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Hobson's Choice: Rudi still bell cow

Q: Over the last two years, we have seen the NFL capabilities of four running backs: R. Johnson, C. Perry, K. Watson, and D. Dorsey, and additionally spent a second -round pick last spring on K. Irons. With the expectation that all are healthy next year, whom do you anticipate making the roster?
--Michah H. Alexandria, KY

MICAH: Tough call given that they've only kept three tailbacks and one fullback. That means two have to go, right? Of the five, only one of them is a proven 20-carry, 16-game bell cow and that's Rudi.

There's a lot of grousing about him and how people think he's lost a step and is washed up. His big number isn't going to help him in a roster battle next year ($3.2 million salary), but they better be sure one of those guys can carry the load. Here's two clichés for the Rudi-haters: Be careful what you wish for and you don't know what you've got 'till it's gone.

I could see them making a move on him, but I think it's tough to know if he's lost it because of his hamstring injury. I'm with you, I was disturbed by Sunday's first 16 carries, but the last drive is what he's supposed to look like and it showed he can still play. Those other four guys haven't proven yet they can hold up like he's held up the previous three seasons.

That's the thing that saved Rudi in the roster cutdowns of '02 and '03. He was the only guy behind Corey Dillon that could carry it 20 times a game in case Dillon went down for a stretch.

And, frankly, the other four backs are solid, even spectacular, but you don't know if any of them are NFL bell cows.

OK, so if you don't have Rudi, who is the bell cow?

Kenny Watson has shown he can do it in spurts and he's clearly one of the best third-down backs in the NFL. But when you go to the board to draw it up in the offseason, do you write it in ink that he can carry it 300 times at age 30 when he just hit his career high of 119 on Sunday? And I like Watson. I would think he's a roster automatic but as a spot guy.

Once upon a time they thought Perry could do it and he's big enough, but how could you write him in as a bell cow now after missing three of his first four seasons with injuries? Dorsey (196 pounds) and Irons (202) are as exciting as hell. But for 20 carries a pop at their size? And I love both guys, but you can only have so many complementary pieces. And, maybe Irons will end up being one, but you don't know.

If the answer is you no longer have a bell cow, then you'd have to go back-by-committee. A 1-2 punch is good, even chic nowadays, and 1-2-3 sure looked good on Sunday. But one of those guys has to be a pounder so you know you're going to get the tough yards and kill the clock.

The problem is, at this point, Dorsey, Perry, and Irons are all unknowns. But you'd sure like to get to know Dorsey a little better, wouldn't you? Maybe he could ...

And forget drafting one.

Heck, with guys like Willie Parker (free agent), Marion Barber (fourth round), Ryan Grant (free agent), it makes you wonder why an every-down back would be taken even in the draft's first day. The Bengals would never take a Steve Slaton at this point in the first round.

Q: Riddle me this: How can anyone objectively say that the Bengals defense has improved over the last five games? During that stretch the Bengals played against a third-string quarterback who was missing three starting offensive linemen in St. Louis, played in horrible weather against Pittsburgh where even Palmer couldn't throw, faced the worst passer in the NFL against Tennessee, etc., etc., etc. I feel like I'm taking crazy pills.
--David, Milwaukee, WI

DAVID: Hey, all we're saying is they're improved, not the Fearsome Foursome. Maybe I need the yaa baa pills, but the defense that checked Steven Jackson on Sunday isn't the same one that let Marshawn Lynch run amuck five weeks ago.

Call me a house man, but the defense that let Sammy Morris go for 117 on Oct. 1 isn't the same one that held Edgerrin James to 52 on 22, or the Titans' fourth-ranked running game to 61 on 18, or the Steelers' No. 2 run game to three yards per carry. Sure, the Pittsburgh game was a quagmire, but when it came to yards per carry, the Bengals did a better job against Willie Parker (3.1) than the Steelers did against the Bengals running backs (3.6) on the same field.

And how many receivers have been running wide open in the last five weeks compared to the first eight, when now deposed starters Damon Huard and J.P. Losman were shooting fish in a barrel?

It's a defense that needs drastic improvements, no question. But to say they haven't improved from the Godawful Buffalo game is a riddle in itself.

Q: I read your comments about Madden saying the Bengals have the talent but not the will. They are professionals and are always playing hard because they want to be a valuable asset for another team. I truthfully believe that there is not one player that is happy that they play for the Bengals and Mike Brown. If the truth be known, every player would much rather be somewhere else in pro football and as far away from the Bengal organization as they can get. The team has a terrible reputation, non-existent personality, and a history of losing, who would want to be on that kind of team?
--Kerry D., St. Petersburg, Fla.

KERRY: Truth be known, Carson Palmer signed up through 2014, Chad Johnson through 2011, Willie Anderson and Levi Jones upped for five more years each, and Reggie Kelly went for three more so I guess misery loves company.

You would have hit this on the head if it was 2002, but the zilch personality thing doesn't play any more.

In Palmer, Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh you've got three of the more recognizable and marketable players in the league and with the creation of NFL Network and the rise of Solomon Wilcots, as well as the move to the studios of other former Bengals Boomer Esiason and Cris Collinsworth, the team's profile is raised even more.

And a recent Harris Poll showed the Bengals are the NFL's 18th most popular team, rising several spots from three years ago.

This season won't help, but I think you're relying on some tired old stereotypes. Maybe something closer is that they're the most underachieving team in the league or that they haven't invested enough in their defense. But the other stuff, like Kenneth Starr and Y2K, is straight out of 1999.

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