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Hobson's Choice: New scheme=more wins

Q: I know many fans recently have been questioning how bad the passing game has been. In the Lions game I heard coach Brian Billick talk about how Carson has been playing badly in our current system where he has to manage the game and be perfect on passing downs. Is that true and can the style of play really affect a QB by that much? Coach also said that our bread and butter has been the 15- to 20-yard passing plays with three wide receivers and we haven't been playing to that system. What are your thoughts on this and in general about our passing game?
--*John F., Columbus, OH

JOHN: It has to get better, obviously, but I'm old school on Palmer. He's 9-3 and that's what you want out of your quarterback. He throws TDs when he has to (Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Baltimore), he doesn't throw many picks, and he's tougher than Under Armour. I'm sure Ben Roethlisberger and Joe Flacco and Tony Romo and Matt Schaub and Kurt Warner and all the other guys that have numbers better than Palmer would trade them for his crunch-time efforts.

The problem with the passing game is not Palmer. The guy many people feel is his best receiver, Chris Henry, is out for the year, they lost the most reliable receiver in the NFL when T.J. Houshmandzadeh left in March, and the guy they drafted for the future, second-rounder Jerome Simpson, must not be able to pick up the system because he hasn't been active for a game this year.

It's not so much that the offense is different. It's that Palmer is throwing to a different cast of characters than he was in 2005 and 2006. They've got talent, but it's nowhere near where it was in the pass-happy days because it's not shaped, honed, and synced up like it was. I think you've got to give Palmer and offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski credit for nursing this transition well enough to find enough points to get nine wins. A large part of the credit falls to the defense, but the offense's ability to adapt to a new corps of receivers with a more effective, committed running game is also a huge factor.

Maybe Billick is right. Maybe the bread-and-butter was those three-receiver sets that got those intermediate plays. But guess what? They don't have those three receivers. And not only that, what did they get for going three receivers all the time? A lot of 8-8 seasons and Pro Bowl selections and Palmer getting pounded.

So why keep doing it?

Andre Caldwell, in time, should be a solid replacement for Houshmandzadeh. But Houshmandzadeh didn't emerge until his fourth season and the second-year Caldwell is still picking through his inconsistencies.

Laveranues Coles, the starter opposite Chad Ochocinco, is on his first year in the system and it shows. He hasn't been much of an answer downfield, but he's also flashed with some big plays and provides professionalism, not to mention a blocking talent that has helped the running game take off.

So the Bengals offense is going to newfound strengths and not relying on five-year-old press clippings and for that it ought to be commended, particularly Palmer. Yeah, he's been inaccurate the last couple of games but he's not a computer. The nine wins with the 21st offense shows he's flourishing as a game manager and you know he can pull out a 90 rating at any point. If Maurice Purify and Daniel Coats don't drop red-zone TDs the past two weeks, are we having this conversation?

Is it enough to go all the way? The Ocho and Coles bring enough experience and firepower  and Caldwell brings enough speed that they can be dangerous enough with a top ten running game. I just don't know what is wrong with lining up in an unbalanced line and running it straight at them for four yards a shot even though they're stacking the line.

That's winning football. That's how they got to 9-3.

But, yeah, if I were calling the shots, I'd take a receiver in the first round because the coaches seem to have made up their minds that they're not going to play Simpson.

Q: No true Bengals fan could ever take 9-3 for granted, and we're soaking in every victory like a Sham-Wow. But even as we hope for great things in the weeks ahead, it's impossible to overlook the bright red flags (and often times yellow) smacking us in the face week after week. The passing game ineptitude, considering the supposed talent and experience level of the key players, and constant idiotic penalties are just impossible to understand. Just seems that averaging one offensive TD a week vs. the subpar defensive teams we've been playing should temper our expectations for a strong finish and possible playoff run. The old "playing down to your competition" thing also is not a trait of champions. Got anything to give us hope?
--John G., Miamisburg, OH*

JOHN: With a solid running game, great defense, and two-time Pro Bowl quarterback, nobody is going to want to play you in the playoffs. Agreed. The penalties are absolutely ridiculous and they can't keep happening. If they play like they did the last two weeks, the Vikings will blow them out in the Metrodome.

But there are two things that travel well in the NFL: A defense and a running game. If you've got those, you're always in every game. I think it's also a reason they've been able to overcome those mountain of penalties. Nothing like a good running game to take a crowd out of the game and the Bengals seem to do that at home as well as on the road.

You're looking for hope? How about a defense that barely gives up two touchdowns a game? How many countless of seasons would that have inspired hope in Bengaldom? (Not to mention playoff berths in '03 and '06.) As we wrote last week, they've got the formula (scoring defense, rush defense, run offense) to go a long way in the playoffs. And, so far, to overcome the latest inane penalty.

Q: I am wondering how good are we really? I thought it was an amazing feat to go 6-0 in the AFC North, but a good question is, how good is the AFC North? What if the AFC North is not actually as good as the experts predicted or as good as it has been in the past and the six wins don't mean as much as we think? Pittsburgh has lost quite a bit and its understandable that they have injuries but they may not even make the playoffs. Baltimore is also playing pretty average and Cleveland speaks for itself. So how good are the Bengals in reality? We are only 3-3 outside of our own division. Our losses come from Oakland, Texans and Denver. All teams that are not amazing.
*--Sam B., West Chester, OH

SAM:I would think they have to be legitimately good to be 9-3. You have to be good to win in Green Bay, Pittsburgh and Baltimore in the same year. The Packers beat the Ravens but the Bengals beat the Packers. How good is San Diego? They have the same record as the Bengals and lost to the Steelers and Ravens. How good are the Patriots? They've lost to the Jets and the Dolphins, teams that are struggling to make the playoffs. This is the NFL we know and love. How good is anybody but Indy, the Saints, and Vikings?

Except for those three, you can take shots at everybody else's record. But the Bengals have won more games than most teams because they found ways to win that other teams didn't. That takes talent and toughness that other teams didn't display with the game on the line. You have to give them that. The Steelers could be 9-3 if they held on to late leads against the Bengals, Chiefs and Raiders. How bad can the Steelers be even with the injuries? They've won two of the last four Super Bowls.

But you'll have your answer in the next two weeks.

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