Posted: 9 p.m.
This Sunday before Christmas is a weird one for the Bengals.
It's almost like Scrooge on steroids with the Cleveland ghosts of What Happened, What Could Have Been and Who Knows What Will Happen scraping their first-down chains inside the bowels of Paul Brown Stadium.
It all started Friday with the rock of the franchise, Willie Anderson, declaring Sunday as "Senior Day," and preparing like it will be his last home game as a Bengal in anticipation of his release because of health issues.
Then head coach Marvin Lewis added to the speculation roasting on an open fire when he responded with, "This could be all of our last home games."
Lewis, who offered earlier in the week that the Bengals alumni list could grow in the offseason, said of Anderson, "I'm not going to worry about that. None of us are promised tomorrow."
Lewis has three years left on his contract and figures to be back for tomorrow, next week, and his 50th birthday in September. But first he and Bengals president Mike Brown have to sit down after the Dec. 30 finale in Miami and grapple with a maze of issues before he addresses them publicly.
Yet many of his defensive regulars don't have a contract, such as ends Justin Smith and Bryan Robinson, linebackers Landon Johnson and Dhani Jones, and free safety Madieu Williams. And there are players that have contracts that always seem to be subject of speculation, such as cornerback Deltha O'Neal and tackle John Thornton.
"Any time we play like the way we did and finish the way we did and miss the playoffs ... this is a Super Bowl-caliber team with the talent we have, there are going to be some changes," Williams said. "You know for sure there are going to be some changes on defense. What those changes are, I don't know. All you can do is control what you can control and on Sunday at 1 p.m., that's play my butt off."
If the Bengals have no idea what will happen there, they do know two games with the Browns the past two years have harmed them severely.
In their 34-17 win in the last Browns game at PBS on Sept. 17, 2006, the Bengals lost three key players virtually forever. Center Rich Braham, the glue of the line, broke his knee and retired. Linebacker David Pollack, the team's '05 first-round pick, has never played since breaking his neck and his career is feared over. Wide receiver Tab Perry, a player that special teams coach Darrin Simmons saw as a potential Pro Bowler, hurt his hip on a meaningless kickoff and has played two games since. He's back running and hopeful for next year.
"And he got hurt against Cleveland again in the second game of this season, too," Simmons said of Perry's hamstring and hip problems. "He's the kind of guy that you could see like a guy we had in Carolina, Michael Bates. He could run a kick back for a touchdown and then turn around and make the tackle on the kickoff."
SimmonsSimmons had that wistful look in his eye because the Bengals see a guy like that in Cleveland's Josh Cribbs, the NFL kick return leader who Simmons also calls "the best flier in the league." Would the Bengals be near last in sacks with Pollack?
It was Cribbs who had a hand in this past season's unspeakable 51-45 loss in Cleveland Sept. 16 to a Browns team that was five days removed from trading its quarterback and had won one division game in the previous two seasons. Linebacker Caleb Miller had the Brady Quinn era in his hands when he dropped a Derek Anderson pass at about the Bengals 10.
"I thought he was going to try and drop it over my head and I jumped early," Miller said. "But it came right at me."
Miller had a lot of green in front of him, but instead of a turnover and Quinn coming off the bench to a 3-13 season, the Browns kicked a field goal to cut the lead to 7-6, and Anderson stayed in to gun five touchdown passes to send the Bengals to Seattle 1-1 instead of 2-0.
"Yeah, it could have happened that way," Robinson said. "But you can't think about that. Now they're up on us.
"I remember that game and saying (Anderson) is coming out of nowhere to run the offense like Joe Montana. This time Derek Anderson won't sneak up on us this week. We kind of fell into the trap. We saw how they played against Pittsburgh the week before (34-7 loss) and got excited and figured Cleveland was backed into a corner and the only thing they could do was come out fighting and they did. And now they have to beat us to get into the playoffs."
Quarterback Carson Palmer talked earlier in the week how the Bengals were unable to prevent the loss from setting the tone for the season.
Thornton "One game shouldn't define a season," Thornton said. "Even if we played like crap we should have been able to bounce back, but we didn't. There's no way you can change history."
But there is no doubt the locker room senses some kind of change. That happens when your full given media name is now "The Underachieving Cincinnati Bengals."
"You get that sense," said Robinson when asked if he can feel an overhaul in the wind. "You always hear things about moving to a 3-4. So any time you're as bad as our statistics, there's got to be some kind of change and change can be good."
But Robinson, 33, says he doesn't think about the last games because "I know I'm going to end up somewhere playing. I'm financially set, my family is happy and healthy, I can't worry about that."
Thornton figures there are plenty of guys looking to get out (not him) simply because of the immediate frustration of the season.
"But you can't be worrying about who's going to be here and who's not going to be here or it will kill you the rest of the way," Thornton said. "I think they should bring everybody back. Give everybody extensions. That would make the fan base happy."
Tongue firmly in cheek, of course, but there are some serious questions hovering. O'Neal has already said he figures he's gone because he's not starting and who is going to pay the third corner $2.5 million next year? But he's played well and the Bengals don't have another one.
Williams was supposed to be the safety for the next decade, but go back to Darryl Williams and the club doesn't historically re-sign guys at that position at a big number, and throw in the intriguing play of rookies Marvin White and Chinedum Ndukwe and who knows?
Williams "All I know is it's not in my control," Williams said. "I'd love to come back. There's a good foundation, but I'm not going to approach it like it's my last game here or anything like that."
Also unsigned is right tackle Stacy Andrews, the guy who has gone from project to getting a seasoning of eight straight starts in place of the injured Anderson. Before the 2006 season, the Bengals wrapped up both Anderson and left tackle Levi Jones with long-term deals totaling about a combined $70 million.
How difficult it would be to re-sign Andrews and then keep both Anderson and Jones has Anderson speculating he's gone. The only known in the equation is that Andrews is the only healthy one of the three.
Which gets it back to Anderson and Senior Day. He's not only trying to show the Bengals he's healthy, but he has implied he wants to show other teams as well.
"I definitely want to finish with two wins," Anderson said Thursday. "And at the same time I want to show them, or whoever wants to know that I can play football. I don't want that rumor put on me by whomever to whomever that I couldn't finish out the season. It's not an age thing. It was a contact injury."
Anderson, who bruised a bone in his knee and sprained the medial collateral ligament Sept. 23, said he could have played Dec. 2 against the Steelers. He said he can play Sunday but Lewis listed him only as questionable.
"I look at it as a business," said Anderson before Friday's practice. "I tell my family, 'Don't look over and say that will never happen.' It happens."
It's believed that Anderson has already received half of his estimated $32 million deal this year and last year. Since the Bengals divided up the money between roster bonus and signing bonus, they aren't looking at taking a hellacious hit on the '08 salary cap if they release him. Figure it would be about what he is scheduled to make in salary next year: $3.1 million.
But with Andrews unsigned and Levi Jones also limping with a knee problem, Anderson isn't going anywhere soon.
"Look at me, I'm ready," said Anderson running vigorously in place for Senior Day.