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'Knocks' knocks twice for Cincinnati

The most interesting NFL news of the weekend was the Cincinnati Bengals' decision to return to HBO's "Hard Knocks."

Good for them. The last time the organization consented to "Hard Knocks" was in 2009, and the Bengals won the AFC North. What made it an interesting franchise that year were its potential problems.

Cincinnati had plenty of characters. Chad Johnson was Chad Ochocinco and in his prime as a receiver and a talker. Carson Palmer was the quarterback. Cedric Benson was brought in to be a running back option. The late Chris Henry was a talented, raw receiver who had off-the-field problems.

The Bengals were always interesting because they took chances on players with questions about their character. For a while, it caused problems because of suspensions and off-the-field issues.

This year's team is different. In some ways, it might be a little boring, which is a good thing. Most -- if not all -- of its star players are class acts. It's a young team that is being built well.

If anything, the Bengals being on "Hard Knocks" might be more of a graduation than anything else. This team is talented enough to challenge Baltimore and Pittsburgh for the AFC North title.

Andy Dalton is a decent quarterback who has been to back-to-back playoffs, and his offense is loaded. With such players as A.J. Green, Jermaine Gresham, Tyler Eifert and Giovani Bernard, the Bengals have a great blend of young offensive talent. Plus, that talent is coached well by offensive coordinator Jay Gruden.

Defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer likes what he sees from his charges. He has pass-rushers, decent linebackers and a manageable secondary.

This version of the "Hard Knocks" Bengals is more based on merit than the potential for controversy. But are they ready for prime time and to top the Ravens and Steelers? "Hard Knocks" could be a good preview.

From the inbox

Q: Any chance the Patriots use Tim Tebow on special teams? I always thought his place in the league would be as a backup QB that could contribute on special teams. Be the placeholder on field goals and then he could do the occasional fake run/pass. Put him on the punt unit and then he could take a direct snap to run a fake.

Bryan in Morgantown, W.Va.

A: It's possible, but he's going to have to show more value than that to make the active roster. Bill Belichick rarely keeps more than two quarterbacks on the 53-man roster. Tebow would have to show he can be a good scout team quarterback with the potential to be a backup. He would have to show he could help out at H-back or tight end, although that is perhaps the Patriots' deepest position. He won't be needed on short-yardage plays. Tom Brady is maybe the best quarterback in the history of game at converting those opportunities. Tebow would have value on trick plays from punt formations, but he would need to show more in other areas to persuade Belichick to keep him.

Q: I literally have no team in the race (Ducks fan in a state with no NFL team). When it comes to the 18-game season, owners have pushed for rule changes that protect the health of their most valuable players (offensive skill positions). How would it benefit them to go to 18 games? Yes, the revenue for those games would be significant, but do you really want to put your top-flight athletes, game-changers, at risk for injury to that extent in order to get one full season more in eight years? The Krafts of the world have to know that they are risking their franchise (read money-making) assets by playing them that much in such a rough league. Do you want Tom Brady for a couple of seasons at 140 percent of the price or Tom Brady for 13 seasons at 80 percent of the price?

Ryan in Bend, Ore.

A: You make a lot of good points. The reason for going to 18 games is to replace two horrible preseason games with two regular-season games. No question, that creates problems. Players will wear down, and injuries might increase. The quality of the game might not be as good as it is after 16 games, and players' careers could be shorter. The owners are willing to roll the dice. At the moment, players aren't, so I don't think it's something you have to worry about.

Q: You've had a few questions recently about how to fix the Pro Bowl. Why not hold the Pro Bowl at the beginning of the season (with the previous year's selected players) in place of the Hall of Fame game? The NFL can make each Pro Bowl participant ineligible for one of his team's preseason games, and the desperation from fans for the start of the football season should keep ratings at a more than acceptable level. The players may not be too happy about not getting a trip to Hawaii, but having the game's current greats showcase their talent alongside the past greats being honored seems like a palatable alternative.

