The Cincinnati Bengals' neanderthalic owner Mike Brown shuffles around in a cave strewn with excrement, bones and viscera, dressed in a gray and ragged pelt of some big striped cat, gnawing on the greasy thigh of a gray seahawk dead some three or four days now and starting to rot. He roots in his own filth, muttering and cackling triumphantly. Somehow, after a decade of sullen ambivalence, mischance and misfortune, everything is finally starting to go right.
The jokes about the Cincinnati Bengals are so old and well-worn now that their very name is its own punchline. They are the Tonya Harding of the NFL, a franchise whose second-tier talent is commingled with criminal mischief and humiliating ineptitude. Only the negligence of Brown prevented a wholesale housecleaning before now. When he finally got around to it he turned the NFL's conventional wisdom on its year -- keeping his coach and firing his players.
Chad Johnson (excuse me, Ochocinco) and Terrell Owens were told to hit the bricks, after combining for 1800 yards and 13 touchdowns. Carson Palmer, who threw for nearly 4,000 yards and 26 touchdowns last year, was strongly encouraged to go to hell rather than receive a penny more for his services. And when top cornerback Jonathan Joseph came to collect a new paycheck, he found the office door closed.
Into these voids stepped young, cheap labor. If Brown couldn't win, he could at least make a profit, maybe buy himself a new pelt. Meanwhile, the coaching staff prepared to start two rookies at quarterback and wide receiver.
As Chase Stuart of the Fifth Down blog points out, there have been only two notable rookie QB-WR combos of the last twenty years: Tim Couch/Kevin Johnson for the rebooted Cleveland Browns in 1999, and Tony Banks/Eddie Kennson for the rerooted St Louis Rams in 1996. Both Couch and Banks were the first quarterbacks taken in their respective drafts. But again, Cincinnati reversed course, waiting on QB (Dalton was the fifth to come off the board) and going for the elite weapon at receiver instead.
This single decision might have changed the entire course of the Bengals' season, and the shape of the franchise for years to come.
Rookie Magic: Andy Dalton to AJ Green
With 533 yards and 5 touchdowns through seven games, AJ Green is poised to have the best rookie season for a wide receiver since Anquan Boldin (1377 yards, 8 TDs) erupted in Arizona. The last Bengals rookie wideout to crack 1,000 yards in a season was Cris Collinsworth in 1981. Cincinnati's track record of drafting quality WRs since then hasn't been so good. Only Ocho (2001), TJ Houshmandzadeh (2001), Darnay Scott (1995) and Eddie Brown (1985) had careers of any note.
But AJ Green has the potential to be the best of them all. His ability to threaten -- and Dalton's ability to find him -- in all quadrants of the field have opened up the Bengals offense for lesser talents in Jerome Simpson, Andre Caldwell and Jermaine Gresham. (Gresham has talent, to be sure, but has not realized much of it yet.)
It's stunning, really. Despite losing its starting quarterback and two leading receivers, the Bengals' offense is averaging only 15 fewer yards per game compared to 2010. And with more points scored per game and a +11 swing in turnover ratio from last year, they actually improved.
Add to this bounty the two very high draft picks that Oakland surrendered to drag Carson Palmer out of Mike Brown's cave, and the Bengals could be building something special. And cheap. Just the way he likes it.
A Shutdown Defense: Who Dey?
No really, who are these guys? How do the Bengals have the fourth best team in total defense? How are they surrendering the fourth-fewest points in the league? And doing it without a single household name on defense?
According to ProFootballFocus, it's a team effort, and the effort starts up front. Every one of the Bengals' defensive starters -- except hard-hitting but undisciplined linebacker Rey Maualuga -- is positively graded in PFF's per-play game tape evaluations. But the standout star, according to their scouting, is a defensive end with only one sack.
Carlos Dunlap, the second-year player out of the University of Florida, has been a terror in the opposing backfield, even if he has only one marquee takedown to his name. Like Chris Long of the Rams last season, his impact on the passing game was measured in subtler way. Like "Quarterback Hits" -- Dunlap has nine, leading the NFL. Or "Pressures" -- Dunlap has 23, fourth among defensive ends (Long's 27 ranks first). Unlike Chris Long, though, Dunlap has also been a plus defender against the run. And get this: Dunlap has only been on the field for 254 of the team's 455 defensive snaps. Just imagine his impact if they made him a full-time player.
The near constant pressure applied by Dunlap, Geno Atkins, and Michael Johnson have forced opposing passers into a mediocre 81.1 passer rating, and are allowing just 212 yards per game. useful qualities when your young offense builds a lead and is trying to hold it.
A Friend in the Scheduling Office
Of course, we can't talk about the Bengals surprising 5 wins without noting the quality of the teams they've beaten -- and those they haven't played yet.
The teams on Cincinnati's schedule finished last year with a combined 121-135 record, the fourth-lightest in the NFL. Their five wins have come over the Browns, Bills, Jaguars, Colts and Seahawks. Those teams have a combined record of 12-25. Add in close losses to the Broncos and 49ers and that combined record grows to 20-31.
But the tough part of the schedule is coming up. They still have five division games yet to go, including two apiece against the Ravens and Steelers. And they face off against respectable AFC teams in Tennessee and Houston as well. Only two more cupcakes remain on their schedule: the left-for-dead Cardinals and the giant-slaying Rams.
We will soon see how much of this team's surprising early performance is thanks to their own improved play, or their opponents' poor quality. But we can say at least this much: these Bengals aren't a joke any more.
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