AFC North: HBO

Here are the latest happenings Wednesday evening in the AFC North:
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers declined an invitation this summer to take part in HBO's popular, award-winning "Hard Knocks" series, which examines the trials and tribulations of training camp.

HBO now has to find its second choice. Could the next team be in the AFC North?

[+] EnlargeRay Lewis
Larry French/Getty ImagesRay Lewis and the Ravens could provide several interesting storylines for HBO's "Hard Knocks."
You can rule out the Cincinnati Bengals. HBO's been there and done that in 2009, which is too recent. The audience already has a feel for Cincinnati's franchise and it would be difficult for HBO to provide a different spin.

I also believe you can scratch off the Pittsburgh Steelers. They have a great training camp site, but Pittsburgh isn't the type of team seeking that kind of attention. The Steelers are very workmanlike, and I have a hard time seeing them opening their doors and being bothered by all the distractions and production involved.

The Cleveland Browns may be an interesting story. Former Browns coach Eric Mangini said he would never do it, but the new regime of president Mike Holmgren, general manager Tom Heckert and rookie coach Pat Shurmur may be more forthcoming. But the Browns don't have a lot of star power and HBO already did the "struggling Ohio football team" story two years ago in Cincinnati. So there's probably not much interest in Cleveland.

Finally, you have the Baltimore Ravens, who do have star power and could provide some interesting storylines. Can this team be a Super Bowl contender in 2011? Is quarterback Joe Flacco ready to take the next step? How does linebacker Ray Lewis continue to lead this team after 15 seasons? Baltimore has great personalities and its training camp location is immaculate. So there are several reasons the Ravens could fit.

But Baltimore was one of the first teams to do "Hard Knocks" in 2001 and there's plenty of teams that haven't done it and could be considered fresher meat for HBO. So overall, the chances do not look great for "Hard Knocks" landing in the AFC North this summer.

Morning take: Timmons expected back

October, 28, 2009
10/28/09
8:00
AM ET
Posted by ESPN.com’s James Walker

Here are the most interesting stories Wednesday in the AFC North:
  • Despite another ankle injury, Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Lawrence Timmons says he expects to be ready for the Nov. 9 game against the Denver Broncos.
Morning take: Timmons was lucky he didn’t injure the same ankle twice. That should help with his recovery time.
  • Is it time for the Baltimore Ravens (3-3) to worry about their playoff hopes?
Morning take: Keep in mind the Ravens were 3-3 last season before advancing to the AFC title game. But the major difference is the AFC North is a three-team race this year, not a two-team race.
Morning take: Cincinnati got off to a rocky start in Week 1, causing some doubt. But since then the Bengals are in good shape for the stretch run.
  • Two struggling teams will meet this weekend when the Cleveland Browns (1-6) travel to play the Chicago Bears (3-3).
Morning take: Both teams are on two-game losing streaks. But if the Bears play like they did last week against the Bengals, who knows?

Hard Knocks recap: Season finale

September, 10, 2009
9/10/09
10:30
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com’s James Walker


HBO concluded an interesting season of “Hard Knocks” featuring the Cincinnati Bengals Wednesday night.

Here were the highlights:

Synopsis: The Bengals wrap up their preseason and experience one of the most difficult days of the year when it’s time to reduce the roster to 53 players. Cincinnati goes out and puts a 38-7 thrashing on the Indianapolis Colts, as a lot of players perform well and make for some tough last-minute decisions.

Ocho drop-o: Bengals receiver Chad Ochocinco, who has been one of the biggest stars of the season, tells a lie right off the bat by saying he’s dropped only two passes all summer. Veteran safety Roy Williams calls him out on it and defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer gives Ocho a “Child please!” When HBO rolls the tape, the network shows a half-dozen drops from Ochocinco, proving Williams and Zimmer correct.

Funny moment No. 1: The league provides the Bengals with rules of communicating through the Internet. While Bengals coach Marvin Lewis goes down the list of social-networking sites, he says, “Facebook, whatever that’s called.” It’s safe to assume Lewis doesn’t have a Facebook account.

Funny moment No. 2: The show went into the origin of the “Who-Dey” chant, which started with the good Bengal teams of the 1980s. Said rookie linebacker Rey Maualuga, who played for USC and is from California: “It’s a little corny. But, you know, it’s part of the program.”

