AFC North: Cincinnati Bengals
Bowlen, 70, is stepping aside after 30 years while he battles Alzheimer's disease.
The 78-year-old Brown isn't battling with health issues, but there are signs his time in charge of the Bengals has started nearing its end. Daughter Katie Blackburn has in the past few seasons been more of a behind-the-scenes player for the organization, as has head coach Marvin Lewis.
When the day comes that Brown decides to relinquish control, the Bengals are well-placed for a good transition. That is primarily because the transition has been in motion for many years now. When the Bengals were moving into Paul Brown Stadium (named, naturally after Brown's father, the legendary NFL coach) in 2000, they started making it known the organization would one day be Blackburn's to run. Here is a story from June of that year about how Cincinnati was laying the foundation for that transition, written by former Cincinnati Enquirer Bengals reporter Mark Curnutte.
Back to Tuesday and the 47th installment of the Bengals' preseason media luncheon. Just before the event at the stadium, Brown relayed his thoughts on how the transition has gone of late.
"Oh, you can tell I'm getting old," Brown said. "When you get old, your children get impatient with you. Just the way it works in life. I have been blessed to have been able to work with my two kids and my father. That's something that is unusual in America these days, and I realize that roles change. My role changed with my father, just as Katie's role with me changes.
"One time I went up. Now I'm going down and that's just the way it is."
The Bengals have truly been a family organization for the life of their existence. Paul Brown ran the organization in some capacity every year from the time he founded it in 1968 until his death in 1991. Mike Brown has been in charge the 23 years that have followed, and he has been joined in the front office over the years by his brother, Pete, his son, Paul, and Blackburn and her husband Troy Blackburn.
Asked if he felt the transition with his son and daughter has gone as well as the transition between he and his father, Mike Brown said: "I like to think so."
Among the recent decisions he's most proud of, Mike Brown said he was glad he could give Lewis another year on his contract this offseason.
"Marvin's a solid coach and a good guy," Brown said. "I've gotten to know him through thick and thin. He's brought us to a good level. We're a winning team. And when you have that coach that can do that for you, I think you'd be foolish to be unsatisfied with him."
Before Lewis took over as head coach in 2003, the Bengals had gone through six straight losing seasons, and 12 straight seasons where they won eight games or fewer. As Lewis enters his 12th season, the Bengals are hoping to make their sixth playoff berth since 2005, and are looking to build on the nine-, 10- and 11-win totals they have amassed in the past three seasons.
"We're not going to talk about it anymore, thank you," Lewis said, stopping one questioner who was curious about when the deal needed to get done. "That's the same thing he's [Dalton] going to tell you when he gets to tell you. We've talked enough about it. It'll get settled, and when it gets settled it will be done. We don't need to continue to ask the questions, and I've asked [head of Bengals media relations] Jack [Brennan] to share that with you, to quit asking about it.
"And when the national people come in that aren't here, it's the same thing. We've talked enough about it. It's part of professional sports so just let it go."
Well, there you have it. The public conversations about Dalton's contract are officially over, as far as Lewis is concerned. That sentiment echoes other comments Lewis has made this summer. After spending his availability sessions at the combine and owners' meetings discussing the contract situation, Lewis shied away from talking about it when asked during the end of the organized team activity practices in June.
Dalton is set to make nearly $1.7 million this season, which concludes his rookie contract. He could earn more than $18 million annually on a deal that would put him a little closer to the top of quarterback heap. To that end, he'd arguably be a second-tier quarterback, although he has been regarded a tier 3 quarterback, according to a recent ESPN Insider survey featuring general managers, scouts, players and coaches. ESPN's Ron Jaworski also recently dubbed Dalton the No. 18 player on his list of NFL quarterbacks .
Lewis contends fans don't care about the minutia involved with extensions like Dalton's. He believes they only care once the ink has dried on the contract.
"They only care about it when it's signed," he said. "It will be a big day, so save some space for that."
Maybe that day is on the preseason horizon? If so, Lewis' lips won't be staying sealed on the matter for too long.
"There's always something that cuts for the team or cuts for the player," Brown said. "In Kaepernick's case, there's some things we like."
Like Kaepernick, Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton has been the subject of contract extension talks this offseason. As the 35th overall (Dalton) and 36th overall (Kaepernick) picks in the 2011 draft, the two have been linked ever since they got in the league. Both were targeted by the Bengals ahead of the 2011 draft, causing some fans to wonder what might have been for the Bengals had they picked Kaepernick instead of Dalton.
In order to see the full amount of his contract, Kaepernick would need to play nearly like a Hall of Famer over the next seven seasons. It will be difficult for him to sustain that level, offering one reason many think the deal greatly favors the team. On the flip side, it could be argued that the deal was good for Kaepernick because he has already gathered his fair share of accolades, and shouldn't have too much trouble earning his full annual salary.
Based on his track record of success, Kaepernick has to feel good about his chances of seeing a significant chunk of money from the contract that is scheduled to pay him about $19 million each season through 2020.
Don't be surprised if you see something similar come down the pike for Dalton when he finally signs.
"Kaepernick's a good player. He's been successful," Brown said. "We tend to think our deal [with Dalton] should be something in that rang, not way beyond it."
"Way beyond it" would put Dalton in a performance-based contract that's in the territory of $20 million a year, with an average cap value that's dramatically closer to what the elite passers in the league are making. Drew Brees, Joe Flacco, Matt Ryan and Aaron Rodgers are the only quarterbacks making more than $20 million annually. They also have three Super Bowl rings between them, and all four have been to conference championship games.
The Bengals haven't been out of the first round of the playoffs since 1991. As you well know, Dalton has taken them to that game each of the three seasons he's been in Cincinnati, but his six postseason interceptions have helped push the Bengals to each early exit.
