AFC North: Cincinnati Bengals

Bengals' biggest key to success

July, 10, 2014
Jul 10
12:00
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If the Cincinnati Bengals are going to continue their recent run of success in the next three seasons, they will have to accomplish a number of things.

It's a monumental task to pick just one.

Dalton
Dalton
So much of the Bengals' immediate future hinges on what happens at the quarterback position, either later this offseason or during or after this coming regular season. For now, Andy Dalton remains the starting quarterback, even while the team tries to negotiate a contract extension with him and his agent. Little ground has been covered in the talks. It is becoming apparent that the more time passes without a new deal the more Dalton may be content playing out the 2014 season and trying to do enough to earn a second-contract salary that competes with the league's elite passers.

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.
Corey DillonJonathan Daniel/Allsport
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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

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Description: It started as just another late-October Sunday afternoon in Cincinnati in a season that had already been effectively declared a wash. Arguably the biggest storyline entering the Week 8 showdown revolved around Paul Brown Stadium and the hex the Bengals had seemingly been under since they opened it earlier that year. At 0-3 at home and 0-6 overall, the Bengals hadn't quite gotten acclimated to their new digs. Actually, they hadn't quite gotten used to playing on the road, either.

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.
 
John TaylorUSA TODAY Sports
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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

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Description: In order to be eligible for consideration on the Bengals' top plays list, a play did not have to be one that caused Who Dey Nation to erupt in raucous cheer. It could have been the direct source of heartache, too.

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.

As they read this, members of the Cincinnati Bengals' front office are probably furiously knocking away at whatever item made of wood happens to be nearby.

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.
Stanford JenningsGin Ellis/Getty Images
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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.

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Stanford Jennings, a 26-year-old returner/running back at the apex of his NFL career, scored the first touchdown with 50 seconds left in the third quarter when he sprinted 93 yards on a kickoff return that pushed the Bengals to a 13-6 lead. Finally, after trading field goals with the 49ers, the Bengals had the game's momentum. As the Bengals prepared for the final quarter, the odds of them winning the franchise's first Super Bowl started looking quite favorable.

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.
Andy DaltonRob Carr/Getty ImagesThe Cincinnati Bengals need Andy Dalton to make his postseason struggles a thing of the past.
CINCINNATI -- It was one of the best seasons in the Cincinnati Bengals' 45-year history.

An 11-5 regular-season record. A division championship. A top-three playoff seeding. A top-three defense. A top-10 offense. Indeed, 2013 will forever be remembered as the year it all finally came together for a franchise that, believe it or not, long ago discarded its status as a perennial loser. Some outside southwest Ohio might have trouble comprehending it, but these really aren't the Bengals of old. This organization now not only thinks it belongs in the annual NFL playoff picture but also does well to prove it.

Still, I know what you're thinking. Even with the Bengals' recent track record of success, surely it'll be virtually impossible this season for them to top, let alone match, the accomplishments they had a year ago.

You would be right. It's time the Bengals are told that, too. It's time they brace for a step back. Right now, some three weeks before training camp, it's hard seeing them progress past the leaps and bounds they made a year ago. Regression is real in the NFL. It will find a home on the banks of the Ohio River this fall.

Don't try telling that to the Bengals, though. Understandably, their optimism this offseason has been every bit as high as it was last July and the July before that. The focus in the locker room isn't on sliding backward, nor should it be. Cincinnati's goal, just like any other team's goal, continues to revolve around improving and building upon what it did the year before.

"This team can do a lot," offseason newcomer and veteran safety Danieal Manning said. "Everybody wants to be better than they were the day before. You don't hear that all the time in locker rooms."

Certainly all 89 players currently on Cincinnati's roster believe that a 12-4 regular season is possible, along with another AFC North title. The same group currently sees itself as a lock for a first-round playoff bye and is confident it has a top-five defense and offense.

