It’s that time of year again. The NFL season is upon us, and for the first time in many, many years (like before I lived in Cincinnati, which began in 1991), people here are actually optimistic. Last season, the Bengals pulled it together and showed what they were really made of. They also displayed some weaknesses, which have been addressed in the off-season.
Last year, the Bengals could do no wrong for the first 3/4 of the season. Former perennial suspect Chris Henry had his life turned around and was showing Coach Marvin Lewis why it was worth it to bring him back. But a broken arm ended his season early. Then Henry, affectionately known as “Slim” to his teammates, fell out of a pickup truck. Doctors later suspected his behavior and his ability to withstand the fall might have been compromised by a concussion earlier in the season that was more serious than they originally thought.
Couple that with the death of the wife of Defensive Coordinator Mike Zimmer, and the wind went right out of the Bengals sails. That much tragedy would have derailed the 1972 Dolphins or any of the 1970’s Steelers teams, if you want to be honest.
But Carson Palmer was back in form. Chad Ochocinco found the dividing line between his antics and his playing. Then there’s Cedric Benson, a one-time cast-off from the Chicago Bears out to prove himself. Benson did prove himself, and the Bengals had something they haven’t had in almost two decades: A running game.
In the off-season, the Bengals made a couple of risky moves. To replace Henry, they hired an equally high-risk player who famously had trouble staying out of the backs of police cruiser, Adam “Pac Man” Jones. Then they hired Ochocinco’s pal and fellow reality star, Terrell “TO” Owens.
Pac Man has been a non-entity off the field. In fact, today, I’d forgotten he’d joined the team. (See? HBO needs to bring Hard Knocks back to Cincinnati.) TO has taken up the spotlight, letting the players focus on being players. So how’s that working?
Well, yesterday was the season opener against New England. The Bengals decided not to show up for the first half. Actually, that’s not fair. One of the reasons the Patriots have lasted as long as they have is their defense. They already figured out how to shut down Palmer, which is to cover Chad and TO. But then came the second half, and the Bengals showed up. They also showed that the Pats are not all that invincible these days. But you don’t go into the second half down by 21 points and expect to win. I don’t care if you’re playing the Cleveland Browns, the Raiders, or even Deer Park High School (whom I just watched nearly pull out an upset only to get stuffed in the final two minutes of their home opener.) You just don’t. Period. You can be the Cleveland Browns of the 1960’s, Broadway Joe’s Jets, the 72 Dolphins, or even the current Patriots at their peak. He who is down 21 points at the end of the first half loses the game.
That said, the Pats looked tired after the first half, and Palmer and Benson finally hit their stride. He found TO, Chad, Pac Man, and a couple of rookies whose names escape me now. Benson found his way up the middle. And flags flew on both sides. Penalties may be stupid, but that’s how you know the players actually give a damn that they’re on the field.
It’s good to get excited about football again. It’s good to know we’re playing all the number ones in the AFC this season: New England, San Diego, and Indianapolis. And I almost feel sorry for the Ravens next week.
They did, after all, steal my original team.
More at the My Town Monday blog.