Hobson's Choice: Looking better

Q: Recently, a lot of reporters and columnists have been real hard on the Bengals giving them little to no chance of making the playoffs. But are things really that bad? The offense seems poised to be in the Top 10 again this year, and while the losses of Smith, Johnson and Williams on defense were rough, they made up for it well by signing Odom, drafting Rivers and developing the secondary. Can you shed some light on this for me.
--Justin H., Cincinnati, OH

JUSTIN: They will call me House Man, Kool-Aid Boozer, Hobspin and my personal favorite, straight from Hall of Famer Marty Brennaman: Mike Brown's Bobo.

But, really, the feeling in and around this team is a lot better now than it was in April, when the Titanic beckoned complete with deck chairs.

The spring workouts showed this team isn't void of talent. The Pollack-Perrys-Thurman-Henry tragedies have made it a shell of what was planned, but there is talent.

After the draft, I thought they were going to observe the 96th anniversary of the Titanic with a 4-12, 5-11 iceberg.

But, like you, (and national media members) I shifted because watching Mike Zimmer, Keith Rivers and the DBs in action, you got the sense the defense would be better than people ever thought.

And with Chad Johnson showing up and not going totally bonkers, can we repeat it?

If the Red Sox can win two World Series in four seasons with Manny being Manny, why can't the Bengals get there with Chad being Chad?

(And count Chad as another guy who feels better about the defense.)

Plus, after seeing what other teams in the AFC North are going through, it's an 8-8, 9-7 division.

Cleveland may have Shaun Rogers, but the Browns could also have an untried Brady Quinn at quarterback at some point because is Derek Anderson really the answer? Now with Leigh Bodden playing cornerback in Detroit, who is going to cover Chad Johnson, T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Santonio Holmes, Limas Sweed and Derrick Mason?

The Ravens and Steelers are still good on defense, but they are reshuffling in Baltimore with a new head coach and they're reloading in Pittsburgh on an offensive line that has been a linchpin of their philosophy over the last decade.

The division is there for the taking and the Bengals have what the rest of the division doesn't in an elite quarterback that can win games the other guys can't.

Yeah, the schedule is a lousy matchup because the Bengals haven't exactly been physical on either side of the ball the last two years and they play the most physical teams in football, starting with Pittsburgh and Baltimore, then Jacksonville and Tennessee, and then Philly and the Giants.

But if they stay true to their word about committing to the run and steal some games with the clock like they did in '05, they can win those games because, except for the Jags' lethal running game, which one of those offenses is going to put up points in a hurry?

The possible running downs combo of Rivers, Frostee Rucker, Marvin White (a bigger hitter than Madieu Williams at safety), a healthy Rashad Jeanty, and Pat Sims makes them, you would think, more physical than last year.

They lose a lot of toughness with Justin Smith's exit, but the loss that hurts them the most is linebacker Landon Johnson. Smart, played every spot, played hurt, and called the signals.

I still think they should have nabbed a veteran linebacker to replace some of that and they still need a big body on the line.

But, gee, don't they still have enough talent over there to break the top 20 in defense? Indy won a Super Bowl with the last-ranked run defense and the 21st overall.

OK, there are big Ifs on offense, too, such as the returns of running backs Rudi Johnson and Chris Perry, the precarious roster spot of the incumbent fullback, and the lack of an emerging No. 3 receiver. (Andre Caldwell is a nice pick, but the tough rookie years for receivers are well documented.).

And, please, don't crown the offense. In only four games last year did it score more than two touchdowns.

But, look, if the defense is better, Palmer is Palmer with a 90-plus passer rating (which he is if they run it), and the other division clubs struggle with the same schedule, they have as good a shot as anybody in the North winning the title and getting to the playoffs.

Say all you want about last season, but injuries do matter. When the Steelers closed their season like the Bengals began theirs (running back hurt, a couple of offensive linemen shelved), Pittsburgh lost three of its last four and its first playoff game.

You know, I questioned my sanity about a month ago when I started to think it might not be that bad. But when I talked to some players and other people around here, they had the same feeling.

"Hey," they were suddenly saying, "a fresh start on defense, run the ball and No. 9 playing pitch-and-catch with Chad and T.J. and a new toy in tight end Ben Utecht, and we're going to surprise some people."

