In the wake of Cincinnati's loss to the Lions on Friday night in the preseason opener, we turned to two former long-time Bengals and veterans of the trenches to gauge just exactly what it means.
Armageddon? 0-16? A blip? A blot?
How should we judge it? There has never been a training camp like this one, where the roster was put together and trained in the two weeks prior to that first game. Six teams including the Bengals scored single digits. The Chiefs got blanked. The Pats scored 47 points without Tom Brady. Colt McCoy outdueled the Super Bowl MVP. The Dream Team scored 13 points.
What it's all mean?
For Dave Lapham and John Thornton, it doesn't mean 0-16 or the end of civilization as we know it. But it is, as they say in NFL circles, what it is. A promising quarterback that needs protection, a blue-collar defense that has a thin margin of error, and proven and promising special-teamers that have to keep the game close. All three blew up too quickly and easily Friday night.
"They ran the ball with Cedric (Benson) and they stopped the run, which is what they have to do in the AFC North," Lapham said. "But they need to clean up their pass protection and rush the passer. A lot of work to be done."
"You never want to look like that, but it's early," Thornton said. "A lot of teams are doing this their own way and you have to figure out what you need to do. I would say if they improve next week against the Jets, that's the goal. But if you have another 34-3, now you've got big problems."
As Lapham said, "What could go wrong, did go wrong." Injuries to veteran running backs Bernard Scott and Cedric Peerman put a rookie on the first kick return and John Griffin fumbled. With six receivers shelved, the Bengals had to play a guy that never practiced. A field goal got taken off the board because they didn't get the snap off in time.
Both thought rookie quarterback Andy Dalton held up OK "given the conditions," code words for all hell breaking loose around him. Down 14-0 before he got the ball and getting leveled on his first snap, Dalton went on to hit 11 of his next 14 passes and Lapham knows why it was for only 69 yards.
"They were dropping seven into coverage because they were able to rush him with four. He couldn't hold on to it. He had to get rid of it and there was nowhere to go," Lapham said. "I think the high percentage is encouraging, but there is work to be done."
While Lapham is looking for better pad level and execution by the offensive line, Thornton is simply looking for points.
"They're going to have to score," Thornton said. "It's unfair to say you have to look to this defense to compensate for a rookie quarterback like (Ben) Roethlisberger and (Joe) Flacco. Pittsburgh and Baltimore had elite players on those defenses. The Bengals have good players, but they don't have those one or two elite guys that can make a dominating defense."
Thornton suggests the elite guy is defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer and that he'll generate big plays with his scheme and matchups. But since the defense was so vanilla Friday night, the Lions got the ball out quickly and it was the first time out of the gate, it didn't look good. But Thornton doesn't expect that to happen like that once the scheming starts.
Actually, the defense did what Zimmer wanted, except for the soft coverage in the back seven. They were disciplined for the most part, played the right run fits, and new middle linebacker Rey Maualuga got them lined up.
"I don't think they're the worst team in the league. The question is, though, how high is their ceiling," Thornton said.
While people are screaming for more players to be added right now, Thornton says that probably won't happen until the week before Cutdown Day. But he sees more players being brought in.
Lapham has been through some bad games like that and he says the questions are going to start to be answered at Monday morning's 9 a.m. practice.
"Being so early, I don't think one game can dictate how a season is going to go," Lapham said. "I do think it's a bucket of cold water in the face. It's a reality check and I think it surprised some guys. The young guys have to be told that it's not good enough. You know the old saying: When you get your butt knocked down, how do you react?"
A glance at the roster heading into the third week of practice with the number of players traditionally kept at each position under Lewis, along with each player's years of experience:
QUARTERBACKS (3): Andy Dalton (R), Bruce Gradkowski (6), Dan LeFevour (2), Jordan Palmer (4).
Dalton didn't get a lot of help from the line in the opener and showed he has the ability to be resilient, not to mention accurate. But how can the other three be judged when during the second half they were basically throwing to a college free agent (Bart Johnson) and guy that has yet to practice with them (John Standeford)? The Palmer-LeFevour derby is going to come down to the end.
WRs (6): Andre Caldwell (4), Quan Cosby (3), Landon Cox (R), A.J. Green (R), Andrew Hawkins (R), Jamere Holland (R), Bart Johnson (R) Jerome Simpson (4), Jordan Shipley (2), John Standeford (2), Ryan Whalen (R).
It's hard to see it being anything but Green, Simpson, Shipley, Caldwell, Cosby, with Whalen inactive on Sundays. The Bengals would like to see if Holland or Hawkins can play fast enough to make the practice squad, but they were both out Friday. It sounds like Caldwell could be back at practice Monday.
RBs (3): Cedric Benson (7), Jay Finley (R), John Griffin (R), Brian Leonard (5), Cedric Peerman (2), Bernard Scott (3), Jonathan Williams (R).
Benson was the Offensive Player of the Game and looks to be in midseason chippiness. But the discipline issue still hangs over the club's head. That probably is going to dictate if it has to keep four backs instead of three (and maybe go just nine DBs?), or if the Bengals go after a veteran that gets whacked near the opener. Scott (hamstring) hasn't worked since the first practice, but he could be back on the field for individuals Monday. Leonard and Scott look to be Benson's backups. Seventh-rounder Jay Finley looks to be leading the practice squad derby ahead of Griffin and Williams. He got the most carries Friday and showed more burst while Griffin and Williams got only two carries each.