Rich in Boston

A: That won't happen. Coaches aren't going to risk their best players to injury that early in the season. There has to be an upside, and I don't know if there is one. Fearing injuries, Pro Bowl players being on the field that early will be less likely to risk their bodies to make plays. To me, the Pro Bowl issue is simple. Just keep the current system. The Pro Bowl is ceremonial. If ratings go down and the quality of the game drops, then eliminate it.

Q: I have been a Raider fan for all my life, and obviously the last 10 or so years have been tough. I don't drink the Kool-Aid, but I have looked at the roster up and down, and other than inexperience at the QB position and some questions about the DL, am I seeing a bit of a lift on the team from A to Z? Have I been beaten down so long I am drinking the Kool-Aid without knowing it or am I seeing a team that looks above average?

Adam in Nashville, Tenn.

A: I'd love the Raiders to be above average, but I can't see it. Too many changes. They have about eight starters on defense who are in the final year of their contract. That might be good for incentive, but it's not building much. Let's say the Raiders do well enough to be 8-8 or 9-7. They won't be able to re-sign some of the players who do well. I worry about the offensive line. I worry more about the defensive line. I don't think the Raiders have enough at wide receiver. And there is hardly anything at tight end. Sorry.

Q: I was wondering why teams don't trade players for players anymore like baseball does. It seems like a team with a strength in one area could trade a player or players to another team with a strength in a different area where their needs coincide. Being a Redskins fan, I could see a possible trade with Kansas City sending Adam Carriker or Jarvis Jenkins for Branden Albert.

Bill in Stafford, Va.

A: There are player-for-player trades but more on the back end of a contract than the others. If a team is giving up on a first-round pick toward the end of the rookie contract, interested teams aren't going to offer first-round value in return. That stalls player-for-player trades at the top end of the roster. It's hard enough to find good players, and teams aren't going to let them go. Let's go for the Albert trade. He's a left tackle. Trading him for a 3-4 defensive end wouldn't generate the value that would satisfy what the Chiefs would want.

Q: I have a radical suggestion on the 18-game schedule. To make the NFLPA agree, shorten the game by one minute per quarter. On a 16-game schedule, that would save 64 minutes. Shorter time in each game means less fatigue for the players, which should reduce risk of injury. The TV networks would be happy for four extra minutes of ads. The game would also have a quicker pace. But this of course will bring headaches for the coaches in terms of time management. Like I said, this is radical and a very long shot.

Rick in Indonesia

A: I'd say it's a long shot. It's not just the games, but it's the preparation for the games. I know the current system is 20 games -- four preseason and 16 regular-season -- but the risk of injury increases with two additional regular-season games. Let's say the quicker-pace offense has staying power. Shortening the game by four minutes may not necessarily decrease the number of plays much.

Q: Do you feel that Michael Crabtree's Achilles injury in the long run will be a blessing in disguise for the 49ers in that it will unearth a No. 2 receiver and allow them to draft another receiver next year for added depth?

Cooper in San Francisco

A: Absolutely. The Crabtree injury hurts the 49ers immensely. What if they don't have great options behind Crabtree? Anquan Boldin works the slot and needs an outside threat to give him a chance to get some separation. If the young receivers don't work out, the 49ers could have a significant drop-off in their passing offense. They have to make sure Crabtree gets back by November. They need him.

Q: The Lions, with the addition of Reggie Bush, now have a very solid core of RBs. That being said, they still have been pretty stagnant when it comes to improving their secondary. Will the addition of Reggie Bush offset the lack of secondary improvement enough to perhaps produce a winning season or a wild-card berth?

Kyle in Tomahawk, Wis.

A: Bush should help them. If he catches 70 passes and runs well, the offense will be better. You are correct in worrying about the defense. This should be a seven- to nine-win team, but if an injury happens in the secondary, there may not be enough depth to handle things. That's where the pass rush has to help. The Lions have to pressure the quarterback so the corners aren't exposed as much in coverage. I'm not sold that the Lions will be as good as they were last year in rushing the quarterback.