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Offseason of an off season

Posted: 2:45 a.m.



MIAMI - A couple of days after Marvin Lewis burned a football to smoke out the demons of a 7-9 season, the Bengals head coach Sunday made the upcoming offseason sound like a garage sale with 80 games and five regular seasons sitting on the Paul Brown Stadium curb.

Willie Anderson spoke of retrieving the shovel that came to symbolize the Bengals' commitment to the running game and overall physicality.

Carson Palmer talked about finding more guys who love football and take it personally.

No one was talking much about the game just played Sunday, a 38-25 contribution to the Dolphins' 1-15 No. 1 draft pick season. Instead, all eyes are on how Lewis and Bengals president Mike Brown are going to fix a team that has not made the playoffs in the two seasons since winning the AFC North.

"It sounds like he's going to put a stick of dynamite in the locker room and whoever is left standing stays," said defensive tackle John Thornton. "Seriously. This is his watch. He has the right to get players in here he wants and get out of here the ones he wants out."

Before that, Lewis has to decide which coaches are coming back. He said Sunday he wasn't ready to answer when asked if all were coming back.

"I can't tell you that right now," he said.

Then he has to delve into deciding which free agents he wants back and even dealing with players that already have contracts.

After Sunday's 131-yard welcome home party, wide receiver Chad Johnson briskly left the locker room, keeping his late October vow of not talking to the local media for the rest of the season. But it came two days after he suggested to Sirius Radio that he'd be open to a fresh start elsewhere. Even though the Bengals have an option year in 2011.

Lewis talked about freshening up a program that is 15-20 since it clinched the AFC North on Dec. 18, 2005 in Detroit.

"It's been five years. There are things around here that are a little stale," Lewis said of his tenure that began Jan. 14, 2003 at the Senior Bowl. "We've got to take all those doggone binders from the last five years of games, and get rid of them. Get the offices clean, the boards cleaned up, as though we are new people coming in. Whoever's there, we're new people coming in.

"It's got nothing to do with the playbook. Just in general. You know you go to your garage, and look at your garage, and say 'I've got to get rid of this junk.' That's what I'm saying. We just need to freshen up a bit. When our players come back, there will be a fresh outlook, and not that cloud that we've left to hang over our heads."

In the past few weeks there has been as much concern about the offense as there is the defense, a unit that hasn't finished above No. 27 the last three seasons.

On Sunday the Bengals scored more than 27 points for just the fourth time this season and it was the first time they hit 20 since Nov. 25. Lewis, Anderson and Palmer have all talked about recommitting to a running game that netted just 3.7 yards per carry for the second straight season. It's the first time since the back-to-back 3-13 seasons of 1993 and 1994 that the Bengals have averaged less than four yards per carry in two consecutive seasons.



"Other than the Patriots you can't name too many teams that don't run the ball very well and are successful," Palmer said. "That's something we need to work extremely hard on in this offseason and make commitments to do it. If you can run the ball effectively in this league it only opens up the passing game and helps your play-action. It gives you a better chance to win games, because of your time of possession. It helps you tremendously."

Anderson, the four-time Pro Bowl right tackle, has spent most of the season on the sidelines with an injured knee. But he has played in a rotation with starter Stacy Andrews the past two weeks and along with his return he has been talking about going back to the hardscrabble running mentality of Lewis' first seasons.

But the mindset goes beyond the running game, Anderson says, and for the second time in a month he conjured up the image of the Paul Brown Stadium maintenance shovel that became the symbol of the team's resurgence in 2003.

"The whole silly idea of bringing that shovel out. People on the outside say, 'What the hell is that?' " he said. "But that was our identity. (Head coach) Jack Del Rio brought the ax out in Jacksonville. That shovel indentified who we are. That mentality the last several weeks, even in the losses, that mentality has been back."

Lewis didn't pull out the shovel after practice Friday, but some players said he burned a ball on the field.

"Just to put the past in the past; to forget it and move on," said running back Kenny Watson.

Palmer, the once and future Pro Bowl quarterback who ended the season with his best passer rating of the season at 121.4, looked concerned about the long road ahead.

"A lot of things need to change. It's just not bringing the shovel back," Palmer said. "We've been a very, very average football team at best.

"If you don't have execution you get beat. If you don't execute on third down, or in the red zone, when you are running the ball, in pass protection, or throwing the ball you don't give yourself a chance to win. One of the biggest keys to this year was that we got out-executed. We didn't do our jobs correctly enough to give us a chance to win games."

If there is going to be a change in mentality on offense, it looks like there is going to be a massive change of personnel on defense.

Defensive ends Justin Smith and Bryan Robinson and middle linebacker Landon Johnson are free agents that might not be pursued because of other options at their positions.

Same with free safety Madieu Williams, on injured reserve with a quad injury. And the late-season emergence of rookie strong safety Chinedum Ndukwe could very well give the Bengals two new starting safeties next season.

Smith ended his seventh season with a career-low two sacks and when he played in his 111th straight game Sunday it very well could have been his last for a team where he is still the fourth-most prolific sacker of all time.

Smith checked in with another solid year against the run but his struggles on the pass rush were emblematic of a defense that had to adjust to losing six linebackers to season-ending injuries or suspensions.

In an effort to stop the run, some compromises had to be made in rushing the passer up front.

"It is what it is. It helped in the back end," Smith said. "If it was my last game, it's been fun."

The Bengals may take a look at how the defense got better over the second half of the season. When they allowed the Dolphins 86 yards on 3.4 yards per carry it marked the fifth time in eight games Cincinnati held a club to less than 100 yards rushing.

"Guys got healthy and we kept it pretty simple," Smith said.

Robinson, one of the team's solid professionals, would like to be back. But at 33 he knows that may not happen. So he's going back to Chicago with his wife and his offseason job of running their small business.

"I'm leaving one job to go to another," Robinson said. "If I play again, fine. If I don't, that's fine, too."

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