FB (1): James Develin (1), Chris Pressley (3), Fui Vakapuna (3).
Vakapuna (hamstring) gamely went out there Friday night after barely practicing, but Pressley and Develin seem to have the lead on him with Pressley the leader in the clubhouse with his blocking. Develin has also impressed with his blocking and knowledge of the system from his days with offensive coordinator Jay Gruden in the UFL.
TE (3): Colin Cochart (R), Chase Coffman (3), Jermaine Gresham (2), Garrett Mills (6), John Nalbone (2), Bo Scaife (7).
Cochart, the free agent from South Dakota State, continued to show up as a blocker during the game while Coffman continues to catch. What do the Bengals want behind Gresham and Scaife?
OL (9): G Clint Boling (R), T Anthony Collins (4), C Kyle Cook (4), T Andrew Gardner (R), G Otis Hudson (1), G Max Jean-Gilles (6), G Nate Livings (4), T Mathew O'Donnell, G Chris Riley (R), T Dennis Roland (4), T Andre Smith (3), C Reggie Stephens (2), T Andrew Whitworth (6), G Bobbie Williams (12).
Whitworth handled the elite in Kyle Vanden Bosch's limited snaps Friday, and Smith seems to be drawing solid reviews, particularly in the running game. The starting guards struggled and the Bengals have to hope that is just a first-game blip. Rookie backup left guard Clint Boling looked good in his debut. Another potential starting guard down the road who is already on the roster could be Hudson, the team's most improved lineman. But he may not be available until after the Oct. 23 bye because of an injury, so the Bengals may have to keep 10.
DL (8): E Victor Adeyanju (6), T Geno Atkins (2), E Carlos Dunlap (2), E/T Jon Fanene (7), Robert Geathers (8), E Michael Johnson (3), T Tank Johnson (8), T Clinton McDonald (2), T Lolomana Mikaele (R), T Domata Peko (6), E James Ruffin (1), E/T Frostee Rucker (6), T Jason Shirley (2), T Pat Sims (4).
Fanene is expected to return to practice Monday morning and adds his athletic versatility. It's going to be hard to keep McDonald off this team as a backup. He was by far the defense's best player Friday with eight tackles and a forced fumble. Rucker also played well, particularly against the run and Adeyanju provided some quicks on the edge before he walked off with an ankle injury. A real logjam. Sims (knee) is expected to make it, but it's not known when he'll return to practice.
LBs (7): OLB DeQuin Evans (R), Stephen Franklin (R), OLB Thomas Howard (6), OLB Brandon Johnson (6), OLB Manny Lawson (6), OLB Dontay Moch (3), LB Rey Maualuga (3), LB Roddrick Muckelroy (2), LB Vincent Rey (2), OLB Keith Rivers (4), OLB Dan Skuta (3).
It's believed that Moch's broken foot won't send him to IR and that he'll be available early in the season, perhaps spending the first couple of games on the inactive list. The question on Rivers (wrist) seems to be if he's in that same boat, or if he starts the season on the PUP list for the first six games. The guy to watch here is Rey to see if he can latch on to the seventh and last spot. Evans continues to look terrific and opened up a lot of eyes with the way he came off the edge Friday with his hand on the ground. He still seems to be playing for a practice squad spot. Skuta, the backup MLB, showed up against the run but not the pass, yet that's his M.O. and the Bengals still like his toughness and versatility. Muckelroy (Achilles) headed to IR.
DBs (10, five CBs, five S): CB Fred Bennett (5), CB Brandon Ghee (2), CB Nate Clements (11), S Chris Crocker (9), CB Leon Hall (5), CB Adam Jones (5), Korey Lindsey (R), S Jeromy Miles (1), S/C Rico Murray (2), S Reggie Nelson (5), S/C Tom Nelson (3), CB David Pender (1), S Robert Sands (R), CB Morgan Trent (3), CB Jonathan Wade (5), S Gibril Wilson (8).
Hall, the team's best defensive player, had a tough night on the left corner, but that won't happen a lot. As opposed to the last several years with Hall and Johnathan Joseph, it looks like the Bengals are experimenting moving Hall and Nate Clements around because they switched after the first two series Friday. Nobody emerged Friday after Hall, Clements and Morgan Trent on the corner and that has to worry them. The Bengals are hoping Wade (shoulder) can get back quickly enough so they can see if he gives them what he did last year, which would be pretty good for a No. 4 corner. Big wild card remains Jones (neck).
Crocker and Nelson looked OK at starting safeties and while Sands and Miles showed their youth backing them up, they also showed their athleticism. It probably comes down to the speed of Miles and Sands against the intangibles of Tom Nelson, the experience of Wilson, and the corner-safety versatility of Murray. Wilson (knee) didn't play Friday, so the Bengals really don't know where he stands.
SPECIALISTS: LS Clark Harris (3), P Kevin Huber (3), K Mike Nugent (7), K Thomas Weber (R).
Nugent could only kick it to the 2 from the 35 after Lewis deferred Friday's opening kickoff, and he missed a 42-yarder after making a 27-yarder. But he's solid, and he did make the first 42-yarder that got wiped out by a snap that didn't beat the two-minute warning. So the operation has to improve, not the foot.