It's possible that each of those feats gets realized this year. Good teams are able to steadily improve year by year to the point where they eventually become great. But the way things stand right now, such vast improvements just don't seem all that likely for the Bengals.

Along with playing in the same division as a Pittsburgh team that seems poised to make a legitimate turnaround from an injury-plagued 8-8 season, the Bengals enter the season with the same player behind center who regularly wilted in some of the biggest games and moments from the past three seasons. Quarterback Andy Dalton appears to have made mechanical improvements, but he'll need boosts to his psyche to make constant success his norm instead of the bouts of inconsistency that have routinely sabotaged his otherwise stellar play.

Combine the Pittsburgh factor and the Dalton factor with the coaching factor, and the odds the Bengals progress from good to great this season continue looking less than favorable.

We talk often about how the Bengals are replacing coordinators Jay Gruden and Mike Zimmer, but there were other changes made aside from Hue Jackson's and Paul Guenther's promotions. They also brought on a linebackers coach and a co-defensive backs assistant from the outside and will have a first-time position coach in running backs assistant Kyle Caskey.

The last time Cincinnati made a change at either of the coordinator positions was ahead of the 2011 season, when Gruden was hired to replace Bob Bratkowski as offensive coordinator. Each year since the change, the organization steadily improved. After a relatively unexpected 4-12 showing in 2010, the Bengals rebounded and made the playoffs in 2011 with a 9-7 record. In 2012, they were 10-6 and went to the postseason. The common thread in the past three playoff years, though, has been the disastrous first-round exits. To some players, those defeats alone rendered the respective season's failures.

Which brings us to an interesting point: Could we actually call it a step back if the Bengals fall to 9-7 this year yet make the playoffs and win a playoff game?

If they knew this instant that very scenario would come to the fore, most Bengals fans would want to throw a parade downtown tomorrow. And they wouldn't be faulted. Nineteen years of postseason misery would be released in a cathartic celebration few other cities these days could truly comprehend. Along with the Bengals' playoff-win drought that dates back to 1991, the Reds haven't won a baseball playoff series since 1995.

A playoff win, regardless of what happened in the regular season, certainly should be greeted as a positive. But would that be a sign of progress? In the postseason sense it would, but unless that playoff win kicks off a string of victories that put the Bengals in the Super Bowl, it would do little to show where they have grown between 2013 and 2014.

Playoff-win daydreams aside, the reality is the Bengals haven't won in the postseason in a long time and didn't do much this offseason to make themselves dramatically better than what they were last year. True year-over-year progress would mean the Bengals this season will compile a 12-4 record, claim another division title and make, at worst, an appearance in the AFC Championship Game.

Right now, it's hard seeing a season like that in Cincinnati in 2014.

The realistic, pre-training-camp view of the Bengals' upcoming season is that it won't be as good as the last. So it would be wise the Bengals start bracing for the possibility they'll be taking the undesired step backward.
Join us at 1 p.m. ET, 10 a.m. PT today for ESPN’s NFL Nation TV’s Spreecast episode No. 12. Host Paul Gutierrez (Oakland Raiders reporter), co-host Coley Harvey (Cincinnati Bengals reporter) and guests Eric Williams (San Diego Chargers reporter) and Mike Triplett (New Orleans Saints reporter) discuss a range of topics from the pending decision on Jimmy Graham's franchise tag grievance to Johnny Manziel's latest escapades to Randy Moss getting the coaching bug, among other issues. Viewers are encouraged to log in and ask the panelists questions and contribute in the chat feature in the box atop the video player.

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Join us today at 1 p.m. ET, 10 a.m. PT, for NFL Nation TV’s Spreecast episode No. 11. Host Paul Gutierrez (Oakland Raiders reporter), co-host Coley Harvey (Cincinnati Bengals reporter) and guests John Keim (Washington Redskins reporter) and Scott Brown (Pittsburgh Steelers reporters) discuss a range of topics from the team nickname under fire in the nation’s capital to the passing of a legend in Chuck Noll to Michael Vick thinking very highly of himself, among other timely issues. Viewers are encouraged to log in and ask the panelists questions as well as contribute in the chat feature.

