Marvin Lewis is trusting his offense -- and potentially his job -- to rookie QB Andy Dalton. (Cal Sport Media)
Cincinnati was 2-1 last season when the wheels fell off. Starting with a three-point loss to Cleveland in Week 4, the Bengals dropped 10 straight games en route to a 4-12 finish. Long story short, the whole year was a mess, especially coming off the heels of 2009's surprising division title.
So when Cincinnati head coach Marvin Lewis states that this year's Bengals will "be a better team," you almost want to give him the benefit of the doubt.
"There’s not the star power on paper that maybe we possessed last year. But when it comes down to it, as our guys are calling it 'we’ll be all in together' and that’s the best statement we can make heading into the regular season."
Preventing a total team implosion on and off the field would give the 2011 Bengals a leg up on their 2010 selves. The question is how far attitude and intangibles can take a Cincinnati team that appears to be worse, at least on paper, heading into this season.
Gone are the team's top two receivers from 2010, Terrell Owens and Chad Ochocinco. And still stuck in trade-me-or-else purgatory is longtime starting quarterback Carson Palmer. In their stead are a bunch of unproven, young players -- most notably '11 first-round WR A.J. Green and second-round QB Andy Dalton, both of whom are set in the starting lineup.
We'll learn soon enough if Lewis' statement is prophetic. The only thing that matters now is Lewis believes that to be true, because quite frankly, he has no other choice.
Lewis has been Cincinnati's head man for eight rather uninspiring years. He led the Bengals to division crowns in 2005 and '09 but has never won a postseason game. For all intents and purposes, 2010 looked like his final year with the team -- his contract was set to expire at the end of the season. Cincinnati, though, kept Lewis around, giving him a two-year extension that came with the promise that Lewis would receive more say over personnel decisions.
So, even as angst grows around the Bengals' constant rebuilding processes, Lewis has inherited more power. While he's just eight months into that heightened role, the pressure sits squarely on his shoulders. Any failure to compete on the field or any embarrassing shenanigans by members of the team off it, and Lewis' head will land on the chopping block.
Already, the Palmer situation threatens to loom all season long. Palmer demanded a trade this offseason, then threatened retirement when his request was denied. So far, he's yet to retire either, leaving open the possibility that he could return or be dealt down the road, but it's a potentially nagging issue for a team that hardly needs more on its plate.
Without Palmer, Lewis has turned the offense over to Dalton, a rookie. That's a risky move for any head coach, let alone one under intense scrutiny.
The Bengals have taken some positive steps this offseason. In addition to drafting Green and Dalton, they recently handed contract extensions out to CB Leon Hall, center Kyle Cook and OT Andrew Whitworth, all key members of the roster. Those moves were a statement by Lewis and the organization that they'll place a premium on building from within.
But does Cincinnati need Lewis around to complete the laying of that foundation? The Bengals will have to answer that question at some point, sooner rather than later if the team struggles as expected in 2011. Lewis' efforts to get more hands-on with the roster should give him a greater level of comfort. Whether or not that translates to Cincinnati actually being "better" in the near future, we'll have to wait and see. If the results don't measure up to Lewis' confidence level, there's a good chance that a new coach will carry the Bengals forward.