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Oh for '07

Posted: 5:20 p.m.

From the day they showed up at training camp and found out Odell Thurman wasn't reinstated to that final play on Sunday when their best hands guy and MVP dropped the ball that would have given him the NFL receiving title outright, 2007 just wasn't the Bengals' year.

A quick look back and a look ahead:



MVP: Wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh: Forget the team-record 112 catches. Try the 32 third-down catches on a team that converted 96 third downs. That's 33 percent, kids. Or the 12 touchdowns on a team that scored 41. Or the nine red-zone touchdowns on a team that scored 27.

The guy just oozed big plays. He's the most reliable thing on the field next to the down marker. If he only could have caught that last one for the title he ended up sharing with New England's Wes Welker ...

But his first three catches of next season are going to be historic with the Bengals' top five all-time list now looking like Chad Johnson at 559, Carl Pickens 530, Cris Collinsworth 417, Isaac Curtis 416, and Houshmandzadeh at 415.

The interesting thing will be if he makes those catches with a new contract. He's clearly outplayed the current one (four years at a little less than $12 million), which is up after '08, while keeping in mind the Bengals are also dealing with Chad Johnson.

Johnson isn't happy, still in a funk for getting ripped for all the Bengals' problems earlier in the year. When Johnson walked out of the locker room Monday on his way home, he politely declined comment about a Sirius Radio interview in which he indicated he wouldn't be adverse to a change of scenery. "I don't remember it," Johnson said.



DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR, CB Leon Hall: The first-round pick struggled early. In fact, he was awful. Everyone looked like Dwayne Jarrett and Teddy Ginn on the deep balls. But he settled down, didn't get burned deep during the last half of the season, and ended up leading the team with five interceptions.

But what made him so important were his tackling and physical play. They came as advertised. In what had been previously an Ole' secondary, Hall changed that attitude quickly with 85 tackles to go along with 11 passes defensed and a forced fumble. In a secondary once known for passing up as many hits as taking them, it was an important performance from a young player.

FYI: When six linebackers end up on season-ending lists and the leading pass rushers combine for 5.5 sacks, your player of the year is going to be a rookie corner.



ROOKIE OF THE YEAR, SS Chinedum Ndukwe: In his first two NFL starts in the last two games, he responded with two interceptions and a 54-yard fumble return for a touchdown.

But the former Notre Dame linebacker made contributions long before that. His versatility was gold when the Bengals lost all those linebackers early while piling up nine special-teams tackles to go along with his 35 tackles from scrimmage.

He also proved to be an able blitzer on passing downs and came up with two sacks early on. He goes 220 pounds, he hits, he's smart, he's virtually a local kid from Dublin, Ohio, and he's a fan favorite on sports talk. As a seventh-round pick, that makes him the defensive equivalent of Houshmandzadeh.

Ndukwe is going to be around here a long time. It makes you wonder if the Bengals think his play down the stretch has made Dexter Jackson's $1.3 million salary next year expendable. Given fellow rookie safety Marvin White's emerging play and how much Madieu Williams is going to be worth on the free-agent market, is it all that nuts to think Ndukwe and White are going to be the Opening Day safeties?



COMEBACK PLAYER OF THE YEAR, LT Levi Jones: You have to admire this guy's grit and determination coming off two knee procedures. Maybe not his political skills, but the man says what he believes.

He got on the wrong side of the club when he arrived for training camp and said the team's rehab program had held him back. Then he got into it with head coach Marvin Lewis when Lewis wouldn't start him in the opener. Then he got benched in Kansas City after a dreadful 17 and a half minutes in which he allowed 2.5 sacks and a fumble to Jared Allen.

But Jones didn't duck from the questions and called himself out. He started the last 13 games as the Bengals allowed the fewest sacks in their history with 17. The fact that he played well enough on what everyone saw was one leg and was named a third Pro Bowl alternate says something. It says if he gets back to where he was physically, fans are going to stop griping about the $40 million extension the Bengals gave him last year.