Rise and fall: Rookie tight end Chase Coffman continues to baffle Cincinnati’s coaching staff. The third-round pick began training camp slow and way behind on the depth chart. It then appeared he was making strides in the middle of camp, as injuries to the position helped propel him. But Coffman has continued his roller-coaster ride and fallen back to third string, according to the coaches, as they prepare for the regular season.

Cut time: The Bengals had to cut 20-plus players to get down to their 53-man roster. There were very few surprises, with the exception of keeping both Brian Leonard and DeDe Dorsey, which I agree was the right call.

Grade: B

Why: Naturally, roster cuts were the biggest part of the show, so most football and Bengals fans knew the ending before tuning in. Still, it was interesting to watch the process. In the best scene of the show, it was surreal to watch the coaching staff discuss and determine the future and livelihoods of so many people. Then viewers also got to see the process of each player waiting to be called. Overall, it was a great job by HBO to put a spotlight on a team few football fans cared about on a national scale. Any victory for the Bengals is a victory for the AFC North.

'Hard Knocks' recap: Episode 4

September, 3, 2009
9/03/09
10:00
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com’s James Walker


HBO’s “Hard Knocks” series continued Wednesday night with its fourth episode on the Cincinnati Bengals.

Here is a recap:



Synopsis: This week’s episode centered on Bengals coach Marvin Lewis. He is in his seventh year in Cincinnati and several of his own players admitted that this is a big season for “The Bossman,” as receiver Chad Ochocinco refers to him. The show details Cincinnati’s history and Lewis’ various struggles, such as making sure the Bengals don’t accept mediocrity and keeping in check all the different personalities. He even calls out Ochocinco for using Twitter, and then yells at the entire team following a preseason loss to the St. Louis Rams.


All in the family:
Finally, the show delved into the “family business” of the Bengals and how the team was once run by Paul Brown and passed onto current owner Mike Brown. Another interesting tidbit was that vice president Katie Blackburn worked for the team as early as high school. Blackburn, Mike Brown’s daughter, now has a law degree and is the Bengals’ chief negotiator.


Funny moment No. 1:
The entrance for the coaches at Paul Brown Stadium doesn’t work. “The gate is still broke?” Lewis wondered. “Why do I think the gate is still broke?” So Lewis backs up his truck, then drives it around the entrance gate and gets a good laugh out of it.


Funny moment No. 2:
With his girlfriend in attendance, Ochocinco offers a tip on how to meet women. The trick, according to Ochocinco, is to tell a woman your cell phone is dead, borrow hers, and then dial your number from the woman’s phone and call or text her later. “That may be some stalker-ish stuff but it helps with the rejection process.” (Thanks, Ocho, but I think I’ll pass on that approach.)


Fullback quandary:
It looks like the fullback competition between 2009 draft pick Fui Vakapuna and relative unknown Chris Pressley is heating up. The coaches like Pressley’s blocking ability more and appear to be considering him for a surprise roster spot. Vakapuna is more fluid catching passes out of the backfield, according to the team. Finals roster cuts are Saturday. Could an upset be brewing?


Smith in action:
As expected, first-round pick Andre Smith’s contract agreement made it into the most recent episode. Smith ended his 30-day holdout, and owner Mike Brown tells him right away that he’s not in good shape. ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported this week that Smith was overweight when he arrived, and your favorite AFC North blogger also reported that Cincinnati inserted a 350-pound “weight clause” into his contract during the regular season. HBO showed the actual sequence where Smith fractured a bone in his foot, and it was really a non-descript play where he was holding his block on Chris Harrington. According to HBO, Smith will be out for at least three weeks.


Grade:
B


Why:
This was another good episode in what’s been an impressive season of “Hard Knocks,” but I felt this week’s offering was a bit jumbled. The show tried to explain the Bengals’ family-run operation, Lewis’ plight, Smith’s signing, a poor preseason performance, and while still getting in its weekly dose of Ochocinco all in one hour. It jumped back and forth from story to story so fast without going very in-depth on any one topic. But overall it’s pretty clear that Lewis is not pleased with his football team. There are a lot of little things going on with the Bengals right now that Lewis doesn’t like, such as players arriving late to practice and not taking care of the little things in games. Cleaning up the little things is what the preseason is for. But if the Bengals feel they’ve already arrived and carry that attitude into the regular season, it could be a long year.