Still, his lack of playoff success notwithstanding, Dalton, who is set to make nearly $1.7 million this year, has been just solid enough in the regular season. He's helped the Bengals -- a franchise that not so long ago saw a 14-season stretch in which it couldn't win more than eight games -- get 30 wins in his brief career, and has been a key figure behind their overall dramatic turnaround. Brown was quick to mention that Tuesday.
"I like him on the field," Brown said. "He's Steady Eddy. He competes. He doesn't do stupid things. We might not outshine everybody. We are the turtle in the race, if you will, but don't count us out. We are going to keep on chugging. That's what he does for us. He keeps us focused. He makes us a winning team. I don't discount that. I hold that in high regard."
Make no mistake, Brown holds something else in high regard, too: winning in the playoffs.
"[Dalton] knows and we know -- everybody knows -- we didn't win in the playoffs. We have to get over that hump," Brown said. "That is going to be difficult but we are counting on him to get us to that point. We'll see."
We'll also see when the Bengals move on extending Dalton. While the sides have been talking more of late, and are trying to get closer to an agreement before the season begins, Brown said he had no deadline for when a deal needed to get done.
"These negotiating things take their course," Brown said. "This one has been going on for some while. We have had numerous discussions and I think it will -- like most of these matters -- find an ending soon enough. But I am not going to stand here and predict exactly when that is going to be. I don't really know."
Brown added he was content letting Dalton playing the season out and hoping he can get a better deal next offseason or later.
"He will have to make a choice, we will have to make a choice," Brown said. "One of the options is he plays this year. One of the options is that we franchise [tag] him for the following year. So, you can count on one thing: he's going to be the quarterback here for the immediate future."
If the Bengals franchise Dalton next year, he could be looking at upward of $16 million for 2015. This year's franchise tag for quarterbacks was $16.2 million. That figure is expected to increase next offseason.
Regardless of when Dalton's deal comes, keep Kaepernick's contract in mind.
"That joker," fellow back Giovani Bernard said, "he's a good player."
Bernard apparently considers Burkhead to be so good, Bernard has made it his mission to copy one aspect of Burkhead's game in particular. That's right, Cincinnati's do-everything starting running back who was in the running for the NFL's Rookie of the Year Award last season wants to emulate the backup who might not even make the team this training camp.
"It's just his effort," Bernard said. "You can't teach that. That's something you kind of have to have in yourself."
Back in June when organized team activities were winding down, receivers coach James Urban told ESPN.com just how much "finishing" had been stressed as the team started implementing Jackson's new offensive scheme.
"There was a lot of talk about finish," Urban said. "Talking about doing things down the field. Most of these guys have been with me, been with us, for the last four years or so. So they know what to expect, and we've done great things. So how do you get their attention? We get their attention by overemphasizing finishing, overemphasizing getting off the ball and getting out of the huddle and getting set."
Jackson said Burkhead was a great example of that.
"I can always in the meetings point to something he's doing that's giving us a chance to have success," Jackson said. "It's every day. There's not a day that goes by. And that's what matters to me: that guys are playing hard, finishing and taking care of business. He does that, there's no question about that."
There is also no question that as he enters his second season, Burkhead finds himself mired in one of the more intriguing position battles of the Bengals' training camp which begins Thursday. He's fighting for the team's third or fourth running back spot with BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Cedric Peerman, James Wilder Jr. and Nikita Whitlock. The universal belief is that the Bengals likely will end up using Bernard and rookie Jeremy Hill as their top two running backs, and that Peerman's more expansive special teams background and experience makes him an ideal candidate for the No. 3 spot. That would mean Burkhead and Green-Ellis will be dueling for the other roster spot as Wilder and Whitlock likely duke it out for a possible practice-squad job.
Burkhead has played the various scenarios in his head. He has a strong understanding of what is at stake for him right now. He knows he's not the fastest back on the team, and he knows he might not be the most powerful. But he still believes he has what it takes to stick with the club.
"I love the competition," Burkhead said. "I feel like it brings out the best in me and helps me improve as a player. So whenever my opportunity comes, I'll be ready for it because I've already been practicing at that level. This competition, it makes us all better. It makes the team better and that's what wins you championships, is having that high level of competitiveness around you."
Burkhead didn't contribute statistically to the Bengals' division championship last season. Declared inactive for all but one game, he was primarily a practice body. But he was a practice body that still commanded attention.
"This game, it's tough. It's tough to win, it's tough to score. It comes down to inches," Burkhead said. "That's what finishing plays is. Hopefully I can set that example, and if I can help someone do that, too, that's what I'm going to do."
So far, he's at least rubbed off on Bernard.
"It's effort like that that Coach Hue really sees and that he wants the whole offense to follow," Bernard said.
Burkhead, 24, wasn't the only one Jackson singled out regularly in his practice-film review sessions with the offense. Veterans like 32-year-old Pro Bowl offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth showcased some of what Jackson has been pleading for since he took over as offensive coordinator in January.
Bernard said Jackson showed a couple of times where Whitworth was running downfield on routine practice plays to block for receivers.
"If all the linemen could do that, if all the running backs could do that, if all the receivers could do that, the quarterbacks could do that, that'll show and it'll prove to everybody how much better we really are," Bernard said.
As camp opens, stay on the lookout for how well effort translates to roster spots and offensive identity.
RUNNING BACKS (5)
This grouping includes Charles at H-back, meaning the Bengals are more likely to take four true running backs. I'd argue that neither Green-Ellis, Peerman nor Charles is a lock right now to make the team, but there are compelling reasons for each being part of the 53-man roster. Rex Burkhead and James Wilder Jr. also have real chances to be part of the full roster.