That deal is going to make the offseason quite interesting. With concern about right tackle Willie Anderson's health after he missed nine games with a knee injury coinciding with backup right tackle Stacy Andrews' free agency, the Bengals are in a tough spot.

Anderson played the last two games to show that he still can. But he also turns 33 in July. Andrews is going to be looking for big money. Can you keep three tackles with big deals when you need immediate help elsewhere?

Do you let the rare 26-year-old athleticism of Andrews go and keep the tandem of Anderson and Scott Kooistra? Do you sign Andrews and cut Anderson? Do you keep all three? After watching how well he played against Cleveland and the inspiration he brings, it's hard to see the Bengals cutting Anderson, on the verge of becoming the eighth man to play 13 seasons with the club.



ASSISTANT COACH OF THE YEAR: Darrin Simmons, special teams: He won't like it. He'll refuse to accept it in a 7-9 season. But after a horrendous start (in the first three games they gave up a 63-yard punt return, kick returns of 85 and 72 and fumbled a kickoff), the special teams held it together even though seven core special-teamers went on injured reserve at some point.

That included three of their top players, Tab Perry, Ethan Kilmer and Herana Daze-Jones. Three of the top 10 tacklers, Corey Mays (Oct. 2), Roy Manning (Nov. 13), and Dhani Jones (Sept. 19) were a little late for training camp.

But they managed to produce the Bengals' first blocked punt for a touchdown in 18 years and the first kick return for a touchdown in five years. Plus, Shayne Graham hit a Bengals-record 31 field goals in the most accurate season in club history at 91.1 percent.

BIGGEST STAT: It has to be that 3.7 yards per carry in the running game. The offense put up better numbers in '07 in virtually every other category in that playoff year of '05. Quarterback Carson Palmer had an 86.7 passer rating compared to 101.1 in '05 but those declining numbers can be directly tied to the lack of the run.

The Bengals passed for more yards, gave up their fewest sacks, and had a better third-down percentage than '05 with 46.2, but they couldn't win because they got only 3.7 yards per carry. (It was 4.2 in '05).



BIGGEST OFFSEASON QUESTION, Offense: How patient are the Bengals with running back Rudi Johnson and do they get another bell cow?

Since 2006 he's averaged 3.5 yards per carry, and he's scheduled to make $3.2 million in '08. That's a lot of beans for a short-yardage, goal-line back if that's all they think he can do.

Kenny Watson is a nice back, but for 340 carries a year? They don't think so. Clearly DeDe Dorsey (8.7 yards per 21 carries) is going to be a factor, but does his high ankle sprain show it's going to be hard to give him a bunch of touches? And you just don't know about Kenny Irons and Chris Perry.

BIGGEST OFFSEASON QUESTION, Defense: Is it time to go to a 3-4? The Bengals have guys like Robert Geathers, Eric Henderson and Rashad Jeanty that can play outside and wouldn't Thurman and Ahmad Brooks be interesting inside?

Now might be a good time to rip it up. Defensive end Justin Smith, middle linebacker Landon Johnson, weakside linebacker Dhani Jones, and free safety Madieu Williams are free agents that started Sunday's finale. So is defensive lineman Bryan Robinson, a guy who saw snaps inside on passing downs. Plus, veterans like tackle John Thornton, safety Dexter Jackson and cornerback Deltha O'Neal, all late in their deals, may be scrutinized.

You may not be able to tell the players without a scorecard, but also a salary cap count.

Unrestricted free agents: RT Stacy Andrews, DE Justin Smith, P, Kyle Larson; DL Bryan Robinson, MLB Landon Johnson, WLB Dhani Jones, FS Madieu Williams, WR Antonio Chatman, SLB Lemar Marshall, LB Caleb Miller, C Alex Stepanovich, K Aaron Elling. **

Restricted free agents:** DL Jonathan Fanene, QB Ryan Fitzpatrick, WR Tab Perry, T Adam Kieft, LB Roy Manning, TE Nate Lawrie

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