Hobson's Choice: Firing not always the line

Q: I am starting to get the feeling that it just isn't our year. The injuries to key players, the close games, and especially the close plays. It just seems like we're so close, but just not right on target.

Case in point is Joseph's near interception in Baltimore, his near breakup on Gates in the 4th guarter, Chris Henry's dropped ball in the end zone. Almost every game this year has had a handful of those close plays and close calls by refs.

It seems like this is a year of growing pains that will lead to a championship-caliber team.

Who knows, maybe we can be this year's Steelers, but if not do you think the adversity of this middle stretch is what will put this team and organization over the hump?
**--Jonathan, Seattle, WA

JONATHAN:** It is one of those years, but it's not exactly 1999, either. All I know is that comparing this current losing streak to the Bungles of the '90s is like comparing Kevin Federline to Bootsy Collins. You've got to know amateurs when you see them.

I think there is something to the theory that the evolution of an elite team takes more than one season and some knocks.

The Patriots went 9-7 after winning their first Super Bowl. Injuries and bickering doomed the Eagles to 6-10 last year and they're back in the bad mix of the NFC. The Bengals, Jags, Bucs, and Redskins are all groping to find answers after breakout seasons in 2005.

Every underachieving team struggles for different reasons, but dealing with success and teams throwing their best shots at you (never mind defenses) is a learning experience.

That said, this club never should have lost at Tampa Bay and to Atlanta and San Diego at home if it is truly elite.

But I do think the "Mediocre Marvin" bit is a tad overdone. Sift through your Neil O'Donnell-Thomas Randolph-Dan Wilkinson baggage for teams that never made a legit playoff run in November and December.

Ever.

(And if you count the 7-9 '95 club, you're nuts.)

Never.

In three out of his four seasons, Lewis will have had them contending in December and I'm not so sure you can be ripped for being mediocre in a league that thrives on mediocrity.

If you want mediocre check out Green Bay, 4-5 against the NFL's second easiest sked. Or the 4-5 Vikings, or the 3-6 Bills, or the 4-5 Niners, all with 10 of the easiest schedules.

The Bengals are 4-5 (with four of the losses by a combined 19 points) against the NFL's toughest schedule. The Giants are 6-3 against the same strength of schedule. Are we just a Justin Smith sack and Chris Perry fumble from Nirvana and Tom Coughlin?

Yeah, I agree. There are those kinds of years and sometimes you get them and sometimes you don't. I just think the tone of doubt, anger, and frustration for '06 was sealed on one of the last plays of '05, Palmer's injury, and I think something as jarring as that takes a year for the cloud to clear.

Yeah, they've underachieved but they haven't embarrassed the family name and while the coach should be questioned he shouldn't be insulted, either.


Q: Do you think it's time that the Bengals take a page out of the Ravens book? Brian Billick, an offensive "guru," took over the offense in Baltimore when things were going badly and things worked out, so maybe it's time that Marvin takes over the defense to get them playing at a higher level the way he's always had a knack of doing.

To me, it seems as though Chuck Bresnahan has come up with defensive schemes that have us tough on first and second down, but soft on third down, and third down is where a lot of games are won. I am frustrated!
**--Aaron, Saskatoon, SK, Canada

AARON:** The Bengals already have taken a page out of the Ravens book. They've got a head coach known as a guru on the side of the ball that can't get figured out.

Seriously, I think you've got different situations with the two clubs. From what I can gather, there was a philosophical difference in Baltimore in which Billick wanted to go back to 2000 and pound the running game while Jim Fassel thought he was still coaching John Elway.

Here in Cincinnati, I think Marvin and Chuck are on the same page because Lewis went out and got him even before he fired his first defensive coordinator, Leslie Frazier, after the 2004 season. From what I can gather, Lewis and Frazier had a difference in philosophy that grew and grew as the '03 and '04 seasons went on.

Lewis isn't exactly keeping his gifts from the defense. He's in the room quite often and he and Marvin are always talking, so I'm not sure how different the play-calling would be.

It's moot, anyway, because Lewis says he's not going to call the plays, going on record saying Monday what he said in 2004 when he replaced Frazier for a game: It doesn't matter who calls the plays if the players don't execute.

Plus, such a change can also backfire just as easily. Check out Arizona, where during the past two seasons Dennis Green has canned two offensive coordinators and an offensive line coach. Since he fired coordinator Keith Rowan this year, they've been outscored 80-33.

Don't underestimate coaching continuity. In Tampa they lost their defensive line coach, secondary coach and moved the linebackers coach and the same players that were No. 1 last year in defense are on the No. 24 unit now.

All I'm saying is firing a coach makes everyone feel good, but it isn't always an answer.


Q: It appears obvious--at least to this fan--that, year-in, year-out, the Bengals defense is simply not even close to playoff/Super Bowl caliber. That being said, why do these guys not get any better?

It is easy to get caught up in the offensive hoopla surrounding Palmer, Johnson, et. al; and the Bengals offense can score with anybody. But have you noticed that, even with Manning, the Colts defense has stepped up (for the most part) when it has had to.

Marvin Lewis teams, in his four or five years have been far too Swiss-cheese-like to even consider winning a Super Bowl. Does management not alter its scouting philosophy, or what?

Thanks-confused Bengal fan in Miami.
**--D. Davis, Miami, FL

D.:** The team certainly altered its scouting philosophy when Lewis was hired because he demanded a certain type of defender: Linebackers who can run even if they're small, big cornerbacks, no in-the-box safeties but guys that can run and cover, and linemen that stay on their feet and are athletes instead of space eaters.

That said, you're right, the defense has been a weak link, but I'm not sure it's been as bad this year as people think.

Yeah, they were bad against New England and had bad a half against the Chargers (giving Tomlinson just 26 yards in the second half wasn't a mirage), but they saved a struggling offense in Kansas City, in Pittsburgh and against Carolina, and gave the offense chances to win in Tampa and Baltimore.

Sure, the defense needs a face, a swaggering and intimidating presence. But what amounted to season-long injuries and suspensions to the defensive centerpieces of their drafts - David Pollack, Odell Thurman, Madieu Williams - have limited the growth of the blueprint.

Williams? A brilliant athlete with huge potential, but I think the San Diego game showed he is still feeling his way back after missing virtually all last year with shoulder surgery.

If he's this club's answer to Troy Polamalu and Bob Sanders, he can't lose the tackle on LaDainian Tomlinson before he scores a touchdown and he's got to get to Phillip Rivers in time to blow him up before he shotputs a touchdown pass to a backup tight end.

I think the kid is going to go to many Pro Bowls, but I think the year he lost was key. Is that coaching?

Indeed, if we are we just a Justin Smith sack and Chris Perry fumble from Nirvana and 6-3, how much do you want to blow up?

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