CINCINNATI -- One of the longest standing myths in pro football is that the Cincinnati Bengals are cheap when it comes to paying their players.

That perception was dealt a heavy blow last summer when the Bengals signed two of their prized defensive linemen to mega deals that nearly combined for $100 million.

Dunlap
Atkins
As a result of those major signings, the Bengals last week ended up with two players landing on Forbes' list of the 100 highest-paid athletes. Defensive tackle Geno Atkins came in at No. 53 overall, and defensive end Carlos Dunlap checked in at No. 84. Last summer, Atkins inked a five-year, $55 million contract extension, while Dunlap agreed to his own six-year, $40 million extension.

According to the Forbes list, Atkins earned a total of $22.4 million between June 1, 2013 and June 1, 2014. In that same stretch, Dunlap earned $18.8 million. In both cases, many of those dollars came from the new deals they signed that went into effect in time for the 2013 season.

Those earnings, like the ones from the other 98 athletes on the list, were comprised of salaries and bonuses paid in the last year, as well as any signing, award or playoff bonuses that were given to the athlete. Also included in the total earnings are estimates for endorsements each athlete has. According to Forbes, Atkins and Dunlap made about $50,000 each in endorsements in the last year.

Using those metrics, the highest-earning athlete for the year was boxer Floyd Mayweather, who took home about $105 million, according to Forbes.

Atkins ranked ahead of the likes of quarterback Drew Brees and baseball players David Ortiz and Justin Verlander. He was also just five spots shy of suspended baseball player Alex Rodriguez, who earned $22.9 million last year, including $300,000 in endorsements. Dunlap outpaced NASCAR driver Jeff Gordon and Bears receiver Brandon Marshall, among others.

Dunlap this season is expected to be Cincinnati's star at defensive end now that former end Michael Johnson signed with Tampa Bay in free agency earlier this offseason. Their two-man tandem is no more. Instead, it'll primarily be Dunlap at one end position and a rotation at the other. Margus Hunt and Wallace Gilberry are poised to split the playing time at the end position opposite Dunlap.

Atkins will be returning from an ACL tear that ended his season nearly two months to the day after he signed his contract extension. Lost in Week 9, Atkins has been rehabbing ever since, and is eyeing a return just in time for the start of this coming regular season. It's unclear right now if he'll be ready by then. Two years ago, he was the Bengals' sack leader, finishing with 12.5. Cincinnati hopes his pass-rush success returns with him this season.

The linemen were two of 17 NFL players on the Forbes' list. According to contract figures from ESPN Stats & Information, Cincinnati had the league's best-paid defense last season. The Bengals spent more than $69 million in cap value on the defense last season, about $6 million more than the Steelers. It appears to have had an impact on the field, too. Cincinnati had the league's third-ranked defense in 2013.
CINCINNATI -- Russell Bodine has yet to send back a snap in an NFL game, but the Cincinnati Bengals rookie center has already learned an important lesson about playing his position: Avoid drawing too much attention.

[+] EnlargeRussell Bodine
AP Photo/Michael ConroyThe Bengals like what they see in their fourth-round pick, center Russell Bodine.
"If they don't even know my name, that's all right," Bodine said. "Don't mess anything up. That's about the only way they figure out who you are."

Bodine has nonetheless drawn his share of attention in the month that he's spent in Cincinnati. A fourth-round draft pick out of North Carolina, the young center had his share of eyeballs during this spring's organized team activities and minicamp practices. With veteran Mike Pollak nursing a knee injury, Bodine made an early push to win the team's starting center position battle.

Since the Bengals concluded their on-field practices Tuesday, Bodine and other possible starting centers have to wait until sometime in August before they figure out exactly where they stand in the coaches' minds. For now, we at least know that offensive coordinator Hue Jackson believes Bodine is a good prospect who has all the potential in the world to factor into the Bengals' offensive future.

