From franchise tag to backup quarterback, the ample offseason questions have already started rolling for the Bengals.
Question One, otherwise known as Carson Palmer, threw again during Friday's practice after throwing indoors Wednesday and said there won't be a final decision this week on his elbow injury. But he did say it continues to feel fine, which means there still isn't a surgery planned.
During Friday's open media session, Palmer, without wearing a helmet, threw the ball hard from 10 to 25 yards on short drops and rollouts. On Tuesday, he participated in seven-on-seven complete with some 40-yard throws, a period that takes place in closed session.
Wide receiver Chad Ocho Cinco (hamstring) didn't dress and did some work on the side, but it looks doubtful he'll go. Left tackle Levi Jones (back) wasn't on the field and is out. Defensive tackle Pat Sims (upper arm) and running backs Cedric Benson (ankle) and Kenny Watson (hamstring) were on the field and are probable. (Friday Injury Report)
Houshmandzadeh said the Bengals haven't told his agent he's tagged and said he'll see it when he believes it, pointing to players franchised the past two seasons.
"I'm sure Justin (Smith) and Stacy (Andrews) thought the same thing and looked what happened to them," Houshmandzadeh said before Friday's practice.
Indications are the Bengals haven't made any final decisions regarding free agents heading into next year, although they are trying to re-sign safety Chris Crocker and Benson.
Also on the table to get possibly franchised is Shayne Graham, the club's most accurate kicker of all-time. The tag, a one-year offer that is the average of the top five salaries in the league basically allowing teams to keep that player for a year, would be a much smaller number for a kicker rather than the estimated $9-10 million tag for a receiver.
But also figured into a Houshmandzadeh equation for the tag is the increase of the salary cap, any possible coaching changes, and review of the young receivers, subjects typically not tackled in-depth until the season closes.
As reported earlier in the week, it's believed the Bengals are going to continue to discuss a long-term deal with Houshmandzadeh before the franchise tag is designated in mid-February in preparation for free agency in March, and that Houshmandzadeh said he turned down a proposal for a long-term deal at the beginning of training camp.
"I've always been open to that because I've been here so long and I'm comfortable here," Houshmandzadeh said of a long-term deal. "If everything is fair, it would be done. I just want what's fair."
Of course, what he thinks is fair and what the club thinks is fair is what it's all about. The Bengals would appear to be at odds over what they think a possession receiver is worth who turns 32 the fourth week of next season. Houshmandzadeh has often hinted he's a possession receiver because that's how he's used. But the Bengals know he's a valuable player that knows football inside-and-out and they hope to strike some common ground over those issues.
On Friday, Houshmandzadeh said the NFL's last-ranked offense needs better players to "compete with just the average teams if you look at our record this year and what we did last year."
He also says scheme is involved, too.
"It's a combination of both. You can't look at every team that has a better record, I would say, across the board, that they have better players than we do," he said. "Look at the Miami Dolphins. Who would say they have a better quarterback, better receivers, better offensive line than we do? No one. But we have fewer wins than they have losses.
"I don't think it's that dramatic. It can get turned around. As long as Carson is here and he has somebody he can throw the ball to and he can catch it, he knows the ball is going to be caught and he knows where you're going and what you're doing, the Bengals have a shot."
That guy, naturally, is Houshmandzadeh and it's a reason the tag seems to still be on the table. He's the one guy that Palmer can count on to not only run the right route, but also to tell the other receivers what to do. Rookie Andre Caldwell calls Houshmandzadeh "a coach in the huddle."
Caldwell is emerging as a potential guy that can play Houshmandzadeh's role as a player that can work out of all three receiving spots, and he's blocking like a man possessed. The 6-foot, 200-pound Caldwell came in motion last Sunday in Cleveland and had a big downfield block on Benson's 46-yard yard run, the longest for the Bengals in 68 games.
Caldwell says watching Houshmandzadeh in the slot has helped him gain his sea legs.
"I feel vey comfortable in the slot; I've learned a lot from watching T.J.," Caldwell said. "How to prepare yourself for a game. How to play in a game. How to run better routes. How to read defenses. Everything I learn from him."
Still, Caldwell has caught just six passes for 44 yards and second-round receiver Jerome Simpson has caught just one. While they judge if that makes them ready, receivers aren't the only spot where the Bengals are going through a transition.
The first big win of the Lewis era came against these Chiefs five years ago on Nov. 16, 2003 when the Bengals beat a 9-0 team, 24-19. With Jones (back) out and Ocho Cinco (hamstring) questionable and John Thornton possibly starting at defensive end again, the Bengals won't have a starter on the field at the same spot from that game except kicker Shayne Graham and long snapper Brad St. Louis.
With all eyes on Lewis' end-of-year meeting with Bengals president Mike Brown, some wonder how much change there'll be after the worst of Lewis' six seasons.
Barring something unforseen, Lewis is back for next year (he has a 1 p.m. Monday news conference), but could he be ready to unleash the biggest changes since he himself arrived in '03? If he wants, he's got a head start with 52 of the 70 players on IR and the roster not here in the '05 AFC North title season.
"I can't tell you that. I'm only worried about the Kansas City Chiefs," said Lewis, who did admit, "It's not the same (team) as '05, never mind '03. That's the way the NFL is and you have to be willing to change with it and catch the guys up and get them on the same page."
Hearing that backup quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick knows his best chance to play is on a team that doesn't have a Carson Palmer, Lewis isn't surprised. That's what he heard when the team was trying to replace Jon Kitna in 2006.
"I would hope that would be his interest," Lewis said. "No one wants to come in and sit behind Carson."
But both Fitzpatrick and Lewis know those situations don't always emerge and neither is ruling out Fitzpatrick coming back. But, like Lewis said Friday, with Fitzpatrick out there in free agency, "We're going to have to look and try and fill the spot and go from there."