Hobson's Choice: Window still open

Q: Isn't it painfully obvious to everyone that we've missed the window of opportunity to win again? Mike Brown has allowed the offensive line to get old (wouldn't it be nice to have Steinbach back?), drafted numerous "problem" players that have brought ridicule and a decided lack of ability to the team and not brought in any serious free agents. I'm thinking that we're looking at a top five draft pick this coming year with, if things break right for them, a 3-13 record. What do you think?
--Bill R., Wyoming, OH

BILL: Look, they're in a bad way and if Chad's shoulder pops out and the pass rush remains docile, you may have to think about that fifth pick. But I also think people wrongly recite the woes of the '90s to this situation.

Before training camp I don't think many were saying a window had been shut when on paper you had a Pro Bowl quarterback, two Pro Bowl receivers and an offensive line coming off a franchise season with only one starter older than 30.

That sounds like a pretty good blueprint, but it began to tear like a hamstring once camp started.

By the way, I simply don't get the infatuation with Steinbach. Two of their better players have been their guards. The guy they miss is the center, Rich Braham. That's the guy they haven't been able to replace. They've survived the loss of Steinbach, not Braham.

Now, one thing you can argue is they should have kept Steinbach as a center but the coaches never really seemed comfortable with him there.

You can say a lot of things about the line (inability to run block in the last two games is my major question), but one of them isn't that they've gotten too old.

In the last seven drafts they've taken one offensive lineman in the first round, two in the second round and three in the fourth round with four of them starting Opening Day. So it's not age.

(People gripe about left tackle Levi Jones' knees, but when he was healthy all last year he was named a Pro Bowl alternate and they gave up their fewest sacks in history.)

But, yeah, they've looked lousy this year run blocking and pass protecting and it's mystifying. You can say, why, they couldn't run block last year?

I'm not sure about that. When they had a healthy running back, Rudi Johnson had a 100-yard day against the Browns and in Kenny Watson's five starts he had two 130-yard games.

As for the "problem" players, to me that's an easy out. A copout by national media that just keeps getting laughs with the two-year-old Bengals jokes even though they probably couldn't tell you that charges were dismissed on two of their last three arrests dating back to last summer, and the third one could get dropped, too. If the pundits looked at the rest of the league, plenty of teams have passed the Bengals by since that awful spate of 14 arrests in the 13 months that ended in January of '07.

And, believe me, I realize the Chris Henry re-signing has opened up the outrage again and understandably so. But beyond Henry, who is still here who is a problem? They're all gone.

Chad?

The bell rang and he's been fine and while he may have brought some offseason ridicule, he certainly doesn't bring a lack of ability. It seems to me the locker room is populated with more good guys than ever before, like the young guys they just extended, Domata Peko and Andrew Whitworth.

As for free agency, in the six offseasons under Marvin Lewis they've made a major free-agent move on defense in five of those years. They remade their defense in '03 with three starters and picked up their starting middle linebacker in '04 in Nate Webster.

After the Steelers rolled them on the ground and went deep in the Wild Card loss, they got a big three-time Pro Bowl lineman in Sam Adams and a veteran playoff safety in Dexter Jackson. Then this past offseason after they finished last in sacks per pass, they dropped their biggest free-agent load on eight-sacker Antwan Odom, a guy that has been sidelined since the first practice.

Now you can argue right player, wrong move, not used right or whatever, but they have been fairly serious free-agent players under Lewis.

But, and I've argued this point for years and just this past offseason, they don't like to spend anything on middle-of-the road, solid veterans, starting with about seven years experience in the league and I think that hurts them.

They don't cost that much (they hate the risk of injury) and they give you seasoning and experience. I think they could have gotten a guy like Takeo Spikes for about $2M and he would have been a relatively cheap upgrade at linebacker, a position where some experience could really help.

I agree that things don't look good and it's hard to put a finger on it right now. But I also think people simply assign the faults of the '90s to when they stumble now because it's easier to explain but not necessarily accurate.

I also continue to say as long as they have Carson Palmer in a division where no team has pulled away from the other, the window is always open.


Q: With cuts coming and many fans calling for heads to roll, which do you see coming first? Ahmad Brooks, the guy hasn't played much or been impressive when he has, and according to your "Hot Spots" article, he isn't going to make it. John Thornton, great leader but does he get the push up front to make the team better on the field? And has he played any better than Myers has recently? Many fans say "No" and want to see him cut. Dexter Jackson, another leader with a good past but not much present production. I've liked what I've seen from him in preseason, but should we cut him to make room for a guy that plays special teams, safety, and corner?
--Steve, Los Angeles, CA

STEVE: Monday night's ESPN item that the Bengals are shopping Rudi Johnson for a wide receiver is another example that nothing is set as they try to put something together for Sept. 7.

I don't think that's an example of heads rolling, and I think they've probably floated about nine or 10 other things out there on the market to see what kind of response they get. Clearly they are in angst over the receiver spot and are trying to get more depth because Chad is so day-to-day.

But Marvin Lewis certainly did exhibit some urgency last week when he said he needed to see Rudi play before he could make him the starter over Chris Perry.

Word is there isn't anything imminent and Rudi may be tough to move because of his recent injury history.

As for Brooks, all I can tell you is repeat what radio analyst Dave Lapham said on the air Saturday night after he got an unnecessary roughness penalty. Lapham observed that it was the first time he'd seen Brooks hit somebody all year.

Brooks has the great NFL body and measurables, but given his place on the depth chart, that would suggest he hasn't translated it to his new coaches, defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer and linebackers coach Jeff FitzGerald.

The fans have been on Thornton ever since he got here. The Bengals continually get criticized for the type of guy they have in their locker room, so I don't think they can have it both ways. They can't just say, "Great leader, but..." That stuff does matter.

The Jackson case is intriguing. I like the idea of getting a guy that can play all those positions, but you won't get a guy like that now. Unless you're suggesting they keep Herana-Daze Jones over Jackson, and I think that's a bit of a risk because unlike Madieu Williams or Kevin Kaesviharn, Jones only really is an emergency corner.

If Ndukwe had been healthy, that may have been a tough call on Jackson. But he isn't and Jackson is having a pretty decent preseason in his stead. A key thing the coaches are keeping in mind is that they are so young at safety and corner that they need a guy back there with some kind of experience.

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