Geoff: You have been around a number of Bengals teams over the last several years, probably going back to the 1980's. When is the last time you felt such a positive buzz around the team, with the players seeming to believe that this really could be the year and being led by a number of class acts/solid citizens- Big Willie, Thornton, Braham, T.J., Chad (yes, Chad- no matter what his national rep is), Rudi, Carson, Simmons, etc.? I can't remember feeling this way since the late '80's. These guys really have restored the pride, and let's not leave out Marvin and the other coaches. The time seems to be now.
There have been some long ago offseasons that have snapped, crackled, and popped, but we always forgot how that felt because the real season became so bad so quickly. You're right, though. None since the late '80s have been like this offseason in the sense that there seems to be a consensus that they've stuck to a solid two-year plan and now the third season is clearly the time it should blossom into a play-off spot.
There was a lot of positive buzz between that '90 and '91 seasons. There was no reason to think they were going to all get old so quickly and at the same time since they had just came off a play-off season with their great locker room leadership of Boomer Esiason, Anthony Munoz, and Tim Krumrie. Pro Bowl cornerback Eric Thomas was coming back from his ACL injury, and James Francis, teamed with another rookie pass rusher Alfred Williams, was coming off a Rookie of the Year season and they were going to generate a countless number of sacks.
But it turned out that head coach Sam Wyche's slow-down offense in '90 hid the loss of Pro Bowl left guard Max Montoya, the decline of wide receiver Eddie Brown, the bust of Reggie Rembert, and the loss of a 1,000-yard back in Ickey Woods. When they lost their first eight of '91, they were exposed and Francis and Williams combined for just 42 sacks in four seasons.
There was a lot of buzz between '96 and '97. Bruce Coslet replaced Dave Shula after a 1-6 start and they won seven of the last nine with the long-ball game of quarterback Jeff Blake. Plus, during the offseason, Coslet lured back to Cincinnati Dick LeBeau as defensive coordinator following LeBeau's brilliant Super Bowl run in Pittsburgh with the 3-4 zone blitz. And their first draft choice was a guy who was going to fit right into that scheme, a sackmaster from Florida State named Reinard Wilson.
But Blake had such a horrific start as they lost seven straight after an Opening Day win that he permanently damaged his standing with Bengals' management. Coslet backed off his get-tough approach, and they had trouble adjusting to the 3-4. A defense that came up with 44 turnovers in '96 had just 23 in '97 Wilson would end up with only 24 career sacks in six seasons in Cincinnati.
What could have been buzzes between '97 and '98 and '01 and '02 were drowned out by the uncertain quarterback situations.
But it's safe to say the '05 team bears no resemblance to the '91 and '97 teams.
Yes, the defense has a new, highly-regarded coordinator and it did take a sackmaster No. 1 in the draft, but it's the same system that has been here for the past two years under a defensive head coach. Everybody also returned to that '97 offense, but the '05 returnees are more dangerous at quarterback and seasoned at running back, where rookie Corey Dillon took 10 games to eclipse Ki-Jana Carter. Plus, their tackles are better with a two-time Pro Bowler on the right side in Willie Anderson instead of an aging Joe Walter and young Anderson, and first-rounder Levi Jones on the left instead of the combo of injured college free agent Kevin Sargent and seventh-rounder Rod Jones.
More money has spent on free agents, more work has been done in the weight room, more leadership is exerted where it matters. Certainly head coach Marvin Lewis expects more, and not another 8-8. Not in Year Three.