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Hobson's Choice: Missing links

Q: What is wrong with this team? They have all of the offensive talent in the world and can't even manage to convert a third down the entire game? I'll admit that having so many injuries on defense and suspensions is killing that side of the ball, but the fact of the matter is that the team has two Pro Bowl wide receivers, a Pro Bowl quarterback and two Pro Bowl tackles. So what gives?
--Alex F., Fort Wright, KY

ALEX: The Pro Bowl tackles have yet to play a full game together, they still can't get set at center, and the two guys that can break open a Patriotic Cover 2 are hurt and suspended.

We speak, of course, of the two Chrises—Perry and Henry—and throw in rookie running back Kenny Irons and his ACL injury.

Remember this offense's numbers in the three games Henry didn't play last season. They never scored 20 points and it's not a coincidence that when they didn't have Henry last year they also only scored 13 against New England.

If you've got a good enough defense, and New England, Baltimore and Pittsburgh do, you can take a great quarterback and two great receivers out of it with a Cover 2 if your offense puts up points.

Let them run the ball, shut down the big play, and bleed the clock once you score enough points. The idea is to run the ball to beat Cover 2. But if you're down 14, or haven't been able to get the running game in sync because of the changes in the offensive line, you've got problems even with three great skill players.

With center Eric Ghiaciuc missing the last three games, right tackle Willie Anderson unable to get through a game, and left tackle Levi Jones (for whatever reason) just now getting back from his knee injury, the running game has been disjointed at best.

Plus, Alex Stepanovich, Ghiaciuc's backup, is reliable but he's not known as a guy who blows people off the ball and that matchup with the Pats' Vince Wilfork is challenging.

Where is the speed? It puts tremendous pressure on Chad and T.J. to continually make something happen on the outside when there is no change of pace in the backfield a la Perry or Irons, and another vertical threat like Henry. Henry and Perry, as they did in '05, take them from a No. 10-12 offense to top six.

Q: No moral victories on Monday night. Only an L and more injuries. Above all this the Pats made the Bengals look bad on the field and the sideline. The Pats were giving each other instructions to improve their play, while the Bengals were at each other's throats or listless. This seems to be the Pats' sideline demeanor regardless of the score. Is that maturity on the Bengals sideline and the cameras aren't showing it?
--Matt, Kent, OH

MATT: You've been hearing it since the 2005 season. Marvin keeps talking about selfishness and the players keep talking about lack of maturity, two traits magnified playing the Stepford Team known as the Patriots.

Cameras don't lie. But they also never sleep and where do we draw the line? Was the blowup between Chad and Carson a sign of a deeper problem, or a typical work-place spat?

Probably a little of both. It's easy to jump on Chad, but Palmer seemed to be saying in the postgame he wished he'd handled it differently. And, by the way, Palmer is a genuine leader with the emphasis on the word "genuine."

The exchange has spawned a raft of questions, most importantly the Has Marvin Lost The Team? It didn't look like it Monday. They came out hard and well early on defense and special teams, which is why the lack of offense was disappointing.

But what was really discouraging is that the team seemed to deflate with the Asante Samuel interception and the ensuing sideline animation and they never got it back after halftime.

That's why maturity is such an important issue. If they keep their head and take the opening kickoff and score, it's a game again.

A problem?

All you have to do is stand outside the locker room door and listen to a head coach's profanity and frustration and know that it is. I think he's still got this team, but he'll know and everyone else will, too, after the bye week.

To me, there is a bigger frustration.

It's happened already a few times this season (Chad took the blame for the pick in Cleveland), but how often do you see Peyton Manning and/or Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne, Dallas Clark not connect like that in a big situation? Look at Tom Brady. He's got three new receivers and he's on a record pace for completion percentage and they've turned nary a page.

And you know Carson and Chad are just as good as those guys.

Q: The Patriots add Randy Moss, Adalius Thomas, Wes Welker, Donte Stallworth and Kelley Washington in the offseason. The Bengals add Blue Adams, Mike Myers and Ed Hartwell. Do the Bengals operate under the same salary cap as the Pats? The Pats have stars. The Bengals have waiver wire pickups. Why be in the NFL if you don't care about winning? The Bengals have inadequate scouting and no practice facility. Why is that? The citizens of Hamilton County bought them a state of the art stadium. I know this will never change. At least UC has some pride. What is the Bengals goal? I know - to make $$$$$.

FRED: The last time I checked, the survival of any business*mdash;never mind goal—is to make money. But if it was the ultimate goal, Mike Brown would have taken the stadium deal in Baltimore or Cleveland. You can question Brown's methods to win the Super Bowl, but not his desire.

They actually have one of the finest practice and training facilities in the NFL. You said it yourself. It's state of the art. You may be referring to their lack of an indoor facility, but I don't think that's why they've lost six of the last seven.

And I'm going to hesitate on the charge of inadequacy of the scouting department. These are the same guys that brought you Chad Johnson, Rudi Johnson, T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Willie Anderson, Levi Jones. Guys who have had Pro Bowl or near Pro Bowl seasons drafted from Rounds 1-7 and certainly the core of their 2005 AFC North title. They also plucked guys like Kevin Kaesviharn and Rashad Jeanty from other leagues, so they've been able to find people.

I mean, you can moan about the three 8-8 seasons under Marvin, but the fact they are one of five NFL teams since 2003 not to have a losing record would indicate they are playing with competitive people. Although, certainly, that streak is in jeopardy.

The Bengals and the Pats have spent the same $107 million for this season under the cap, but in different areas and structure.

Take Patriots linebacker Mike Vrabel. He is 32, paid roughly $3 million per year, and is playing well. The Patriots re-signed him when he was 30. The Bengals invested more heavily in 32-year old right tackle Willie Anderson, who has had a career that arguably could put him in the Hall of Fame. Or at least the All-Decade team.

They re-signed Anderson when he was 31, and he played effectively in 2006 before injuries hit him in 2007.

Here are the differing strategies. The Patriots don't have an offensive lineman paid over $5 million. The Bengals have two, plus a highly paid guard in Bobbie Williams and a second-round draft pick at the other guard in Andrew Whitworth. They decided to protect Carson Palmer with their money and you have to say, for the most part, that has worked.

The Bengals have invested in offensive linemen. The Patriots have invested in defensive linemen with three No. 1 draft picks starting while the Bengals have drafted five first-day linebackers over the past four years.

The criticism then, I guess, is that they should have gone after at least one high impact defensive player in free agency and not relied so much on their young players to turn around their defense, or re-signing their own like Robert Geathers and Justin Smith.

Yet, they aren't out there on their own when doing that. Pittsburgh and Baltimore have used the same philosophy in developing players through the draft, and even letting staples like Adalius Thomas and Joey Porter leave.

Your frustration is understandable. But to say the Bengals are playing with waiver wire pickups on defense is overstated. Yes, they are at linebacker for obvious reasons, but when Ahmad Brooks comes back for Kansas City they will start eight first-day picks that either they or someone else drafted.

Listen Fred, there is no denying there are problems. For one, I'd like to see one elite defensive free agent signed in March if these kids aren't developing, and, maybe more importantly, a few quality backup guys that have some age on them instead of always relying on the kids if guys go down.

But to suggest they are down here playing Bingo with The Wall Street Journal instead of caring about the product they put on the field is a bit over the top.

As always, debate is good, so good luck to UC down the stretch. Here's hoping for a major bowl, and thanks for the note.

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