The Cincinnati Bengals enjoyed the most successful free agency period of any team in the division. The Bengals were applauded by many experts for being among the big winners in the NFL draft.
Whether or not the Bengals return to the playoffs isn't about their division rivals. It's about whether this franchise can finally handle success.
The Bengals haven't put together back-to-back winning seasons since 1981-82. To put that into perspective, those were the years when Ronald Reagan was beginning his first term as president, a gallon of gas was going for $1.30 and Marvin Lewis was starting his coaching career at Idaho State.
This doesn't mean Cincinnati has struggled every year. The Bengals have been to the playoffs three times since 2005, the same amount as the Cowboys and one fewer than the Packers over that span. The problem has been following up that success. An AFC North title in 2005, and an 8-8 season in 2006. Another division title in 2009, and a 4-12 season in 2010.
There are few connections to this year's Bengals team and the 2010 one. Only seven players remain starters from Team Ochocinco & T.O., and Andy Dalton, BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Thomas Howard had nothing to do with that disaster of a reality show from two years ago. A.J. Green is still A.J. Green ... and not A.J. Verde.
Momentum has clearly been on the Bengals' side since they drafted Dalton and Green last year. Cincinnati went from the NFL's worst team at the start of the 2011 season --according to the ESPN power rankings -- to a playoff one. With the second-most salary cap room in the NFL, the Bengals then used free agency to not only fill holes but upgrade those positions. It was a methodical approach that avoided the pricey big names like Carl Nicks, Robert Meachem and Cortland Finnegan. The theme was solid moves instead of splashy ones.
They signed Green-Ellis, an all-around running back and touchdown machine, to replace Cedric Benson. They added left guard Travelle Wharton, a strong run blocker, to take over for Nate Livings. That should boost a team that ranked 30th in the NFL in yards per rush (3.3) and tied for 21st in touchdown runs (three).
Cincinnati didn't ignore the defense, signing six former first-round picks. The Bengals kept their free-agent priority, safety Reggie Nelson, beating out the New York Jets for him. Cincinnati then added three cornerbacks (Jason Allen, Adam Jones and Terence Newman) and two defensive linemen (Jamaal Anderson and Derrick Harvey).
In the draft, the Bengals landed the best zone cornerback (Dre Kirkpatrick), top run-blocking guard (Kevin Zeitler), the 2011 Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year (Devon Still), a top-rated tight end (Orson Charles) and two promising wide receivers (Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones).
"You don’t win games on paper and that's what we have to realize, starting with me," Bengals offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth told the team's website. "We've got to be better. This looks like a good class. But the rookies know it's going to come down to what they do and how they prepare and how they go after it."
This team is clearly better than last year's. The expectations, though, are higher. The pressure will be on to finish better than last year's record of 9-7. The pressure will be on to win the division.
The Ravens lost the NFL Defensive Player of the Year for the start of the season (Terrell Suggs) and likely won't have their running back in training camp (Ray Rice isn't expected to sign his franchise tag anytime soon). The Steelers could be without their starting running back (Rashard Mendenhall) and nose tackle (Casey Hampton) for the first six weeks of the season, and lost long-time leaders (Hines Ward, James Farrior and Aaron Smith) in their salary-cap purge.
While the Bengals have question marks at the No. 2 wide receiver spot and strong safety, the gap is significantly smaller between the traditional AFC North powers and Cincinnati. The Bengals return a Pro Bowl quarterback and wide receiver in Dalton and Green. They bring back a defense that ranked seventh in yards allowed (316.3) and nine in points given up (20.2). This team isn't lacking in talent or chemistry in the locker room, just a proven track record.
The biggest challenge for these young Bengals is beating the best. Cincinnati went 9-0 against non-playoff teams and 0-7 against teams that made the postseason. Maybe that's why the Bengals are ranked No. 16 in the post-draft ESPN power rankings, which is eight spots lower than what they finished last season.
There's going to be doubters, especially for a franchise that has gone three decades without consecutive winning seasons. But, based on what they accomplished in free agency and the draft, these are the new and much improved Bengals. All they have to do is show they can handle the best teams in the NFL, along with their own success.