So, no, I don't think I'm drunk on the Kool-Aid. Whoever gets to 8-8, 9-7, 10-6 (it will only be one) wins it, and the Bengals are like the rest of the division on that score. Some things pan out, and it gets done.


Q: I was just wondering what is going on with Stacy Andrews' contract talks? I just read the article where you mention that they still haven't come to terms yet and I'm really confused about what the problem is. Does Andrews not want to play here? Is it that he wants more money for a longer period of time? Or is he planning on leaving after this year and making a killing in free agency? This is worrisome because if that is the case, we shouldn't have him starting, and I know he's getting a lot of money this year so he has to play. Also along that line, what is their plan for Willie? Are they going to make him a backup? This would be very sad for the organization as a whole with all Willie has done for us. I don't think or want them to cut him or release him. This would only make the Bengals more of a running joke than they already are.
--Anthony, Cincinnati, OH

ANTHONY: Three guesses (although Rich Moran, the agent, is polite, he doesn't talk) and the first two don't count. Money, I assume. It has to be. Or it would have been done a year and a half ago when the Bengals first approached them.

Andrews has the best of both worlds. He's played just enough (17 starts) at three positions to flash his ample potential but apparently not enough to convince the Bengals he's worth elite money over the long term. How can you give a guy with 17 starts something like $20-22 million guaranteed, if, indeed, Andrews is looking for what he would get on the open market even though he's got a deal.

If you're Moran, do you risk taking less to stay with the team that developed your client and believed enough that they took him in the fourth round even though he had just 70 college snaps?

Of course, if they don't get a long-term contract done before July 15, it's a downer for both sides. The Bengals' ability to extend other veterans (how could they do T.J. Houshmandzadeh?) is severely limited and may be shot if they're stuck with Andrews' $7.5 million franchise tag for the whole season.

And a one-year deal is a huge risk for Andrews because he could get hurt or he could end up sitting behind a healthy Willie Anderson at right tackle.

Anderson told us after the final practice of mandatory minicamp that he was looking for clarification on where his career stands. Asked if he's willing to remain a backup, he says his preference is to start.

"Right now I'm backing up," he said. "We're in a curious position. The only thing I'm looking for is clarification on where my career is. I definitely want to service the team. At the same time I want to play and be a starter."

Frankly, if Willie is healthy, you have to feel he's going to play because he ended 2006 as a Pro Bowl right tackle so that must make him the best right tackle on this team. Even if Andrews has the big number.

Yeah, I think at that point the Bengals would make Andrews the highest-paid utility man in the history of sports because the best guys are going to play.

If Andrews signed long term (and that looks all but dead), you'd wonder what they'd do because it's doubtful they could keep three big multi-year deals at the tackle spot.

The Bengals are taking a lot of heat for tagging Andrews, but what would you do?

Anderson turns 33 Friday, and is coming off a season in which he suffered his most severe injury of his career (knee) because it ended his streak of starts at 116. So, naturally you want some insurance and although he looked terrific last month, wouldn't you want to see how Anderson holds up in pads in the first couple of weeks in training camp? At least have him play some series in some preseason games? How could you let a guy like Andrews walk before even knowing?

To me, it's like tagging Justin Smith last year. Yeah, far from ideal, but it shows they are committed to winning now by fielding the best team they can this year and not next year with all the best options available no matter the salary.

I wouldn't do it. I'd unload Andrews and if Anderson isn't able, I'd move Andrew Whitworth from left guard to right tackle, put rookie tackle Anthony Collins at left guard and put Andrews on the trading block for at least a second-rounder.

Of course, that's a lot of risk. If Collins gets Carson Palmer drilled as he learns a position he hasn't played, I've put this season in serious jeopardy.

And, at 27, Andrews is viewed by many in the league as one of the next great tackles. Pete Prisco of CBSSportsline.com put him and Bengals defensive tackle Domata Peko on his list of the league's top 30 emerging young players.

So, I don't think you can easily slough off Andrews, either, and make them a laughingstock on this issue.

When you're riding a guy like Palmer in the pocket, you should be mortgaging all you can to protect him, and they are.

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