Hysteria meets sanity

12:30 p.m.

The panic began on the first play and reached full-fledged hysteria by the time the Bengals were in a 27-3 hole at halftime.

Not head coach Marvin Lewis and his players. They took the Philadelphia Phlop grimly and with cool resolve. Fans don't have to do that and there certainly has been a form of road rage ever since the Bengals got off the plane.

Why not? The NFL preseason is a little bit like watching cable news. They spend all their air time in a hurricane and you're wondering what is really happening in the rest of the world. Here's an effort to separate the Hurricane Hysteria from some shreds of sanity. At least what stands for one person's sanity.

HURRICANE HYSTERIA: Carson Palmer may not be David Klingler and Akili Smith, but he couldn't take them to Philadelphia, never mind the Promised Land. Look at him now after the league has 13 of his starts on tape. We haven't seen 48 percent passing since Smith flailed away for 44.2 percent in those first 10 starts of 2000. A mega million Jeff Blake who teases with his arm.

REALITY CHECK: Anything resembling a comparison between Palmer and his immediate predecessors is out of hand. It's pretty clear he's an emerging top quarterback and is a major reason this club has been picked as kind of the pundits' preseason darling.

Add up all these preseason drops, and Palmer's 29-for-60 passing could easily be something like 36-for-60, which is 60 percent and would have been much better than his 55 percent of last preseason. And it would be right on his percentage of last season at 61.

And, this guy is a true leader. He took some of the blame Friday night and he just didn't play that badly. For the most part he had the ball where there should have been enough plays made. Rack up Chad Johnson, T.J. Houshmandzadeh and Chris Perry for three catches for about 60 yards, and now he's 16 of 25 for 196 yards. The Eagles' Donovan McNabb was 14 of 23 for 256, and he had a heck of a lot more help than Palmer.

REAL QUESTION: It's not Palmer or even his receivers. The big boys (Johnson and Houshmandzadeh) have good enough track records that they'll hold on to the ball when it counts.

But the offensive line has to be a legit concern. After a solid outing in the opener, they got gummed up on the run in Washington and then had trouble pass protecting in Philly. Obviously, getting Pro Bowl right tackle Willie Anderson back before the real opener is going to be a big lift. Still, how close to form will he be, and can the other guys hold up their end of the deal? They must have done a better job run blocking last Friday because Rudi Johnson averaged 4.2 yards per his 17 carries, but they can't let Palmer get hammered like he got hit early last season. Remember, once the line adjusted to last season's preseason injuries, Palmer took off.

Still, if the left side of Levi Jones and Eric Steinbach is truly healthy, they should be better.

HURRICANE HYSTERIA: This is the worst Bengals secondary since anything in the 1990s, when they always seemed to have three guys nicknamed "Toast." It was supposed to be the strength of the defense, but there is no way after allowing 12 passes of 20 or more yards in the last two games.

REALITY CHECK: This is the best Bengals secondary since they went to the Super Bowl 17 years ago.

Yes, cornerbacks Tory James and Deltha O'Neal have struggled and safeties Kevin Kaesviharn and Kim Herring look to be trying to figure out where they are most of the time. Which is what it looked like last preseason, when O'Neal didn't even play, James had some terrible games, and Herring was adjusting to positions and a new team.

But when the bell rang, O'Neal and James were very good (James went to his first Pro Bowl) and there's no reason to think they won't be again in bettering their combined 12 interceptions of last season. These guys are gamers and some consideration has to be made about the switch in defensive coordinators. Although it's the same system and same coverages, Chuck Bresnahan is going to use the calls in different situations and there figures to be some kind of a transition there for the players.

It's not like the long plays have followed them from last season. Actually, Elias Sports Bureau allowed an interesting stat last week on which NFL defenses allowed the most pass plays of 20 yards or more and running plays of 15 or more in 2004. The Bengals were actually closer to the best than the worst in a tie for 13th with 64. The top five worst were Kansas City (99), New Orleans (94), Green Bay (85), Tennessee (83), and Indianapolis (79). The top three were Pittsburgh (47), Washington (49), and New England (52).

REAL QUESTION: Free safety Madieu Williams is probably the team's best defensive player and keeps things hanging together back there with his Pro Bowl athleticism. But he hasn't played in a preseason game yet and hasn't practiced for about three weeks. How good is he going to be when he comes back? Two things going for him are fresh legs, and his knowledge of the system as a safety/cornerback. **

HURRICANE HYSTERIA:If the Bengals can't score, they are staring at a ghastly 5-11ish season because their defense never keeps them in games.