The top three on this list are locks to make the team. The true battle during training camp will be for the other two spots. If this group holds, that means veterans Brandon Tate and Jasper Collins, former Bengals practice squad player Cobi Hamilton and undrafted rookies Colin Lockett and Alex Neutz won't make the team. Tate would be the real notable cut here after performing well as a kick returner and filling in at punt returner last year. With a fully healthy secondary around him, though, expect Adam Jones to get back to returning punts. While the Bengals will give Tate opportunities to contribute in the passing game (he's had only 14 catches in three seasons with Cincinnati) this preseason, Sanzenbacher can also do much of what Tate can. Sanzenbacher has been more consistent in the passing game and could fill in as a returner on punts or kickoffs. Hamilton's size (6-foot-2) and leaping ability make him a possible pick to make the team, but performance would be a reason for cutting him. Wright's special-teams background and his strong showing in minicamp and organized team activities make him a possibility too.
TIGHT ENDS (3)
Gresham is entering a contract year, and expectations have never been higher for him. The Bengals believe he can play better than he has in recent years and hope to get that type of production out of him. An offseason hernia surgery might have Gresham out of the mix early in training camp, but he ought to make the team, just like Eifert and Smith, who re-signed this spring to help bolster the position group after Gresham's injury.
OFFENSIVE LINEMEN (9)
- Andrew Whitworth
- Andre Smith
- Kevin Zeitler
- Mike Pollak
- Clint Boling
- Marshall Newhouse
- Trevor Robinson
- Tanner Hawkinson
- Russell Bodine
It's possible the Bengals end up taking only nine linemen so they can fit additional players at other positions. For instance, they could end up taking another running back or another receiver. It's common for most teams to have nine or 10 linemen, and this group seems to provide the versatility coaches are seeking. Hopkins, an undrafted rookie, was used at a variety of spots in the spring. Of the undrafted free-agent linemen the Bengals signed this year, Trey Hopkins -- a versatile guard who was used in a variety of ways this spring -- has the best shot to make the team, but even he's just barely left off this list.
DEFENSIVE LINE (9)
- Carlos Dunlap
- Wallace Gilberry
- Margus Hunt
- Robert Geathers
- Will Clarke
- Geno Atkins
- Domata Peko
- Brandon Thompson
- Devon Still
The only player on this list who wasn't on last year's 53-man roster is Will Clarke. The rookie was drafted in the third round in May. He effectively takes the roster spot of Michael Johnson, who signed with Tampa Bay in the offseason. This may be the most set group on the team.
Like the receivers, the top spots at linebacker are pretty much squared away. In this case, it's a veritable lock that Vontaze Burfict, Emmanuel Lamur, Vincent Rey and Rey Maualuga will make the team. The two remaining linebackers, on the other hand, will be part of one of the better position battles on the team. DiManche and Flowers have the best chances among the rest of the outside linebackers to make the team, but they'll have to fend off Sean Porter, Brandon Joiner and James Davidson too. Dontay Moch could make the team because of his versatility as a stand-up defensive end and hybrid linebacker. J.K. Schaffer was snubbed on this list at middle linebacker, but there's a lot about his drive and internal makeup that could make him a repeat roster surprise.
The top four positions are effectively locked down. Kirkpatrick runs the risk of being cut for performance reasons, but it's unlikely he will be dismissed because the Bengals would take a $1.2 million cap hit if they let go of the former first-round pick. The sixth cornerback spot will be a battle between Hampton, R.J. Stanford, Lavelle Westbrooks, Chris Lewis-Harris and Onterio McCalebb. Hampton has some versatility and ability the Bengals like, as well as special-teams leanings.
This may end up being one of the tougher cuts Bengals coaches have, if they end up keeping just four safeties. Taylor Mays would be the odd man out in this situation, which might come as a surprise given how well his spring practices seemed to go. Nelson and Iloka are virtual locks, Manning seems like a good possibility and Williams appears to factor into the team's future at the position.
These guys aren't going anywhere. The punter, kicker and long snapper will make the team.
Kudos to him for beginning to heed the advice that was offered to him in January.
At long last, Green has started implementing an attitude worthy of a player of his lofty stature. He's embracing his role as a vocal team leader and has started opening his mouth in ways the Bengals had long been anticipating.
It's about time.
"If you're a great athlete, I feel like you'll think you always left something [on the table]," Green said. "I feel like I still haven't reached my peak yet."
He knows the Bengals haven't, either.
Part of what Bengals coaches think will get him dramatically closer to his personal summit is him being more vocal.
After the Bengals lost their wild-card playoff game to the Chargers, Green met with head coach Marvin Lewis and then-offensive coordinator Jay Gruden as part of the standard exit meetings. The general theme in the conversations was that Green needed to be louder and more assertive on the sidelines and in the huddles.
They wanted him to lead with his voice. If his teammates needed to be called out, he needed to be the one to do it. If they needed to hear more praise, he had to be the one to provide it.
Green knew those requests would be a lot easier to make than to fulfill.
"That's a big thing for me, stepping out of my box," he said. "I'm not really a vocal guy in general. I let my play, my work, speak for itself. ... It's definitely an adjustment for me because I'm more of a quiet guy, more of a lead by example by what I do on and off the field guy. That's the biggest thing for me is that I've got to speak up when we're not having a good day or we're down or things like that."
While taking a break during the second day of his sold-out, two-day camp, Green told the few reporters listening that he felt his transition was going well.
It certainly appears he's right.
Just look at a few of his comments from the interview session. He was unflinching in his critique of his own postseason play. Asked to characterize his three career playoff games, two words immediately came out of his mouth: "Not good."
