi.

Yes the offensive line needs to open holes but the running back also needs to create his own holes sometimes. I love Dillon as a running back but he is not running like Dillon. If it's injuries, then heal up first! If it's his head, ?.... Rudi deserved to at least start after last week's performance!

I love what Marvin has done for the team and the future looks bright for the first time in a long time! There is a lot of season left and I think the Bengals are going to win a lot more games, but I don't think continuing to force the Dillon issue is beneficial to the team. Have Dillon heal completely and let Rudi take it for now.

Just a bad luck game, no big deal! Go Bengals Tom B. Placerville, CA.**

TOM: Thanks for the long-distance hit. The Dillon dilemma is tough, isn't it? We think it's admirable the guy wants to play less than 100 percent. The question: Is his 80 percent better than Rudi's 100? You would think not after Sunday, but it looks to us like he's a bit rusty and a little out of sync and that, if anything, he needs more work. Tough call with Rudi running so well, and we've already decided their styles don't fit doing it by committee.

**Hey Hobs, Great columns every day. I love the site and am always coming back to see what you have in store for us. I am a fan in Chicago, myself and a few other Bengal fans meet at bar on Sundays to watch the games and we all groan about one player, otherwise we are rather ecstatic about the season.

My question concerns the secondary, is there any chance of us signing a premier corner out of the crop that looks to be available this off-season (Champ Bailey, Chris McAlister, Shawn Springs)? I think that Tory James has been the best free agent acquisition of the last five or seven years, but watching Hawkins on Sunday was painful. It seemed like every time I looked up he was getting beat by Boldin. When Burris is out or if God forbid, James goes down, the opposing quarterback goes right at Hawkins because they know he is a weak defender. It was obvious that Blake was throwing at him, as does every opposing qb. Signed - Sleepless in Chicago **

SLEEPLESS: Thanks. Can we trade you Dusty Baker for Grady Little. At least Dusty could use his combustible bullpen as an excuse.

We digress. OK, OK. Hawkins got lit Sunday by Boldin, but, heck, the kid had 19 third-down catches coming in so it wasn't like some stiff kept beating him. Sure, they could go get a Bailey or a McAlister, which means they would also have to keep Dillon so as not accelerate his signing bonus with a trade or release.

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