'Hard Knocks' recap: Episode 3

August, 27, 2009
8/27/09
12:30
PM ET
Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

HBO's "Hard Knocks" series continued Wednesday night with its third episode on the Cincinnati Bengals.

Here is a recap:


Synopsis: The Bengals wrap up the final few days of training camp in Georgetown, Ky., and cap it off with a hilarious rookie talent show. Following camp, Cincinnati travels to play its second preseason game against the New England Patriots, where a surprise kicker emerges in a 7-6 victory.


Ocho's kick: "Hard Knocks" chronicled how Chad Ochocinco became a surprise placekicker against New England. Kicker Shayne Graham (groin) was a no-go before the game and the Bengals actually planned to go for fourth downs and two-point conversions all night until Ochocinco asked "Bossman," aka Bengals coach Marvin Lewis, if he can kick during the game. It turns out Ochocinco's form was great and his extra point was the difference in the contest. Kudos for a game-winning idea from Ochocinco.


Palmer ailing: While getting treatment, Cincinnati's trainer tells a surprised Palmer that his ankle sprain will take "several weeks" to heal. Palmer responds that he heals fast and has more white blood cells than the average human being. (I'm not sure if he was joking or not.) The trainer shrugged and repeated that the team will take its time with the injury. In a shameless plug, the AFC North blog broke a story earlier Wednesday repeating that sentiment that Cincinnati is being extra cautious with Palmer and is pondering resting him for the remainder of the preseason.


America's (rookies) got talent: Perhaps the highlight of episode No. 3 was the rookie talent show. Nothing was off limits as rookies poked fun at Roy Williams' relationship with pop star Kelly Rowland, Andre Smith's 40-yard dash and Dhani Jones' eccentric ways. Even the usually serious Lewis couldn't stop laughing at these skits. I watched the segment three times myself last night on DVR. Funny stuff.


Camp surprise: Rookie free-agent safety Tom Nelson is making plays all over the field and is opening the eyes of Bengals coaches. The plays Nelson is making this year is reminiscent of some of the plays 2008 draft pick Corey Lynch made in last year's camp. But currently Lynch is struggling and Nelson is thriving as both players likely are fighting for one of the team's final roster spots.


More Smith talks: As reported in the media, Smith's agent, Alvin Keels, arrives in Cincinnati to do some down-and-dirty negotiations. Keels goes into an office with Bengals vice president Katie Blackburn and locks the door. "Are we going to get
a deal done today, Katie?" Keels asks. "It's up to you, Alvin," Blackburn responds. The two spend several hours in the room only to emerge with nothing. The pair agree to keep in touch. Bengals owner Mike Brown described the talks to his staff by saying, "We have no reason to think it will be [complete] anytime soon."


RB competition: It appears DeDe Dorsey and Brian Leonard are battling for one running back spot. Leonard is solid but not spectacular, while Dorsey brings a "wow factor" that Cincinnati is looking for behind starter Cedric Benson. Dorsey has shuffled around the NFL, including a prior trip to Cincinnati, because of inconsistencies and injuries. Leonard was a bust for the St. Louis Rams and is trying to prove his worth for another team. In a related note, Leonard faces the Rams Thursday night in a preseason contest.


Grade: B+


Why: This was another solid offering. It covered everything well -- from Palmer's ankle rehab to Ochocinco's extra point to Smith's contract negotiations. I'm still waiting for the big Mike Brown showcase episode, but maybe that's a pipe dream. Besides the occasional appearance by Blackburn, we still haven't seen much of the internal workings of Bengals ownership and the dynamics of the Brown family. But the breakdown of players, coaches and personalities have been tremendous, and this week's episode was another great example.

'Hard Knocks' recap: Episode 2

August, 20, 2009
8/20/09
10:30
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

HBO's "Hard Knocks" series with the Cincinnati Bengals continued Wednesday night.

Here is a recap of some of the highlights:

Synopsis: This week's episode focused a lot on Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer, who was accurately described as the team's most important player this season. Cincinnati played a mock game and also its first preseason game against the New Orleans Saints. Before the game, Bengal players and coaches were telling each other this was the start of something special. But the exhibition turned out to be a 17-7 win for the Saints. Bengals coach Marvin Lewis wasn't happy afterwards about the team's second-half performance.

QB wisdom: According to Palmer, 60-to-70 percent of what star receiver Chad Ochocinco says is just hot air. Palmer says he tunes out his top target most of the time.