"He has the characteristics we are looking for in a center," Jackson said.

Among the areas that Bodine struggled at times with this spring was his ability to snap the ball cleanly to quarterbacks Andy Dalton and Jason Campbell, the two signal callers he spent the most time snapping to during OTAs and minicamp. During Monday's open OTA, Bodine sailed one snap over Dalton's head and sent another to the quarterback's feet. After talking through the miscues with Dalton and offensive line coach Paul Alexander, Bodine finished the practice much cleaner.

"He's got to get the ball to the quarterback right," Jackson said. "He can't play center if you don't snap the ball correctly. He's working at it and he's done a good job. But he's got to become a little more consistent on an everyday basis."

Bodine, a member of NFL Draft Report's All-American Sleeper Team earlier this year, agreed with Jackson's assessment. Part of the problem, Bodine said, has been the fact that he's still learning the audible calls and line checks that will be unique to the Bengals' new offense under Jackson. As an offense that wants to get plays called quickly and to the line of scrimmage early in the play call, the Bengals' scheme will rely on a bevy of pre-check reads and the quarterback and center's ability to make sure the play is perfectly set up before it gets run.

That's a little different than what Bodine is used to. In college, Bodine's Tar Heels liked to get to the line quickly, too, but they often snapped the ball right away and ran a play. There weren't as many pre-check assignment reads and changes as he's been dealing with since getting drafted.

"In the offense I ran in college, we didn't change plays. We'd call a play, we'd get up there and our goal was to run a play every 12 seconds," Bodine said. "So there wasn't a whole lot of checking and audibiling at the line of scrimmage or anything like that. Handling those checks is big for me. It's definitely the most difficult aspect right now. When that play changes, all my calls change and I've got to get everybody on the same page, and that's been the most difficult thing."

When Jay Gruden was still the Bengals' offensive coordinator, he used to regularly say that one of the more underrated aspects of longtime Bengals center Kyle Cook's game was his ability to see the field and to make the proper pre-snap calls. Cook may not have been the best center physically speaking -- which led to his release earlier this offseason -- but from a cerebral standpoint, he was considered a star among his peers.

The Bengals are hoping that Bodine, who has been praised for his brute strength and savage physicality, will become even sharper at the mental aspects of the position.

"I don't think anything's jarring to him. He's doing well," said right guard Kevin Zeitler, who lined up next to Bodine often this spring. "He's got the basics down. A lot of offenses are very similar from college to the NFL, it's just different terminology. Sometimes it's just making the right call, or if there isn't the right call to make, it's just communicating."

For Zeitler, a lineman not known for being verbal at the line, having the rookie next to him had an unintended positive impact. Zeitler was forced to open his mouth and talk more.

"It was Whit who was saying it's given Zeitler a chance to come out of his shell because he was having to make some calls," Pollak said. "The last couple of years he's had Cook to rely on. Now he has to make sure Bodine is doing the right thing, which is good for Zeit."

Pollak expects to be at full health late next month when training camp starts, but he knows he'll have a real position battle if coaches put him at center. For now, the recently re-signed lineman isn't sure whether he'll be called upon to play center or guard. He has experience at both positions, although he's never made a starting snap from center. With Clint Boling possibly out for most if not all of training camp, Pollak could find himself at left guard when the Bengals return to Paul Brown Stadium.

"I'm just ready to come wherever they need me to go," Pollak said. "They brought in Bodine and he's doing a great job, and if they want to go with him at center, great. But I'm going to be ready to go at center or guard, wherever they need me."

When Bodine practices next month, he doesn't want to be coddled like a first-year player.

"My goal is not to be a good rookie," Bodine said. "My goal is to be a good player. The rookie thing doesn't really mean anything to me. I'm going to go out there and I'm going to try and make strides in the right direction. I'm going to learn everything there is to learn as quickly as I can learn it."
CINCINNATI -- A son of Western Pennsylvania, Cincinnati Bengals coach Marvin Lewis' most formative football years were spent watching Chuck Noll's Pittsburgh Steelers defenses intimidate opponents as they romped to four Super Bowls.

