Posted: 10:50 p.m.
For the fifth straight year the Bengals head into the offseason worried about either the health of quarterback Carson Palmer or the health of his offense. But the players on both sides of the locker room have scored enough points with each other that they think the 2009 season has put down a solid foundation for 2010.
Left tackle Andrew Whitworth, one of the offensive captains and an offseason question mark last year that is now an exclamation point, said head coach Marvin Lewis' message Sunday was one of encouragement and challenge as he tried to cut through the hangover of the season-ending 24-14 playoff loss to the Jets.
"We're a young team. We did some things a lot of people didn't think we could do," Whitworth reported. "But you have to go back to the drawing board. Because of the way you played last year and because you had such a great year and won the division you can't lay down and they're not going to hand it you next year. You have to go back to work and we're ready to do that."
He says for the first time since he can remember, his mates on Sunday lingered to say goodbye, stopping to get phone numbers and checking in on offseason plans. Whitworth thinks the adversity with the loss of Vikki Zimmer and Chris Henry drew the team so close that they are going to miss that comfort zone.
"We've got guys that care about football and care about each other," said Whitworth, and he feels like his offensive line has helped set the tone.
The untried, inexperienced group with four players in new spots certainly proved they could run the ball. The Bengals ranked No. 9 in NFL rush for their first top 10 finish in 10 years and finished it off Sunday with running back Cedric Benson's 169 yards, the most yards a Bengals back ever had in a loss.
"We feel strong about the guys we have. We feel like we're a stronghold of this team," Whitworth said. "The line really played great. As good as Cedric played this year, the games he was out Bernard Scott and Larry Johnson had 100-yard rushing days and that's a testament to the guys up front and how well they're playing."
Which begs one of the two big questions the Bengals lug into the offseason. How can the passing game with a Pro Bowl quarterback be so bad? They have to find out why five guys drafted after Palmer in 2003, Ben Roethlisberger, Eli Manning, Philip Rivers, Joe Flacco and Mark Sanchez, have won playoff games before Palmer. And a sixth, Aaron Rodgers, lost a duel with Kurt Warner on Sunday night that produced the most points in a playoff game ever during a game that made NFL passing look so easy.
The other question is the status of free agent defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer as well as the other assistant coaches. Plus, with one year left on his deal, head coach Marvin Lewis also has to be the object of a contract extension. After a playoff season, Bengals president Mike Brown is no doubt looking to re-sign coaches instead of relieving them.
The hope is that Lewis addresses those issues in a Monday news conference set for 1 p.m. at Paul Brown Stadium. Given that Lewis meets with Brown every day, there has been no need for an elaborate end-of-year summit between the two.
You've got to believe the other hot topic is the glacial offense. Just like it's been a topic since Palmer wrecked his knee in the '05 Wild Card game. Or since the Bengals scored six touchdowns in the final three losses of '06 when they needed just one win. Or since '07, when they had two Pro Bowl receivers and the offense failed to score more than two touchdowns in 12 games. Or since '08, when they had to worry about Palmer's injured elbow that took him out of 12 games. Or '09, when they scored eight touchdowns in their last 28 red-zone trips despite a running game that averaged 4.1 yards per carry.
The passing game is clearly the culprit and it's even clearer why. The offense wasn't able to find anyone to replace slot receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh or speed threat Chris Henry to counter wide receiver Chad Ochocinco's 14.5 yards per catch and nine touchdowns.
"Overall I think the pass protection has been good," Whitworth said. "I felt like the passing game just never got off for a lot of reasons. Not really protection issues. A lot of different issues. Some guys aren't open, we're just not on the same page. I think there a lot reasons the passing game didn't work."
Whitworth indicated Palmer is trying to develop receivers in which he has confidence down the field and thought he'd had a great year considering what was taken from him. He lost his two tight ends in training camp, as well as Houshmandzadeh and Henry. Clearly Palmer struggled Saturday, but so did everyone else. One press box observer had a combination of 17 dropped passes and inaccurate passes out of his 36 throws.
"You take away Dwight Freeney, Terrell Suggs, James Harrison, which is our Antwan Odom," said Whitworth of the NFL sack leader the Bengals lost early in the season. "Take away Jason Witten and Heath Miller and all these great tight ends. Take away all your tight ends and inside receiving threats and you take away your edge rusher and you take away some of the things we lost this season, what team could be competitive? We really had to battle through a lot of things and all year long. We lost people. We were just able to fill those holes and guys were able to pick it up and overachieve. They played better than we thought they would. I think that's a testament to where we're headed.
"A lot of guys had to get in there and fight for their life and realize how to play football. A guy like Carson had to fight for his because he lost his middle threats early in the season."
Palmer didn't have much to say on his way out Sunday. He wants to look at the tape and he wants the coaches to look at the tape. He says he's ready to stick with the run-first concept. After the game Saturday night he said he can't be a Pro Bowl quarterback in this type of offense, but he also said "I prefer what wins. If the coaches go back to the drawing board and decide we need to throw, that's great. It's so much more complicated than just saying, 'we're going to throw the ball.' There's a number of things we need to figure out as a team, and decide what's best for us."
Which is good because some players said Lewis indicated that they already know who they are and it sounded like he was sticking with running and defense. Which is fine with Whitworth, who believes he has established himself as a starting left tackle in his fourth season after a draft many felt he was a guard and, at best, a right tackle. And he believes he can be the best.
"Underrated always; the story of Whit," said Whitworth ticking off the slights. "Four years in the SEC. Faced I don't know how many draft picks. Didn't give up sack in the last 22 games. Won a national championship. Two SEC championships at left tackle. Never got All-American. Never got SEC lineman of the week. Never got nothing ... once again, I've proved them wrong."
He proved it by giving up 1.5 sacks at the most challenging line position because of the explosiveness and athleticism on the other side.
"Probably the best year I've ever had playing. I know they feel that way also," Whitworth said. "As much as playing, I really liked taking on a leadership role and being the leader, the guy that most of these guys could come to in situations."
Thanks to guys like Whitworth, for once trying to develop leadership doesn't have to be on the offseason agenda.
But there are plenty of questions to keep it busy.