More Ocho: The veteran receiver went out for a rare night on the town during training camp and ended up being harassed by a male fan. Ochocinco handles it well and later responds, "See how boring my life is? All I have is Twitter." The show also focused on his not-so-good diet, which has always included a lot of McDonald's.

Truth and reality: "Hard Knocks" continues to make rookie tight end Chase Coffman a huge goat on the show, which is only part of the story. Coffman is making rookie mistakes, but he's gradually improved as camp has progressed. Yet it seems every one of his mistakes is being profiled in what's framed almost as a running joke. It was pretty funny that the coaching staff came up with a new nickname for Coffman: "Crash dummy."

Far apart: The show ends with a bang as Bengals vice president Katie Blackburn is on the telephone negotiating with Alvin Keels, the agent for first-round pick Andre Smith. With tens of millions of dollars at stake, both sides argue over the Darrius Heyward-Bey deal and how it impacts Smith. Keels wants more than Heyward-Bey, while Blackburn doesn't want to give the No. 6 pick more than the No. 7 pick. It's not looking good.

Grade: A-

Why: As expected the show is getting better with each episode. This week's version was very personality based, which is great for Bengals fans and non-Bengals fans alike. Viewers got to know players like Palmer, Chinedum Ndukwe, Chris Henry and Corey Lynch on a more personal level. There were even small details such as how to make a quarterback wristband before game day, which was probably a television first. All and all it was a great job of chronicling the past week in "Bengaldom."

Morning take: Big game for D.A.

August, 20, 2009
8/20/09
7:30
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

Here are the most interesting stories Thursday in the AFC North:

  • This weekend's preseason game against the Detroit Lions could be make-or-break for Cleveland Browns quarterback Derek Anderson.

Morning take: Brady Quinn took the early lead in the first preseason game. If Anderson wants to keep this QB derby competitive, he needs to outperform Quinn in Game 2.

Morning take: Although not every team can pull this off, I agree with Pittsburgh choosing health over workload this summer. The veteran-laden Steelers already know their roles.

  • Baltimore Ravens offensive coordinator Cam Cameron wants to carry over momentum into his second year.

Morning take: With another year getting to know his personnel, it will be interesting to see what Cameron has up his sleeve. Expect Baltimore's offense and quarterback Joe Flacco to show improvement this year.

Morning take: We will have more on "Hard Knocks" in the next post.

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

HBO's much-anticipated "Hard Knocks" series featuring the Cincinnati Bengals made its debut Wednesday night. Every week the AFC North blog we will break down highlights of the show for ESPN.com readers.

 
  AP Photo/Al Behrman
  Chad Ochocinco unveiled his new catchphrase during the first episode of "Hard Knocks."

Here is a recap of the first episode:

Synopsis: After a 4-11-1 season that Bengals owner Mike Brown deemed "an embarrassment," the team is trying to fight back from the bottom to the top of the NFL. The series starts with the Olympics-style competition that the team held during minicamp, which displayed an attempt to build unity and a willingness to compete. Once arriving in Georgetown, Ky., the Oklahoma drill serves as an early highlight. The injury bug also strikes the tight end position, where starter Reggie Kelly (Achilles) is lost for the season and Ben Utecht suffers a severe concussion.

Next tight end up: Last year, then-rookie tight end Martellus Bennett of the Dallas Cowboys was the "Hard Knocks" goat early in training camp. This season Bengals rookie tight end Chase Coffman filled the same void in the debut episode. The show displayed all of Coffman's early mistakes in camp, such as poor routes and sloppy footwork. Ironically, I detailed many of those same initial struggles during my visit to Georgetown. But Coffman has actually improved since and is challenging for first-team reps.

Funny moment No. 1: In a welcome-to-Bengaldom moment, new safety Roy Williams -- who had spent his entire career in Dallas -- is shocked that players have to pay money to rent televisions for their dorm rooms. "There's no TV?" a startled Williams asked. The prices range from $93 to $266 depending on the size. The Bengals are notorious for their cost-cutting ways and this was yet another example.

Funny moment No. 2: Fullback Jeremi Johnson entered training camp 11 pounds overweight. And with team trainers working with Johnson every day, he somehow gained three additional pounds in the first week. Weight has always been an issue for Johnson since he arrived to Cincinnati in 2003. But lately he's gotten it together and is getting work with the first team.

Brown vs. the media: The Bengals have been a running joke in the media for quite some time and Brown acknowledged that in his address to the team.