Had he been asked that question in the past, he may have ultimately meandered to same answer, but only after giving a stock answer about just simply needing to execute better. This time around, not only did he put pressure on himself to perform better, but he prodded all his teammates to step up their postseason games. He said Thursday that Cincinnati's recent postseason woes weren't only the result of poor performances by he and Dalton, but he challenged the defense to play better, as well.
That's what a vocal leader does. He doesn't just challenge himself, he pushes those around him.
That's also what an 0-3 postseason showing gets you: a frustrated superstar who's eager to prove his worth.
What also makes Green's comments interesting was the manner in which they were delivered. There was no hesitancy in his voice, no uncertainty about whether he was saying the right things or not. Let's just say that he sounded more sure of himself when answering these questions than he did last year.
So where has this new vocal and assertive Green come from? He doesn't have a complete answer. He probably doesn't really need one.
It's safe to say that new offensive coordinator Hue Jackson has had something to do with it. Known for a confidence that some might say borders on arrogance, Jackson has a personality that may be rubbing off on Gree. Like Lewis and Gruden, Jackson believed Green, as one of the team's elite players, needed to make his presence known a little better in the locker room.
"He's never satisfied with where I am," Green said of Jackson. "That's one thing about him. No matter what I do or what I've accomplished these first three years, there's always more I can do.
"I remember when the [NFL Network's] top 100 came out and I was the No. 2 receiver, he said, 'OK, let's go be No. 1.'"
Deep down Green may have previously believed he could be the best in the league. But now, based on the comments he made Thursday, it seems he actually believes it, and is doing more to prove it.
Listen up, NFL. A.J. is talking. But will the chatter be enough to help reverse his team's postseason fortunes and to make him even more respected than he already is?
Time will tell.
NFL Nation's Coley Harvey examines the three biggest issues facing the Cincinnati Bengals heading into training camp.
Stay healthy: As Cincinnati saw last year, injuries that arise in training camp and the preseason can have a big impact on the rest of the season. Among the biggest preseason setbacks last year were receiver Andrew Hawkins' ankle injury and linebacker Emmanuel Lamur's shoulder injury. Hawkins was hurt attempting to dive for a ball in practice, and Lamur got banged up during the preseason finale against the Colts. Hawkins was placed on injured reserve with the designation to return (by Week 9), but Lamur was lost for the year. Without Lamur, the Bengals had to use linebackers and additional defensive backs to accomplish everything they previously had planned to do defensively with him on the field. Just as it will be for every team, the focus this training camp will be on working hard but minimizing injury.
Continuing to push the tempo: During the mandatory minicamp and voluntary organized team activities, the Bengals harped on tempo and pacing, and how they want to push both offensively this season. If the Bengals are able to carry over what they did in May and June, they'll be calling plays faster than in recent years. The goal for new offensive coordinator Hue Jackson is getting his unit into a rhythm for four quarters, running a lot of plays, and the affect that tempo will have on opposing defenses by the end of the game. Watch during camp for how in sync the Bengals are while playing up-tempo offensively.
Establishing defensive rotations: The Bengals are going through their share of defensive changes, too. Former linebackers coach Paul Guenther takes over as the new defensive coordinator, getting his first chance to serve as a lead assistant on an NFL team. In years past, he already had a fairly large impact on Cincinnati's defense, setting linebacker rotations and helping draw up blitz packages for the entire unit. He's been praised by current and former players for his attention to detail. The organization's hope is that he'll be coaching the full defense the way he did his position group. You'll notice often this season that the Bengals will rotate players in and out of various position groups based on the sub-package personnel they want to trot onto the field. You'll even see them do some switching at the line of scrimmage, as ends might rotate sides or switch into interior positions during pre-snap maneuvers. The goal has always been to mask coverages and rushes, and to confuse offenses, but Guenther's scheme seems as if it will predicate itself on keeping an offense more off rhythm than even Mike Zimmer's defense did. It will be interesting to note some of the many defensive rotations that arise during training camp and preseason as the roster starts getting smaller.
This offseason has seen plenty of high-profile additions and departures in the AFC North.
The Cleveland Browns and Baltimore Ravens brought more excitement to their offenses. The Browns drafted quarterback Johnny Manziel in the first round, and the Ravens signed wide receiver Steve Smith.
The Cincinnati Bengals and the Pittsburgh Steelers dealt with some significant losses. Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer left to become the head coach of the Minnesota Vikings, and three starters (Brett Keisel, LaMarr Woodley and Ryan Clark) are gone from the Steelers defense.
How will these changes affect the teams in the division? That's the focus for ESPN's AFC North reporters: Scott Brown in Pittsburgh, Coley Harvey in Cincinnati, Jamison Hensley in Baltimore and Pat McManamon in Cleveland.
Johnny Manziel will be the starting quarterback for the Browns in the season opener in Pittsburgh.
Scott Brown: Fiction. Johnny Football has too much ground to make up to overtake Brian Hoyer as the starter by the time the Browns open the regular season in Pittsburgh. Manziel will start at some point this season, but it won't be Sept. 7 at Heinz Field. Even if it is a toss-up between Hoyer and Manziel leading up to the season opener, the Browns will be wise enough to go with the player who has NFL starting experience over the one who will have a Texas-sized bullseye on his jersey. Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau generally torments rookie quarterbacks and definitely doesn't take selfies with them. The Browns wouldn't put Manziel in a position in which he has little chance of succeeding ... would they?
