Tight-lipped Bengals face crucial draft
Carson Palmer swears he'll retire before he ever returns. Chad Ochocinco challenged head coach Marvin Lewis to a steel-cage match on national television. He was joking, but you get the feeling Lewis would have taken him up on it.
Imagine what might happen once the lockout ends and the Bengals actually get back to work.
The Bengals have been a mess before. They've worked and played their way out of it before, too. But what's going to happen this time around is anyone's guess. Next week's NFL Draft might provide some clues and figures to lead the Bengals to their next quarterback, but the events of the past eight months have left the franchise reeling and facing an uncertain future.
Questions abound. It looks more and more like that quarterback won't come via the first round and the Bengals' selection at No. 4 overall, and by the time that quarterback -- whomever he ends up being -- is ready to play at a high level, will Lewis be around to coach him? Will his primary receiver be Ochocinco, A.J. Green or even speedy Jerome Simpson, who looked like a bust until last December? And what, exactly, is the plan to fix some pretty glaring holes on the defense?
Lewis coached last year with an expiring contract. For most of October and November, Palmer looked expired. Ochocinco was quiet on the field and, by his standards, quiet off of it, too. A defense that had been aggressive and opportunistic in 2009 was banged-up and a step slow most of last year.
Yes, this is a team that ran the table in one of the NFL's best divisions two seasons ago. And now it's a team that still has some pieces but seems miles behind the AFC's best, two of which play in that division.
Lewis signed an extension in January with the belief he'd get some standard upgrades to the scouting staff and a practice facility that will keep him from having to put his players on a bus 20 miles north to a high school to practice inside during bad weather. Neither seems likely to happen.
Palmer's talk is an attempt to leverage a trade, but the feeling around Cincinnati and around the league is that owner Mike Brown won't even consider trading either Palmer or Ochocinco. And so the circus continues.
Ochocinco is 33, and Palmer played his best late last season when Ochocinco and Terrell Owens were injured and inactive. Owens is probably not coming back. Starting running back Cedric Benson, the table-setter during the successful run of '09, figures to be eligible for unrestricted free agency when the labor issues are settled.
The Bengals need a young quarterback whether or not Palmer is even a little bit serious about never playing for the team again. Their past draft-day history makes Cam Newton a logical fit, but signs point to the Panthers taking Newton at No. 1 overall. Green, the consensus top receiver in the draft, makes sense. The defensive front needs a boost, too, making the Bengals unlikely to pursue Blaine Gabbert in the first round.
But the Bengals have done their homework on all the quarterbacks in this draft. Newton, Gabbert and Ryan Mallett, a first-round type-talent with alleged Bengals-type off-field concerns, have all reportedly visited Cincinnati. New Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden has been on the pro day circuit and was a confirmed attendee at on-campus workouts for both Andy Dalton and Christian Ponder. The Bengals staff coached Jake Locker, Colin Kaepernick and Ricky Stanzi on the North team at the Senior Bowl.
Mallett and Dalton are the quarterbacks most often linked to the Bengals via pre-draft reports and rumors, but the Bengals are a team that's as tight-lipped at this time of year as it is unpredictable. History says the Bengals won't pursue draft-day trades but will select the most-talented player, regardless of position, with all of their premium picks.
Quarterback, of course, is the premium position. Mallett has a big arm and seems pro-ready, but he might be gone long before the Bengals' second selection at No. 35. Dalton was a big-time winner at TCU, but he might not have the arm strength it takes to play in AFC North cities late in the season.
Only Brown and Lewis know which player(s) the Bengals truly covet. Only Brown and Lewis know if the plan is for the new, young quarterback to play immediately or if the plan is to stick with Palmer, who's under contract through 2014. He's not happy. That much is certain, but not much else is.
The Bengals almost always provide good television, especially during the draft. Can they use the draft for a quick-fix and get back to playing good football? Stay tuned. You never know when the next steel-cage challenge might be made.