REALITY CHECK:** There is only one question that is going to decide if the Bengals are going to make the playoffs, and it has nothing to do with pass coverage. They have to keep running backs Jamal Lewis, Duce Staley and Reuben Droughns in check during the AFC North games. If they can stop the run in the division, they will make the playoffs.

Certainly the front four has played well this preseason, with new tackle Bryan Robinson everything they needed and tackle John Thornton excellent since moving sides. The quickness brought by end Robert Geathers and rookie linebackers Odell Thurman and David Pollack is also a clear difference from last season. The evidence is the Bengals haven't been gouged consistently in the running game during the three preseason games.

REAL QUESTION: How quickly are Pollack and Thurman going to learn before the real games start? Thurman continues to flash, but he's not always in the right place in the middle as he learns the pro game, and the coaches indicated that Pollack has a long way to go after his Friday night debut.

In order to get Pollack plenty of snaps, the coaches rotated him among Thurman, Landon Johnson and Brian Simmons. There were times when Pollack was playing strong-side backer that Johnson played in Simmons' or Thurman's spot. The team is going to have to decide who its third best backer is besides Johnson and Simmons. But all these guys are going to play a lot on third down. The key is, it has to be third-and-five instead of third-and-two.

The bad news is the kids have to play well right away because the fast start is so important. But the good news is that all but one AFC North game comes from Oct. 23 on. And of the season's first five opponents the Texans had the only running game ranked last year in the upper half of the NFL.

HURRICANE HYSTERIA: The special teams haven't been very good consistently getting down field and covering kicks, particularly punts, and they'll never see the good side of the 50 in fight for field position.

REALITY CHECK: It's hard to judge coverage teams in the preseason because of all the mixing and matching. You certainly don't want to run out your ace special teams people on a third-quarter preseason punt, and they are using plenty of guys that won't be here.

By all accounts, this should be the fastest of Lewis' teams, and once special teams coach Darrin Simmons gets his weekly 45-man roster set for the regular season, coverage shouldn't be a problem. Simmons has a track record, too, taking this unit from a No. 32 ranking in 2002 to No. 25 in 2003 to No. 7 in 2004. and last year the Bengals were ranked fifth in kickoff coverage, and 11th in punt coverage. **

REAL QUESTION:** What about the kickers? Record-breaking kicker Shayne Graham hasn't worked since the opener with a groin problem and punter Kyle Larson has got off too many short punts in the three games.

Groins have a tendency to linger, and there seems to be some concern that Graham doesn't have pain until his leg explodes into the ball. The Bengals wonder what will happen when he tries to kick long field goals, and does that mean they have to keep an extra kicker on the 53 at the final cutdown?

Doubtful. But, of course, it all hinges on how Graham responds, so Friday night's preseason finale is a big one for that. Simmons would also like to get more out of Larson and get him closer to last year's form, when he was Pro Football Weekly's all-rookie punter with the club's best gross and net averages since 1998 at 42.2 yards and 35.5, respectively.

HURRICANE HYSTERIA: The Bengals are so cheap, they won't let head coach Marvin Lewis play wide receiver Peter Warrick and then keep him on the roster because of his $2.2 million salary. **

REALITY CHECK:** Lewis pretty much blew a hole in all that in Friday night's postgame interview when he said he made the call on Warrick after the warmups in deciding not to play him after he didn't practice all week. That had all the earmarks of a pure coaching decision.

Plus, if you read between the lines, Warrick also looks to be getting support from other pockets of the organization. That was clear when the cheap tag got torn off in the decision a few weeks ago to activate him off PUP.

One of the knocks on the pre-Lewis Bengals is that the club was far too loyal to players who played at least a couple of years for them even if they hadn't performed the way they should have. Indeed, how many times have you heard Lewis say, "We're not going to pay guys just because they're good guys."

And Lewis has not always shown patience with guys that can't stay healthy. Ask Steve Foley.

So there is a sense everyone is waiting to see what Warrick can do, knowing how good of a player he is.

REAL QUESTION: Does Warrick only get one game to shine on Friday night against the Colts? What does he have to do to make the 53? If he catches only two balls for 15 yards, is he gone? If he grabs five for 67, is he here?

Not only Warrick, but what about rookie wide receiver Tab Perry, the sixth-round pick? If everyone agrees the top five look to be Chad Johnson, T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Chris Henry, Kevin Walter and Kelley Washington, what about Cliff Russell, too, because Lewis has said they'll probably keep six wides?

The sluggishness in the passing game shows why the Bengals covet a healthy Warrick. After Chad Johnson, they really don't have an eye-bulging wideout that makes defenses change. Don't get me wrong. They are very good and very talented and very reliable and are good enough to take this team to the playoffs. But a healthy Warrick gives them something unique and something to make defenses think about.

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