Jamison Hensley: Fiction. There are too many factors going against Manziel starting right away. Browns coach Mike Pettine was on the Bills' sideline this past season when he watched EJ Manuel struggle as a rookie. The Browns have a legitimate alternative in Brian Hoyer. And the Browns' first game is against the Steelers, who are known to rough up young quarterbacks. Including the playoffs, the Steelers are a league-best 17-2 vs. rookie quarterbacks since 2004, when coordinator Dick LeBeau re-joined the Steelers as defensive coordinator. Plus, Manziel hasn't done much to prove to the coaching staff that he's mature enough to handle the starting job after becoming Johnny Las Vegas on holiday weekends. It just makes too much sense to sit Manziel as a rookie. Then again, the Browns aren't known for making logical moves
Pat McManamon: Fiction. The Browns simply do not want Manziel to start the opener, and Mike Pettine has made no secret of that. Over and over, he's said that though Manziel can start at some point, he does not believe it's ideal. Given that the first three opponents are the Steelers, Saints and Ravens, it's even more reason not to rush him. Those three opponents have chopped up a lot of veterans, not to mention rookies. If Josh Gordon is not on the team, the quarterback's challenge is even more difficult. The Browns want to take things slowly with Manziel, and right now he admits he's not the best quarterback on the team. The only way he starts in Pittsburgh is if Brian Hoyer is hurt.
The Bengals have a top-10 defense even without coordinator Mike Zimmer.
Brown: Fact. With all due respect to Zimmer, he didn't make one tackle in the six seasons he coordinated the Bengals' defense. Not to marginalize coordinators, but Dick LeBeau has one of the keenest and most imaginative defensive minds in NFL history, and he somehow forgot how to coach defense this past season, when injuries and age caught up with the Steelers. The Bengals have plenty of talent, assuming defensive tackle Geno Atkins and cornerback Leon Hall make a healthy return from their respective injuries. And the adjustment to new defensive coordinator Paul Guenther should be a relatively smooth one since Guenther coached the Bengals' linebackers before succeeding Zimmer. If the Bengals don't field a top-10 defense this season, it will be because they can't make up for the free-agent loss of defensive end Michael Johnson or their secondary springs too many leaks.
Harvey: Fact. Zimmer was rightfully deified during his time in Cincinnati, but his exit for Minnesota doesn't mean there's now a sudden end to the Bengals' era of defensive dominance. Cincinnati will be bringing back a defense that mostly mirrors the group it had last year. The only absences of note are Michael Johnson, James Harrison and Chris Crocker. Johnson was signed by Tampa Bay in free agency, and Harrison was released. Signed to a one-year deal when he emerged from retirement this past September, Crocker was a free agent this offseason who didn't have his contract renewed. Still, knowing Crocker's track record of signing as a September off-of-the-couch call-up the past two years, you can't fully rule out an appearance from him in Cincinnati at some point this year. Of all the Bengals' defensive departures, Zimmer's was certainly the biggest. The coordinator who helped revolutionize the Bengals' defensive system and turned them into a perennial power implemented unique rotations, lineups and blitz and coverage packages. As the league's No. 3 defense this past season, the Bengals pulled off a franchise feat that hadn't been replicated in more than 30 years. Under new coordinator Paul Guenther, who formulated many of the blitz packages for Zimmer, the Bengals are hoping to be even better than that No. 3 ranking this year. While they probably won't get ranked as high as No. 3, they still will be among the top 10.
Hensley: Fiction. It's true that a defense is only as good as its players on the field. But let's not disregard the impact of Zimmer on the Bengals' defense. In Zimmer's first season in Cincinnati (2008), the Bengals jumped from No. 27 to No. 12 in defense. The Bengals then went on to finish in the top 10 in yards and points allowed in four of the next five seasons under Zimmer. He's a fiery leader who got the most out of his players. Many expect a smooth transition with Paul Guenther being promoted to defensive coordinator, but he's never been in charge of a defense in the NFL. His job won't be made any easier by the fact that defensive end Michael Johnson left in free agency and defensive tackle Geno Atkins is still recovering from an ACL injury. The Bengals secondary is dealing with aging veterans (Terence Newman and Adam Jones), injury (Leon Hall) and unfulfilled potential (Dre Kirkpatrick). Don't be surprised if the Bengals slip out of the top 10 this season.
Pat McManamon: Fact. The Bengals have too many good players and too good a system to falter with Zimmer's departure. He'll be missed, but defenses are as good as the players on the field, and with stalwart Geno Atkins coming back from injury to go with a crew that includes Vontaze Burfict, the Bengals should still be formidable. Also, new coordinator Paul Guenther knows the system, knows the blitzes and worked closely with Zimmer. It always hurts to lose a coordinator like Zimmer, but the Bengals seemed to be as prepared as a team can be. The other thing to remember is that offenses can help defenses by possessing the ball, and new offensive coordinator Hue Jackson will run the ball more than Jay Gruden did.
Steve Smith will become Joe Flacco's top target this season.
Brown: Fiction. I'm tempted to say fact here because of the trust and rapport that Flacco developed with Anquan Boldin before the Ravens traded the veteran wide receiver to the 49ers this past year. Boldin, however, is bigger and more physical than Smith and doesn't rely as much on speed as the latter still does, even at the age of 35. Look for tight end Dennis Pitta to re-establish himself as a big part of the Ravens' offense after missing all but four games this past season because of a dislocated hip. Pitta caught 61 passes and was targeted 93 times by Flacco in 2012, while Boldin caught just four more passes than Pitta, despite getting targeted 112 times. A healthy Pitta becomes Flacco's go-to receiver again.