"We exposed ourselves to the media, which criticized us and mocked us," the Bengals owner said. "This is a hard business. It can be a tough, bottom-line business where all that matters is did you win or did you lose? Now is the time for us to answer back, and the place for us to answer back is on the playing field. From there, our critics will hear us loud and clear."

The Ocho Show: In somewhat of an upset, entertaining receiver Chad Ochocinco didn't get his own segment until about 40 minutes into the hour-long program. At that time Ochocinco explained one of his favorite sayings: "Child please!"

"Child please is a nice way to say [expletive] you," said Ochocinco, who recommends that everyone try his new catchphrase.

Ochocinco also explains why Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo split up with Jessica Simpson.

"She bought him a $100,000 boat and now her birthday is coming up. That's a lot of pressure," Ochocinco said to laughing teammates. "As an athlete, we got money. But we don't got money like they [entertainers] got money, so pressure caused the breakup."

Spin control: Executive vice president Katie Blackburn displayed a perfect example of the Bengals being able to control the message. Wednesday's episode briefly touched on Cincinnati first-round pick Andre Smith being the lone absentee because of a contract dispute. But instead of being fair to both sides and pointing out Cincinnati's awful track record with rookie holdouts, Blackburn had an open forum.

"It's extremely frustrating," Blackburn said. "You're offering them so much money, and yet for some reason they're saying it's not enough."

Grade: B

Why: I'm intrigued by the potential of this show, but I thought the first episode was just good, not great. It focused mostly on the players, where I believe the most-compelling stories and mystery surrounding the Bengals involves ownership and the family-run business. I want to see more of Mike Brown, who is a polarizing figure in Cincinnati and rarely in the public eye. I want to see more of the Bengals' football operation, which is scant compared to other NFL teams and has been criticized tremendously over the years. Although I cover the Bengals regularly, I'm still eager to learn something new about the organization with its doors completely open this summer. The debut episode failed to accomplish that goal.

'Hard Knocks' debuts tonight

August, 12, 2009
8/12/09
3:00
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

Here is another reminder that the Cincinnati Bengals will make their HBO "Hard Knocks" debut Wednesday night at 10 p.m.

Film crews have been following the Bengals' every move in training camp for nearly two weeks before airing tonight's first episode. There have already been some interesting developments in training camp for Cincinnati, such as Andre Smith's absence, quarterback Carson Palmer's illness and multiple injuries to the tight end position.

I spent several days in Georgetown with the Bengals this summer and it will be interesting to see how their camp is portrayed on television. For those who do not have HBO, check back with the AFC North blog every Thursday morning this summer for a "Hard Knocks" recap.

Bengals training camp notes

August, 3, 2009
8/03/09
1:00
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

GEORGETOWN, Ky. -- Monday is our final day in Cincinnati Bengals training camp. It's been an interesting four days with one of the most popular sleeper picks in the NFL this season.

Here are some finals notes and observations on the Bengals before we move on to visit the other three AFC North teams:

  • I will start with a personal opinion: The chemistry with this year's Bengals is as good as I've seen. I've covered Cincinnati or the AFC North in some capacity since 2004, and this is the best Bengals locker room, as a group, that I can remember. In a league built for every team to finish 8-8, good chemistry is one of the few things that separate NFL teams. My early impression is that the usually up-and-down Bengals have a rare chance this season for chemistry not to be an issue.
  • Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer returned to practice Monday after missing the last two sessions over the weekend. According to a source, Palmer was dealing with flu-like symptoms, and on Monday he confirmed that it was bronchitis. He still looked slightly under the weather but appears to be getting over the illness.
  • It is still eerily quiet on the Andre Smith front. The first-round tackle missed his fourth day Monday as the team continues its negotiations. Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis did not take a hard-line stance recently when asked about Smith. Lewis praised the rookie's abilities to be a productive player and virtually left the door open for Smith to earn a starting job by Week 1. But this stance is always subject to change based on the amount of time Smith is out.
  • The Bengals roster appears overstocked in some areas, which could lead to trade options later this summer. Several positions such as defensive line, receiver and maybe even linebacker have a lot of players who could contribute but not enough reps to go around. With Cincinnati's lengthy history of injuries, it may be wise to maintain depth. But the Bengals do have some bargaining chips for trades that might help weaker areas on the team.
  • Rookie tight end Chase Coffman still looks bothered by his foot injury. The size and hands are apparent and the primary reason he was taken in the third round by the Bengals. But so far Coffman still appears a half-step slow in running his routes, and he's not taking any days off to rest the sore foot.
  • As far as HBO's Hard Knocks, overall the process got off to a good start. The coaches didn't seem too bothered by it, but it has looked a little unnatural for some players. Cameras are everywhere in Georgetown, and some players, like receiver Chad Ochocinco, appear to be having fun with it while others are more reserved. After living and experiencing the first four days of training camp, I'm curious to see how it's portrayed on camera.