Friday night, at his Pittsburgh-area home, Noll, the Steelers' legendary Hall of Fame coach, died of natural causes at the age of 82.

According to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, Art Rooney Jr., the oldest son of Steelers founder Art Rooney Sr., said Noll was "the best thing to happen to the Rooneys since they got on the boat in Ireland."

Lewis, who spent four years on Pittsburgh's staff just after Noll retired in 1991, understands perfectly why Noll was so revered by the Rooneys and beloved not only among Terrible Towel wavers, but among many around football, too.

"Obviously, the thing Coach Noll did was he set a direction," Lewis said. "They had a plan. They drafted for the plan. They developed for the plan very effectively and won championships. That's the key element. He had a great temperament about him. He was a very physical person and he had physical football teams. He was demanding as a football coach, and you learn from that. When I went there to coach in '92, they were a hard-working football team."

After landing the Pittsburgh head-coaching gig in 1969, Noll's Steelers won Super Bowls in 1974, 1975, 1978 and 1979. His was the hand behind the team's vaunted "Steel Curtain" defense. Around that same time, Lewis was graduating from high school and leaving home for Idaho State where he lettered three years.

"They had big, tough linemen there," Lewis said. "They had a defense that would be smothering, so you want to have that. You want to have big production from your wideouts and the quarterback's got to be able to throw the ball effectively."

Lewis also has had his share of physical defensive lines during his 11 seasons in Cincinnati. He hopes this season that his receivers can produce for his quarterback. Andy Dalton may not be Terry Bradshaw, but Lewis' expectation is just like Noll's: that his starting signal-caller will throw the ball in spots that will allow everyone else around him to execute at a high level.

"The fundamentals of their football team were very important," Lewis said. "And that's being able to score productively by passing the ball, running the ball effectively to win the games and play great defense."

Before his work with the Steelers more than 20 years ago, Lewis said he never really knew Noll, except for getting paired with him in celebrity golf outings in Pittsburgh.

"It was great," Lewis said, grinning. "The other people in the group, they had the chance to play with Chuck Noll. But unfortunately, they got Marvin Lewis in the group, too.

"The greatest part of it was that these guys would want Coach Noll to share stories about football, and Coach Noll would be talking about the leaves on the trees or the beer that he made last month or whatever wine. The kind of things that were beyond football. The only thing he ever said relating to sports and competitiveness was when the guys would leave the last putt for him and he would say, 'Oh, there's no pressure.' His temperament about competition was great."
CINCINNATI -- Terence Newman knows he's what we'll simply call "advanced in age."

He doesn't need you nor I to remind him of the 11 seasons he's seen in the NFL. He doesn't need either of us to bring up the fact he's the only player on the Cincinnati Bengals' roster who was born in the 1970s. He also doesn't need to be told that "Father Time" has yet to lose in his grand battle with professional football players; a day will soon come when he'll be forced to halt his playing days and move on to other endeavors.

[+] EnlargeTerence Newman
Al Behrman/AP PhotoCornerback Terence Newman is entering his 12th season in the NFL, and he's picked up on some valuable tips over the years.
The main reason he doesn't need any of those hints about his age -- 35 -- is because Newman is comfortable he has time left before the dreaded "R-word," (retirement) becomes his reality. Besides, he understands the great advantage the Bengals, or any team for that matter, have in simply having him around.

As he enters his 12th season in the league, Newman continues embracing his role as Bengals sage.

"I've seen everything that kind of can see as far as offenses," the veteran cornerback said, holding a golf wedge as he sized up a chip shot in the Bengals' locker room after a minicamp practice earlier this week. "It's fun for me because I can kind of give my input on things that I've seen in the league, and just try to pass that on to [younger players]. All the young guys, I just try to help them any way I can. That's from Day 1. Since the time they got here they say, 'What are you? A player or a coach?'