Harvey: Fiction. Another Smith will end up being Flacco's top passing target this season. Torrey Smith, the man who saw 139 throws directed his way this past season, will remain the go-to receiver in an offense that hopes for increased production from 2013. During the mostly down year for Baltimore's offense, Torrey Smith caught 65 of the 139 balls thrown his way, leading the team in receptions. While at Carolina last year, Steve Smith caught 64 passes on just 109 targets from Cam Newton. The longtime Panther was one of the stars of an offense that also relied on Newton to make plays with his feet, in addition to spreading the ball to other receivers. The Ravens had difficulty getting any kind of rushing offense going, which made it easy for defenses to sell out on guarding their receivers. If Ray Rice struggles to perform out of the backfield again this year -- or if he ends up missing considerable time due to a possible suspension from commissioner Roger Goodell following his arrest in Atlantic City this offseason for assault on his now-wife -- much the same could happen to the Ravens' receivers in 2014. Even if that happens, Steve Smith's addition ought to help Flacco and the Ravens. Still, don't look for the 35-year-old to take over as the team's dominant receiver. That title ought to remain Torrey Smith's.
Hensley: Fact. There's a chance tight end Dennis Pitta or wide receiver Torrey Smith will end up being Flacco's go-to receiver. In the end, Flacco will spread the ball around to Pitta, Torrey Smith and Steve Smith. But if you're asking who will be Flacco's top target, the best bet is Steve Smith. All you needed to do was watch one practice this offseason, and you'd see the chemistry building between Flacco and Smith. Many have compared Steve Smith to Anquan Boldin because both are tough receivers. Smith, though, stacks up more favorably to Derrick Mason, who averaged 71 receptions in three seasons with Flacco. Like Mason, Smith can get open on the comeback route as well as slants. A prideful player such as Smith will also do everything in his power to show the Carolina Panthers he can still play. The Ravens will get the best out of Smith this year.
Pat McManamon: Fiction. The Ravens still have this guy Torrey Smith, right? He's a little younger than the 35-year-old Steve Smith. A little bigger too. And he should be ready to be the No. 1 receiver on the team. This is not to say Steve Smith won't help. He will. He brings a veteran presence the Ravens lacked -- though it's curious they gave away Anquan Boldin before last year and signed another aging guy who fits the "crafty veteran mold" a year later. Ozzie Newsome said Smith is not the "typical aging player," which is good, because he'll catch a lot of passes and open up the field more to provide opportunities for Torrey Smith and tight end Dennis Pitta. The Ravens also seem to be a team well-suited to getting the most from veterans. But if Baltimore brought Steve Smith in to be the top guy, it's a problem. That role and responsibility belongs to Torrey Smith.
The retooled defense is enough to get the Steelers back to the playoffs.
Brown: Fact: The Steelers got younger and faster and will be better on that side of the ball if their outside linebackers provide some semblance of a pass rush. The Steelers don't need dramatic improvement from their defense if their offense builds on its strong finish in 2013. The Steelers averaged just under 28 points in their final eight games this past season, and they only lost one starter (wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders) on offense. Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey returns from a torn ACL to lead an offensive line that allowed just seven sacks in the final seven games last year. And the Steelers have enough talent at the skill positions for Ben Roethlisberger and the offense to carry the defense.
Hensley: Fact. The Steelers got younger and quicker with their first two draft picks this year, linebacker Ryan Shazier and defensive end Stephon Tuitt. Cam Thomas, a free-agent addition, will be a space-eater on the interior of the line. What will help this retooled defense become even better are the moves made on offense. The Steelers stockpiled their backfield by signing free agent LeGarrette Blount and drafting Dri Archer in the third round. Plus, Le'Veon Bell was beginning to hit his stride at the end of his rookie season. This commitment to the run will control the clock and take pressure off a defense adjusting to its new parts.
McManamon: Fact. There is no team in the league that finds personnel to fit its system better than the Steelers. With three new starters defensively, Pittsburgh continues its transition from the James Harrison-James Farrior-Casey Hampton-Brett Keisel days. Kevin Colbert's drafting is usually logical and sound, and in Ryan Shazier the Steelers believe they found an immediate starter. One thing will be true about Pittsburgh this season: They will be faster on the field and they will not start slow. Pittsburgh will build on the momentum of an 8-4 finish in 2013 (after an 0-4 start), and as they build the defense will grow..
Score: 49ers 20, Bengals 16
Date: Jan. 22, 1989. Site: Joe Robbie Stadium.
Apparently the people who voted all this week in our Cincinnati Bengals most memorable plays poll aren't on Twitter. Because a good majority of the tweets I received this week regarding the Bengals' three most memorable plays -- selected, I might add, in part by those who participated in an unofficial Twitter survey back in June -- criticized the inclusion of 49ers receiver John Taylor's 10-yard touchdown catch that closed Super Bowl XXIII.
Jerome Simpson's no-hands goal-line front flip into the end zone in 2011 might have been one. So, too, could Giovani Bernard's field-reversing, tackle-breaking 35-yard run at Miami last season.
Neither of those plays, though, made the cut. Stanford Jennings' 93-yard kick return touchdown that gave the Bengals a late lead in Super Bowl XXIII did, as did running back Corey Dillon's 41-yard touchdown run in 2000 that broke Walter Payton's longtime single-game rushing record. Since some of the best and brightest moments in team history include the Super Bowl appearances, it simply made sense that Jennings' return was a memorable play option. The same had to be said for Taylor's reception, as painful as it may have been for some of you to relive. That reception, which capped another one of Joe Montana's famous comebacks, came at the close of the most recent Super Bowl for the Bengals.
As problematic as the inclusion of Taylor's catch was for some of our loyal Twitter followers, it apparently wasn't an issue for the rest of you. Taylor's catch led the memorable play voting much of the week and ended up the winning selection.