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

GEORGETOWN, Ky. -- This is a year of optimism for the Cincinnati Bengals and starting tailback Cedric Benson.

 Benson

After joining the team last October, Benson made his mark by leading the team with 747 rushing yards in 12 games. This year Benson is in camp and expected to be productive for 16 games.

Over the weekend Benson talked to the AFC North blog about this upcoming season. [Editor's note: HBO's "Hard Knocks" filmed this interview, which was addressed in question No. 5.]

1. Cedric, how different is Year 2 with Cincinnati, knowing you get a full training camp?

Cedric Benson: Well, I'm doing something as opposed to chillin' on the couch right now. I guess that's about the only difference...Camp tends to have its pros and cons. It takes a toll on you as well. At the same aspect it gives you a chance to get really meshed in with your offense and in a good groove going into the season.

2. There are a lot of new faces in new places on the offensive line. So how will the adjustment be for you running the football?

Benson: [Saturday] was our first day in pads. So we didn't really get the chance to get a feel out there for how it's going to pan out or how it's going to work. I'm sure they're still looking for their groove, because we're kind of still trying to find our niche together.

3. Is there a reason you're hitting the outside more in these camps than last season?

Benson: That's basically the plays that I've been running. We've worked on a couple stretches and outside runs. It's just utilizing the speed, too, and letting that be a factor in the game.

4. You've never had 1,000 yards at this level. Is that a goal you set for yourself this season?

Benson: It's definitely attainable. It's something that you think about. It's something that you work for, both in the offseason and during the season. And you hope everything matches up and everybody meshes together so you can have some success with it.

5. Last thing: Is it weird having these guys [Hard Knocks] around?

Benson: [Smiles] Nah, I haven't even noticed them.

 
  Matthew Emmons/US Presswire
  The Bengals need their offensive line to help keep QB Carson Palmer (9) healthy.

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

Is it boom or bust for the 2009 Cincinnati Bengals?

Judging by the early optimism, the Bengals believe it's going to be a banner year in Cincinnati, despite coming off a dreadful 4-11-1 season.

"There's definitely a different feeling about this camp," an excited Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer said.

Camp Confidential: AFC North
Bengals: Sun., Aug. 2
Steelers: Fri., Aug. 7
Browns: Mon., Aug. 17
Ravens: Sat., Aug. 22
Training Camp index

Many football observers feel this year's Bengals have a chance to become one of the NFL's biggest surprises. The healthy return of Palmer, a refocused Chad Ochocinco at receiver, and a sneaky-good defense has "Bengaldom" reminiscing about 2005, which was the last time Cincinnati made the postseason.

But despite the excitement, just one winning season in the past 18 years still looms large for Cincinnati. So there are plenty of reasons to either believe or not believe in this struggling NFL franchise.

Continue reading and decide for yourself.

Key questions

1. Can Palmer play a full season?

Like most franchise quarterbacks, Palmer holds the key to the Bengals' season. That couldn't be any more evident than last year, when Cincinnati's offense completely tanked after Palmer shut it down with a severe elbow injury.

After bypassing surgery in favor of rehab, Palmer says he is finally 100 percent. The Bengals have kept him on a pitch count as a precaution, but Palmer's throws look crisp and have the usual zip. He also throws one of the prettiest deep balls in the league.

Palmer hasn't been hit since early last season and that is when the real test will begin. So far there have been no setbacks in practice. But it will be interesting to see how the elbow responds in preseason and regular-season games when defenders are taking their best shots.

2. Will the offensive line improve?

Going hand-in-hand with Palmer's return is the overall performance of the offensive line. There is a reason Palmer has had two season-ending injuries to his knee and elbow the past four years, and it's because of Cincinnati's gradual decline up front.

The Bengals' pass protection was horrendous last season, and it wasn't until the end of the season when the team finally discovered a running game behind starting tailback Cedric Benson.