"That's just me passing along what I got when I first got in the league."

He passes along golf advice, too. During the interview, he kept pointing out to third-year safety George Iloka a few reasons his whiffle-ball chip shots weren't landing in the laundry bins across the locker room. Ever the adviser Newman is. It seems he already has a hobby for when the dreaded "R-word" rolls around.

When Newman, who was drafted by the Cowboys with the fifth overall pick, entered the league from Kansas State in 2003 the NFL landscape was much different.

For starters, the Bengals weren't the annual division threat they now are. Back then, their old "Bungles" nickname certainly applied. Before head coach Marvin Lewis was hired that offseason the Bengals hadn't had even a .500 record since 1996. They hadn't had a winning tally further back than that -- 1990.

Schematically, the league looked different, too. Mobile quarterbacks were all the rage with the elusive Michael Vick and Donovan McNabb dominating headlines.

While running quarterbacks are still a little en vogue, teams are more apt to spread the field with multiple playmakers. Bigger tight ends, bigger receivers and shiftier running backs have become the NFL norm. As Newman keeps adapting to the subtle changes that come into the league each passing year, he's trying to make sure his young teammates understand how to properly counter them.

"We all watch film differently and see some things differently," Newman said, comparing himself to the first- and third-year players the Bengals have at corner. "I might see something. Say a receiver puts his opposite foot up. I saw that [Thursday] and started yelling, 'Run, run, run.' I knew that it was a run. That's just different little things people might not see."

After explaining that anecdote, Newman told another involving a series of routes Bengals receivers had run while rookie Darqueze Dennard covered one of them. From the sideline, Newman could tell Dennard didn't see all of the routes the way he should have.

"When you bring it up, they're like, 'Oh yeah, that's right. I did notice that,'" Newman said.

Dennard, the team's first-round pick who signed his rookie deal Thursday, has credited Newman's guidance, as well as that of Adam Jones and Leon Hall, to reasons why the game is beginning to slow down and his playbook is beginning to make more sense.

"We've got a lot of great players out here," Dennard said. "Looking especially in the secondary, there's a lot of players that have done a lot of good things in their careers. I'm just out here to learn from them and do the best I can to help the team."

Newman knows that inevitably Dennard or some other young cornerback will eventually take his spot. But he's determined they don't do that this year.

"I'm fighting for a roster spot, too, like everybody else, in my mind," Newman said. "Honestly, I think that all nine of us could be on rosters and contribute this year. That's how good the talent at cornerback is. But as it is, you only get a certain number of guys that actually play."

Cuts at the position will be made.

During one of last week's practices, Lewis praised Newman for the way he's so far attacked this round of offseason workouts. The veteran easily could slack off and coast into training camp, but he hasn't.

"That's why he's been such a great pro for so long," Lewis said. "He's got incredible, incredible athleticism and intelligence. He's a kid at heart. He's just been a marvel and a great asset to this football team both on the field and off the field and intrinsically within the room with what he does, always mentoring players, whether it's at his position or other guys about the NFL in general."
CINCINNATI -- The mandatory minicamp portion of the Cincinnati Bengals' offseason has come to an end, meaning summer is well within view.

Following three voluntary organized team activity practices next week, the Bengals are off until July 24, when they take to Paul Brown Stadium's practice fields for the start of training camp. The only day next week media are permitted to watch the team practice is Monday. After that day, we won't see all 90 players on a field together until training camp.

That makes Thursday's final minicamp practice an important last step in springtime football.

