Posted: 6:55 a.m.
It's a black-and-orange tie affair as we walk down the striped carpet to the Marvins, the Bengals.com Midseason Awards Ceremony. At 6-2 heading into the second half of the season and in first place in the AFC North, the cameras are flashing like Andre Caldwell in the red zone and popping like Rey Maualuga at scrimmage.
We see that Bengals wide receiver Chad Ochocinco has tipped the valet a dollar, but has been slapped on the wrist by his date, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. Cedric Benson has the fashion critics agog in his suit of armor. Carson Palmer, fresh off losing a game of toss to his brother Jordan, shows up dressed like Nancy Pelosi. The offensive line gets off a Centro bus straight from work. The defense has arrived.
So here is your MC, the next former Bengal headed to stardom behind the mike, Artrell Hawkins.
MOST VALUABLE PLAYER: Running back Cedric Benson
There are a lot of reasons why the Bengals have been able to revive the running game, but you have to have the horse and Benson has been all of that.
With 198 carries this season, he already has three more carries than James Brooks when he led the 1990 AFC Central champs in rushing and 21 more carries than Chris Perry had in his career. As the second-leading rusher in the NFL with 837 yards, Benson already has more than the club's 2007 leading rusher, Kenny Watson. Head coach Marvin Lewis's task in the second half of the season is to keep running and winning without beating up Benson too badly.
OFFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Quarterback Carson Palmer
His numbers now compared to his '05 midseason stats reflect how much this offense has converted to a quicker, more ball-control passing game. It also shows that he needed to time to work out the rust from last season's 12-game layoff and get acclimated with his new receivers and new offensive line. All those things had been in place in 2004 and none of it was there in '08. By this time in '05, Palmer had completed 69.7 percent of his 267 passes for 2,037 yards for 7.6 yards per throw. He has now completed 61.5 percent of his 260 passes for 1,832 yards at seven yards per pass.
But is it all that different? In '05 he had 16 TDs and five interceptions and now he has 14 and seven, respectively. Ho hum, 28 TDs would be the third most in team history. Certainly his deadly accuracy has returned in the last two games, but the biggest reason the Bengals are in first place is because of Palmer's cool down the stretch against Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Baltimore.
We all know quarterbacks are judged on one stat and one stat alone: Wins. You won't find three better fourth-quarter rallies than those and the fact they came in consecutive weeks in the division magnifies it.
CO-DEFENSIVE PLAYERS OF THE YEAR: Defensive Antwan Odom and safety Chris Crocker
Odom was headed to the Pro Bowl and who knows where else when he racked up eight sacks in the first five games before rupturing his Achilles tendon in the sixth game of the season against Houston. Crocker is everywhere on Sundays, where he is tied for fifth in tackles, has two interceptions and seven passes defensed while directing traffic. Until Roy Williams' injury and rookie Morgan Trent got his feet wet, Crocker was also playing nickel back.
But he may be most important during the rest of the week as a secondary leader and veteran resource for guys like Leon Hall, Johnathan Joseph and Chinedum Ndukwe. The guy is rock solid on the field and in the locker room.
BEST PLAYER IN A SUPPORTING ROLE: Left tackle Andrew Whitworth
You could put the entire offensive line here, but Whitworth has been out there pretty much on an island and you don't see Palmer getting drilled from the back side, do you? He's been sacked just 12 times, which, by the way, is the same amount he had been sacked at this point in '05 when he had a Pro Bowl right tackle in Willie Anderson and a Pro Bowl alternate in left tackle Levi Jones.
And, like Crocker, Whitworth is so valuable in the room. He and right guard Bobbie Williams have taken the line under their huge wings in self-imposed meetings and just flat out team building.
Why is this team different? It is guys like Whitworth, Williams, Crocker, Palmer, Dhani Jones and a host of others taking a bigger voice. As offensive captains, Palmer and Whitworth are key guys because of the Thursday captains meetings with head coach Marvin Lewis that puts day-to-day living issues out on the table.
SPECIAL TEAMS PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Linebacker Brandon Johnson
Here's another spot where there could have been about five guys. Special teams captain Kyries Hebert is huge, rookie punter Kevin Huber has been solid, and kicker Shayne Graham fought through the long-snapping problems of early in the season, didn't screw up his mechanics, and looks to be back on track.
Johnson gets the nod with a special teams-leading eight tackles to go along with some pretty solid play on third down and is a symbol of the anonymous work done well. He had two tackles on kickoffs the day the Bengals held down the NFL's leading returner, Chicago's Johnny Knox.
We'll see just how important he is because with WILL linebacker Keith Rivers expected to be out a week or so, he probably won't be on as many special teams since he'll be in a starting role.
BEST DIRECTOR: Offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski
Bratkowski and his staff have been terrific in ripping up a running game to fit a new running back and new offensive line. And the play-calling has been solid, too, because Bratkowski has clearly adjusted to what head coach Marvin Lewis wanted and how the games have unfolded with a good defense that doesn't give up a lot of points. The best plays in pro football? Three runs when you have the lead.
Go back to the midpoint of '05 and the numbers aren't drastically different. Back then, the Bengals threw 267 passes. Now they've thrown 260. Back then, they ran it 230 times. Now they've run it 245. But it's the way they're running and when they're running. They pound the defense physically and they don't stop if there's not success early.
And Bratkowski has made great use of the play-action pass, as well as taking advantage of Palmer's newfound confidence out of the pocket.
OFFENSIVE COMEBACK PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Wide receiver Chad Ochocinco
He's not moping. He's not hurt. He's on Twitter and on pace for 10 touchdowns and nearly 90 catches.
DEFENSIVE COMEBACK PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Cornerback Johnathan Joseph
For the previous two years he'd been hobbled by a broken foot, but he's healthy now with that same closing speed he showed as a rookie in '06. He's coming off a mega game against the Ravens with an interception and five passes defensed in a joint effort with Hall that has put them in the spotlight as an emerging Pro Bowl tandem at corner.
And Joseph, goaded to be more physical by defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, leads the secondary with 41 tackles.
ROOKIE OF THE YEAR: SAM linebacker Rey Maualuga
Another close second for Huber. A shout out to nickel back Morgan Trent. But in a season where the Bengals are ranked second against the run, it has to be Maualuga, the second-round pick from USC. He's got 40 tackles, a sack and two forced fumbles and is a big reason the Bengals are now being talked about as a physical team.
SCREENPLAY OF THE YEAR
The Bengals had never beaten the Steelers at Paul Brown Stadium under Marvin Lewis. Until running back Brian Leonard, picked up in an obscure May trade, jumped for the final two yards on a fourth-and-10 catch that set up Palmer's winning TD pass to Andre Caldwell with 14 seconds left.
After Leonard caught the two-point conversion, he ran through the hugs and handshakes of his teammates to cover the kickoff as delirious fans streamed into the streets bellowing "Who Dey" to anyone in black and gold.