 
  Tom Hauck/Getty Images
  Keith Rivers missed the final nine games of the 2008 season with a broken jaw.

This year the team will have a lot of new faces in new places. Andrew Whitworth will move from guard to left tackle, while rookie first-round pick Andre Smith is penciled in at right tackle. Nate Livings will take Whitworth's spot at left guard and Bobbie Williams will remain at right guard. There is competition at center, but Kyle Cook is the favorite to win that job.

The offensive line could be the team's biggest litmus test. If the unit plays well and jells early, the Bengals could get off to a fast start. If not, it could be a long season in Cincinnati.

3. Is Cincinnati's defense legit?

Despite just four victories, the Bengals finished No. 12 in overall defense in 2008. The ranking was especially impressive considering the unit got little help from its offense last season.

With the addition of some key veterans like Roy Williams and the return of former first-round pick Keith Rivers from a jaw injury, Cincinnati believes it has the potential to field a top-10 defense.

But when you look closer, you notice a few glaring holes.

For starters, Cincinnati was unable to generate a pass rush last season. The Bengals had just 17 sacks in 16 games, which was tied for the second fewest in the NFL. Their defense also was No. 21 against the run in 2008, as opponents were often able to get the lead early and run out the clock.

With the offense expected to put up points this year, Cincinnati's defense has a shot to improve upon those weaknesses.

 Ochocinco

Market watch

At a ti
me when some are wondering if Ochocinco, 31, is starting to hit a wall, the charismatic receiver arrived to camp this summer in arguably the best shape of his career.

After suffering through injuries and overall unhappiness in Cincinnati last season, Ochocinco dedicated himself to a strict offseason workout regiment in Los Angeles. The results are already apparent in training camp as Ochocinco has been explosive and extremely tough to guard in single coverage.

With the physical aspect in tow, the only concern is whether Ochocinco will remain happy and focused the entire season. Winning early would help.

Newcomer to watch

Ochocinco has a new running mate this year in Laveranues Coles. The Bengals signed Coles to a four-year, $28 million contract after losing veteran receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh to free agency.

 
  AP Photo/Tom Uhlman
  Wide receiver Laveranues Coles has big shoes to fill as he replaces T.J. Houshmandzadeh.

Coles has big shoes to fill as Houshmandzadeh recorded at least 90 catches in each of the past three seasons. At this point in his career Coles, 31, is more of a 60- to 70-catch receiver. So the Bengals may need additional help to replace Houshmandzadeh's production.

But Coles' veteran presence could help steady a relatively young receiver corps.

Observation deck

HBO is in Georgetown, Ky., this summer to film its popular "Hard Knocks" television series. The Bengals have opened their doors completely to the network during training camp and production crews and cameras are everywhere. It remains to be seen whether this causes a distraction or helps the team narrow its focus. But Bengals team officials say so far everything has gone smoothly in the first weekend of filming. ... As of Sunday, Smith continues to be the lone absentee for the Bengals and in the AFC North as a whole. He's missed three days of training camp so far and most expect it to be a lengthy negotiation ... Look out for fifth-year receiver Chris Henry. According to his teammates and coaches, the talented receiver has finally matured on and off the field and had the finest offseason of his career. Even as the third receiver, Henry has a chance to put up good numbers this year in the Bengals' pass-heavy offense. ... A primary reason for Cincinnati's lack of pass rush is due to the struggles of starting defensive ends Antwan Odom and Robert Geathers. The pair combined for just 5.5 sacks in 2008 but are aiming for better production this season.

ESPN's Cris Carter discusses the Bengals' wide receivers.

Helping Ochocinco

July, 13, 2009
7/13/09
11:00
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

  Ochocinco

Cincinnati Bengals receiver Chad Ochocinco recently asked for help to come up with one-liners and slogans to wear on T-shirts during HBO's "Hard Knocks" series.

So as the leader of our AFC North community, I thought I'd assist one of the most talented players in the division.

Here are some one-liners for Ochocinco to sport on "Hard Knocks" this summer:

  • "Child please!"
  • "Lav Co. and Ocho in '09."
  • "Anyone need a roommate?"
  • "Tweet, tweet!"
  • "Pepto is back!"
  • "Who is Eric Ghiacuic?"
  • "My real last name is Ochenta Y Cinco."

If you have any additional slogans for Ochocinco, he would love to hear them.

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