Here are a few brief observations from the workout:
  • As they continue experimenting with offense and defense combinations, the Bengals shuffled players around all practice. Linemen who had been getting some run with the second- and third-team units were practicing with the first-teamers. The same went for reserve running backs and receivers, who were taking handoffs and catching passes from starting quarterback Andy Dalton. It was the coaches' chance to see which backup players could shine with the first-teamers, and which starters could play alongside which backups. It's all part of the tinkering that goes on in June.
  • That said, undrafted free agent Trey Hopkins was among those backup players who got some playing time with the first-team offense. The offensive lineman played both left tackle and left guard during the practice. Running backs Cedric Peerman, Rex Burkhead and BenJarvus Green-Ellis also were among those who played with the first-team units. Since rookie Jeremy Hill was drafted, Green-Ellis has slid from running with the first team alongside Giovani Bernard, to the lower quadrant of the backfield depth chart. On defense, cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick was one of the backups who mixed in with the first-teamers on both sides of the ball.
  • Like we mentioned Wednesday, rookie quarterback AJ McCarron has been cleared to throw after dealing with "arm tightness" during the first two weeks of OTAs. He threw a little bit more and threw deeper passes Thursday. One of his best of the day was about a 15-yard comeback route to Cobi Hamilton, who broke sharply away from his defender thanks to a quick cut. McCarron also was picked off late in the practice when the Bengals were going through a two-minute drill. Safety Shawn Williams jumped a short throw.
  • Finally, after missing Wednesday's practice, Pro Bowl left tackle Andrew Whitworth was back Thursday, getting his normal reps.
CINCINNATI -- Since his Queen City arrival about a month ago, AJ McCarron's nights have followed a distinct pattern.

If the rookie quarterback is not at a Cincinnati Reds baseball game or taking in a quick meal at a local eatery, he is in his new Ohio River Valley abode with his nose buried in a Cincinnati Bengals-issued iPad until past midnight while his famous fiance looks on.

Still six weeks and one day shy of the start of training camp, it's all about learning for the first-year player. It's not about trying to supplant the veteran starter from Day 1 of training camp, or taking first- or second-team reps throughout the preseason. For the foreseeable future, it's about learning the Bengals' offense, adapting to it and playing as well within it as he can.

[+] EnlargeAJ McCarron
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesAJ McCarron is spending his early days with the Bengals just trying to get a handle on the playbook.
All of that means it's also about subjecting his partner, Sports Illustrated model and former Miss Alabama Katherine Webb, to hours upon hours of football.

"She's having to sit there and watch the game when she probably didn't want to," McCarron said Wednesday, adding that he felt bad for subjecting her to it. "But right now, it's just a lot of studying and trying to make everything like it's natural and I don't have to think about it."

McCarron added that part of his Sunday night was spent watching the Miss USA beauty pageant with Webb.

Tuesday night, though, it was back to football. McCarron said he stayed up to 12:30 a.m. breaking down protections, coverages and blitzes as he sifted through offensive coordinator Hue Jackson's new system. He thinks the study has been paying off.

"I feel like I'm in a good groove right now, and I feel like I'm in a good place," McCarron said. "I'm catching on."

He's also healing. After being forced to only hand off the football during the first two weeks of voluntary organized team activities, McCarron has been throwing during the minicamp all this week. On both Tuesday and Wednesday, he was mostly firing shorter passes to running backs tucked at the bottom of coverage patterns. After dealing with so-called "arm tightness" the first two weeks, he's been cleared to at least throw in a limited capacity. Eventually, the Bengals will work up to allowing him to make longer throws.

Still, he was glad to have a chance to make the ones he did.

"Just to get back in the swing of things and being able to have reps throwing the ball instead of just run plays the whole time; it's definitely good," McCarron said.

In addition to his late-night film study, McCarron credited Jackson and quarterbacks coach Ken Zampese for helping him quicken his pace of learning.

"It's Coach Zamp. We're really close," McCarron said. "He's a really good friend and a great coach. He's helped me a ton. We've spent a lot of hours together going over everything. He's been a huge help to me so far, and he pushes me. That's what I like. I want somebody where, if I don't do right, they get on me and just throw me in the fire. Coach Hue and Zamp have done that."

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