Again, that reception arguably contributed (maybe in a small way) to the downturn the Bengals endured that caused a generation of football fans to grow up believing they weren't a very good franchise. As Chad Richard Bresson tweeted, "One could argue the Jennings return represents apex of Bengals franchise. SB loss, then Montoya. Downhill." (Max Montoya was a guard on the 1981 and 1988 Super Bowl teams. Instead of coming back to Cincinnati as expected in 1990, the then-free agent and California native signed with the Los Angeles Raiders. That postseason, his Raiders beat the Bengals in the second round. Cincinnati hasn't won a playoff game since that year's win over the Houston Oilers a round earlier.)
Instead of Taylor's catch, my pick would have been Dillon's run. Although his record has since been broken by Jamaal Lewis and Adrian Peterson, Dillon's 278 yards against the Broncos were just the dose of optimism the organization needed at the time. In the middle of what was a 14-year stretch without a winning record, the Bengals were in real dark days. They were 0-6 entering that game alone. There was very little to cheer about. But then Dillon came along and smashed one of the game's longstanding records, bringing some positive vibes to the city, even if they lasted for only one more week.
It's a monumental task to pick just one.
Let's pretend Dalton is still a Bengal over the next two or three seasons.
If he is, the Bengals' biggest key to success will be to keep a bevy of playmakers around him. As we saw countless times last season -- and should see in 2014 -- Dalton's receivers and running backs are good enough to routinely bail the offense out of challenging circumstances. Running back Giovani Bernard will be looking for a new contract after next season and should get it if he continues to showcase the type of agility and speed that made him such a weapon as a rookie in 2013. Having the bigger Jeremy Hill paired with Bernard will help give the offense balance not only in the running game but also in the short passing game. Receivers A.J. Green and Marvin Jones also need to be around to catch passes. Green should still be in a Bengals uniform in two years if not three.
If Dalton is no longer a Bengal in the next two or three seasons, Cincinnati must continue building a top-10 defense that can play alongside AJ McCarron. The 2014 draft pick is currently the apparent heir at quarterback and would start if Dalton is gone next offseason. Much like the defense helped carry Dalton through his first two years in Cincinnati, the unit would have to do the same for McCarron.
This is one of three finalists for the most memorable play in Bengals history. The others are Stanford Jennings' go-ahead, 93-yard kickoff return touchdown at the end of the third quarter in Super Bowl XXIII against the 49ers, and John Taylor's game-winning touchdown catch to beat the Bengals in that same game. This entry is a play from the middle of the 2000 season. Vote below for your favorite.
Score: Bengals 31, Broncos 21
Date: Oct. 22, 2000 Site: Paul Brown Stadium
But what else was new? Playing in the 10th year of what ended up being a 14-season stretch without a winning record, the Bengals were in the middle of some of their darkest days as a franchise. They needed something to get excited about. Their fans needed something to cheer.
Corey Dillon provided that spark when he rushed around the left side for a 41-yard touchdown, and a dash into the NFL's history books.
With his touchdown run that extended a Bengals lead to the eventual 31-21 score they would win by, Dillon became the league's new single-game rushing record holder. The 41-yard scamper was his last on an afternoon that saw him collect 278 yards rushing, three more than the 275 Hall of Famer Walter Payton had in a November 1977 Bears win over the Vikings.
Payton's record had stood for 23 years. Dillon's barely made it three. Baltimore's Jamal Lewis rushed for 295 yards in a game against Cleveland in 2003.
Because of how long Payton's record stood, Dillon's record-setting day was warmly received across the league, and continues to be. The run into history was considered one of the best moments in the NFL that season, and it certainly ranks among the top all-time plays in Bengals history. Hence its inclusion in this list. Does it rank as the best in franchise history, though? We'll find out what you say later this week.
This is one of three finalists for the most memorable plays in Cincinnati Bengals history. The others are Corey Dillon's 41-yard touchdown run that broke the single-game rushing record and the San Francisco 49ers John Taylor's game-winning touchdown catch to beat the Bengals in Super Bowl XXIII. This entry is a play from the same game; vote below for your favorite.
Score: 49ers 20, Bengals 16
Date: Jan. 22, 1989. Site: Joe Robbie Stadium
Exactly 15 minutes, 16 seconds after Stanford Jennings pushed the Bengals out front by seven in Super Bowl XXIII with a kick return touchdown, 49ers quarterback Joe Montana punctuated a fourth-quarter comeback drive with a 10-yard touchdown pass in the back of the end zone to John Taylor. It was a catch that effectively ended the game and gave the 49ers their third Lombardi Trophy under former Bengals assistant, coach Bill Walsh.
Taylor's catch off a slant into the end zone also ended an 11-play drive that saw Montana complete eight of the nine passes he attempted. Aside from Taylor's game-winning grab, Hall of Famer Jerry Rice had three key receptions on the drive, including a 27-yard haul that put the 49ers in the red zone two plays ahead of Taylor's catch. The drive covered 92 yards and lasted barely two minutes.
Had Cincinnati's defense been able to stand as tall on that drive as it had earlier in the game, the Bengals likely would have kept the 49ers out of the end zone and held on just enough to win. Before that series, the Bengals had allowed 358 yards and just one touchdown. They also had allowed the 49ers to convert only two third downs on 10 tries. During the drive, San Francisco saw only one third down. It converted when Roger Craig plowed ahead for a 4-yard run after needing only 2 yards.
As much as Taylor's catch will forever be remembered as the iconic play that sealed the 49ers victory, it's important to note that the 10 plays before helped set it up.
