The 2012 NFL Draft got covered like a presidential election and if it had been the Bengals would have been one of the winners in a landslide with the orange and black states stretching from Dre Kirkpatrick's Alabama to Dan Herron's swing state of Ohio.
CBSSports.com and The Sporting News gave the Bengals an A-plus. NFL Network gave them an A. ESPN said they had as good a draft as anybody, Pro Football Weekly said two teams that stood out were the Bengals and Rams, and Sports Illustrated said the five potential starters in the first three rounds made it "elite."
Pete Prisco of CBS called it the NFL's best draft with Cincinnati's best pick first-round guard Kevin Zeitler and the hidden gem fifth-rounder Marvin Jones, the speedy Cal receiver. "What's not to like?" Prisco asked. "The list of 10 is impressive. They acted like they owned the draft. Heck, they did."
Put it on top of the last two drafts that have yielded an NFL-leading four Pro Bowlers and the perception that the Bengals can't draft is eroding. People are having a hard time trying to explain the difference in perception since Bengals president Mike Brown is still running it, the personnel department has been virtually unchanged since Marvin Lewis became head coach in 2003, and the coaches are still more involved in it than many teams.
But people are still prefacing their comments this year with "Give Mike Brown credit ... ."
And, as Lewis would say, that's a good thing. Because the pundits were also praising what the Steelers did.
"We feel like we know what works. Obviously we've all worked together ... for a while now," Lewis said in his Saturday wrapup. "This is the 10th draft for me. Bill Tobin joined us then. Then Duke (Tobin). Greg Seamon. Jim (Lippincott). Now, adding the two guys (scouts Robert Livingston and Steven Radicevic) this year. Pete Brown. Paul Brown, John Cooper (arrived before or with Lewis). All the people who go out and spend the time and have the input into the players. We've all been together. I think everybody's comfortable with each other, and it works."
Livingston and Radicevic arrived here late in this year's process, which turned out to be the last for retiring director of football operations Jim Lippincott. With Lippincott's departure, director of player personnel Duke Tobin is taking a bigger role, but he's been with the Bengals since 1998.
Maybe what has changed is, knock on wood, those at the top of the draft are staying healthy.
The '04 draft and '05 drafts crumbled with what amounted to career-ending injuries to Chris Perry and David Pollack. Second-round running back Kenny Irons's career ended with a bad knee when he tore his ACL in 2007 on the fourth carry of his career and 2008 first-rounder Keith Rivers missed nearly half his games before getting traded a few weeks ago.
Throw in the one draft in that stretch the top guys didn't get hurt, 2006, and it was Lewis's best draft until last year.
"When you get hurt at the top of the draft like that, it's a dagger and they took a couple of daggers," said long-time radio analyst Dave Lapham. "But in rounds four to seven in those years they were still putting the bat on the ball. But now that the top guys are staying healthy, that's why the perception in people's eyes changed. They're using the same formula, but now the top guys are staying healthy; hey (people are saying) these guys are drafting as well as anybody."
Lewis changed some things when he arrived that helped the draft process. He got a new body or two in personnel, but the big thing was he organized it so the coaches didn't travel as much, the areas were more defined, and there seemed to be more crosschecking.
"When Marvin got here, the draft meetings improved," Lippincott said. "Everything we do now, we did in a week's time. When we went in and did the draft readings in 1992 and the mock drafts and such, we did it all in one day. By the end of the day, everyone was so tired they couldn't think. When Marvin got here, we divided the day up so coaches could work on football as well and everyone had a fresher mind. We started earlier and the way we do it now is much better than the way we did it back then."
But Lewis says he hasn't changed much. The structure is pretty much the same with Brown seeking consensus from both personnel and coaches, relying a lot on the opinions of the three coordinators, Mike Zimmer on defense, Jay Gruden on offense and Darrin Simmons on special teams.
Lewis thinks the scouts have done a good job listening to the needs of the coaches. And the fact that Zimmer has been here since '08 has helped. But the Bengals offense helped itself immensely in 2010 with the drafting of tight end Jermaine Gresham and wide receiver Jordan Shipley (and maybe guard Otis Hudson) and kept it going despite changing coordinators in 2011.
"I didn't make changes. Mike (Brown) and I talk about what's the best way to do things," Lewis said. "I think the fact is that the way that we've done it provides input from everybody. I think that the area scouts have done a great job crosschecking, which to me is key. That's another set of eyes on a grouping of players. Just like the coordinators, just like the position coach — as well as Duke Tobin, who has been in charge of it.
"Now when you have another set of eyes that can give you a firm report, like 'This is how I compare them, boom, boom, boom.' To me, that makes a big difference. It enables Mike and the end of the day to make a good decision. We began early this year, and I think we took our time, and I think we had a lot of good discussions. I talk to you guys a lot in here about if these three or four players are left, we feel like this is the order for us and this is why. Then everybody has the opportunity to say their piece. There doesn't have to be lobbying or anything, but (guys say) 'This is why I feel why I do,' and then Mike will ask the position coach, and get input from Jay Gruden and Mike Zimmer, and go from there. Like Jim said, it's important that the player fits what we do. It really is important that they fit what we do, and I think our personnel guys have done a nice job of listening and understanding as the coaches are repeating what our guys should be able to do."
Whatever the Bengals are doing, people are noticing. Heck, they're even noticing. As they struggled with making the sixth-round pick Saturday, someone looked at the names to choose from and said, "This is what happens when you're a good team late in the draft. It's hard to find a spot that you need and where a guy can come in and make it because you've got good players."
And they stayed true to the board. The Bengals needed a linebacker, but went with the highest-graded player in Herron in the seventh round.
"We did in a couple of cases — we took the best player," Lewis said. "We would like to have added depth at a linebacker spot, but if we add a guy who's not quite as good as what we've got and we pass on a better player there, we're not going to be happy with that spot. Then we're not having an opportunity to upgrade another spot of the football team."
Brown had past boards in mind when discussing with Lewis a possible trade up into the third round using one of the club's three fifth-round picks, probably for a receiver or running back. But with running backs coach Jim Anderson pretty happy with what he's got and the recent track records and potential of fifth-round picks like Hudson, punter Kevin Huber and safety Robert Sands, the Bengals decided to stay pat.
"We talked quite a bit about it on Friday morning, and Mike decided not to make that move. We picked three guys on Friday that are really going to help us," Lewis said. "We talked about moving up in the third round a little bit, but we didn't consider it all that much before that. We just felt like where we were sitting, we would gain value. I think it was brought up the other day, the fifth-round guys add a lot of value to this football team. If we do as good this year as we have in the past, then those guys will be around here for a while."
And they were rewarded with an intriguing fifth-rounder in Jones, a 6-2, 199-pound guy with good hands that runs a 4.4 40 and is a solid character guy.
Lewis has already felt good about how the Bengals rank the players because most of them come off the board around where the Bengals have ranked them. And there are other signs. Moments after the Still pick, for instance, Lewis got a text from an AFC scout that said, "That was a good pick for the Bengals. He can play."
"You have interesting conversations throughout the day of the draft," Lewis said. "I leave here and get a phone call from a personnel director at another club, and he says, 'Hey, I really liked that guy,' or, 'Why do you think this guy stayed there too long — longer than we expected? What did you guys have on him?' So you're able to share. People are sharing the same views that you are."