Q: With us ending the season winning three in a row, we said no matter what changes had to be made. Then the article a couple of days ago said there will be little to no changes this year. Why are we backing off of that statement?
--Micah P., Springfield, OH
MICAH: In a Jan. 6 story here, Marvin Lewis said the Bengals would have a "way different" offense, which came after a month he kept saying the Bengals would make changes despite the winning streak. What doesn't appear to be changing is the coaching staff.
It begs the question, of course. Can an offense that has been criticized as stale, predictable and underachieving be revived under the same staff? Lewis says it can, so that must mean he plans to give his coaches a brand new set of marching orders because he was pretty adamant in the interview.
"Nobody outside this building will have an idea of the difference, but we'll be a different offense and an effective offense," he said.
Can the same coaches get the same wide receivers to block downfield, which Lewis is always griping about? Can the same coaches come up with different ways to create the runs that Lewis is talking about? Can the same coaches pull up the bootstraps of the last-ranked offense?
That's the question because people don't remember that these are also the same coaches that had the Bengals 6th, 8th and 10th offensively in the league rankings the previous three years with a healthy quarterback. All they remember after a four-win season is that in the last 35 games, the Bengals have scored more than two touchdowns just six times, and that's Lewis' challenge.
Lewis also said they're going to get new players and they have to because he's talking about running the ball and they don't have a blocking fullback or a center suited to block the 3-4 defensive nose tackles that play for every division foe.
Q: What's the 2009 free-agent outlook? Assuming that the following guys go into free agency, what are the odds we make a serious run for them? Karlos Dansby, Julius Peppers, Albert Haynesworth, Terrell Suggs. I'd love for us to make a play for Dansby and Haynesworth, but obviously we won't contend for both. What do you think?
--Alex, Cincinnati, OH
ALEX: Somehow, those type of guys always seem to end up locked up either via the franchise tag or a long-term deal. The Bengals are more likely to do one of their own for big money before free agency opens as the franchise tag continues to flutter for possibly wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh or kicker Shayne Graham.
The Bengals pulled off a big-money move early last year when they made Antwan Odom their highest-paid free agent ever, but the franchise-type player is not their M.O. and I'm not sure it should be.
What they may be ready to do is be more aggressive with the second-tier free agents. Running back Cedric Benson, safety Chris Crocker, middle linebacker Dhani Jones and, to a certain extent, Brandon Johnson proved the point to them. These are young veterans they got off the street and showed they could immediately play and be big-time contributors. Indeed, like those four show, the right kind of guy can help the kids like a late-round pick or a college free-agent or a second-year practice squadder instead of making them play right away.
Take a look at the guys who are on their second or third contracts but have had solid and/or promising/ascending careers. Instead of dishing out for a Haynesworth, go get a center and a fullback that can play right now and you don't break the bank with a big risk. Benson and Crocker figure to be the free-agent running back and safety, respectively, that they sign..
That said, the Bengals also still want to get deals with Graham and Houshmandzadeh, and that would most likely serve as their major free-agent signings.
(It's unclear what they're going to do with injured right tackle Stacy Andrews. Going off the track record of big men coming back from reconstructive knee surgeries, there may be a question if he'll have to go on the PUP list and miss the first six weeks of the season. So would they offer something like a one- or two-year deal? That will be up to them and other teams after they examine a surgery that was scheduled for this past Thursday.)
Here's another reason for not dropping a big-bang-one-shot deal:
With the 2010 season not having a salary cap, teams may have to leave a bigger pad than usual this year because pro-rated bonuses can't be spread into future years. The cap does go up $7 million, but everything must be absorbed in the same cap.
For example, if the Bengals trade or cut a guy like left tackle Levi Jones, they would have to take the entire hit right now no matter whether they do it the first day of free agency on Feb. 27, or after June 1, or in training camp.