@ColeyHarvey Too easy. Most memorable play was Montana to John Taylor in SB XXIII— Mike Mobley (@JoePong1) June 9, 2014
In an NFL offseason that's been filled with arrest stories and Johnny Manziel's Monday morning twitpic updates, the Bengals have mostly flown under the radar, enjoying a comparatively quiet few months away from the field. After years of being the posterchildren for in- and out-of-season arrests and disciplinary issues, they ought to be commended for their relative good behavior in recent months.
Instead of a proliferation of mugshots and players in police blotters this summer, the Bengals have been taking baby pictures and wedding photos. It's certainly a welcomed departure from what previously had been the norm along the Ohio Riverfront.
I used the word "relative" regarding the Bengals' good behavior because there is, of course, that Sam Montgomery thing and that Orson Charles thing. Both Bengals are in the middle of pending legal situations after respective interstate traffic stops. Montgomery was pulled over and subsequently arrested two weeks ago for driving 89 mph in a 55-mph zone. South Carolina state law, where he was stopped, stipulates motorists traveling 25 mph or more over the speed limit are required to be jailed. Charles was arrested in April after allegedly brandishing a firearm at a motorist during a road-rage incident on Interstate 75 in Kentucky.
Montgomery's arrest primarily received attention after the state trooper's dashcam video was made public last week. During the arrest, the since suspended officer informed Montgomery he was under arrest right after inquiring if he played in the NFL. The officer also threatened to use a taser on Montgomery while barking a series of confusing orders as he tried to get the much larger Montgomery to get his hands behind his back for the handcuffs. Montgomery appeared to be cooperative throughout the video of the arrest, which began with him pulling over and ended some minutes after he and the officer were riding to the jail.
Since a firearm was involved in Charles' case, that incident rightfully gained traction both around Cincinnati and Kentucky (where the arrest happened), as well as nationally. After the legal process began, though, the entire ordeal mostly faded away. It wasn't a topic of conversation during minicamp and organized team activities, which Charles attended. That doesn't mean it has completely ended, though. Charles still has several steps ahead of him. Just last Thursday, he formally was arraigned in Madison County (Kentucky) Circuit Court on charges of brandishing a firearm in public.
What helps deflect attention from the arrests is both players easily could be cut based on merit alone when training camp opens later this month. If that happens, their issues no longer would concern the franchise.
Aside from those incidents, the Bengals have stayed out of the glare of negative spotlight. A few starters have made minor headlines for more positive reasons.
The Bengals have spent their offseason focusing on expanding their families and preparing to defend their division crown. (Wait, what's that sound you hear? Ah, it's the rapid hollow thumping of wooden desks at Paul Brown Stadium. It's a welcomed sound in Cincinnati, I assure you.)
This time last summer the Bengals had just learned cornerback Adam Jones was involved in a bar fight downtown. He was slapped with an assault charge and ordered to trial that October. Given his rather turbulent past, it was easy to immediately view the case as yet another instance of "Pacman" outshining his better half, Adam. When video of the event later surfaced and a judge ruled on the matter, Jones was declared innocent of wrongdoing, although the judge felt Jones and the woman who instigated the incident should have handled themselves better.
Fast forward to this past weekend and Jones turned heads in an all-white tuxedo for a different reason. He married his longtime girlfriend, joining a long list of Bengals to get hitched this summer. Running back Cedric Peerman and receiver Marvin Jones were among those who also got married. Linebacker Vincent Rey got engaged early in the offseason. Quarterback Andy Dalton and his wife had their first child last week.
Despite the situations with Montgomery and Charles, the Bengals seem to have turned a corner off the field. As is the case with every other team, there's still work to be done on that front, though, and that's why Bengals executives are going to keep knocking on wood.
This is one of three finalists for the most memorable plays in Bengals history. The others are Corey Dillon's 41-yard touchdown run that broke the single-game rushing record and John Taylor's game-winning touchdown catch that allowed the San Francisco 49ers to beat the Bengals in Super Bowl XXIII. This entry is a play from the same game; vote below for your favorite.
Score: 49ers 20, Bengals 16
Date: Jan. 22, 1989 Site: Joe Robbie Stadium
Description: For 43 minutes, place kicking dominated Super Bowl XXIII. In the 44th minute, a kickoff return changed all that, giving the game an electrifying touchdown that put the Bengals in the lead with a quarter left in the defensive slugfest.
As we whittled down -- with your help -- the many plays that have taken place in Bengals history, it seemed clear that at least one play from one of Cincinnati's two Super Bowl appearances needed to make the list. Unfortunately for the Bengals, compared to other older and more successful teams, their 46-year history has a somewhat limited pool of cheer-worthy moments if we're discussing plays that could compete with the NFL's all-time best. Let's make it clear, though: That doesn't mean the team hasn't had any. From the "Freezer Bowl" to the franchise's founding to Chad Ochocinco's "Riverdance" to Jerome Simpson's flip and Giovani Bernard's zig-zag run at Miami last season, there have been some awe-inspiring moments.
None of those, however, made it in our top three.
Jennings' play deserves consideration as the most memorable play in Bengals history because, at the time, it was a pivotal play in one of the two biggest games the team has ever played. When Jennings was tripped up as he crossed the goal line, the Bengals sideline erupted. The entire group knew the Bengals were now in control of the game and stood a good chance to emerge from South Florida having denied one of its former sons his third Lombardi Trophy. 49ers coach Bill Walsh served as an assistant in Cincinnati under the late Paul Brown during the franchise's early years.
While then-Bengals coach Sam Wyche tried to keep his sideline calm, it was noted during the game's broadcast that he and Jennings were graduates of the same small South Carolina college, Furman. The two Paladins seemed poised to share a post-graduate honor so few who've played and coached in the NFL ever get to realize.
But two Joe Montana touchdown passes later, the Bengals lost the lead and, eventually, the game. They haven't returned to the Super Bowl since.