Is this the final run for core of Bengals?

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

CINCINNATI -- Three years ago, the Bengals were considered a team on the rise.

Led by a talented core consisting of quarterback Carson Palmer, tailback Rudi Johnson, receivers Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh and tackles Willie Anderson and Levi Jones, Cincinnati's window was just beginning to open coming off a playoff appearance in 2005.

Or so we thought.

Two years later the Bengals have gone 15-17 with no playoff appearances to show for it over that span and performed below expectations. Now that once promising core is shifting before our very eyes.

The Bengals' gradual makeover began last weekend when they cut two key members of their playoff team in Anderson and Rudi Johnson. Cornerback Deltha O'Neal, who was arguably the team's top defensive players in '05, also was released and sent shockwaves through the locker room.

"It leaves me as a player and a producer of this organization sort of surprised, not really understanding where it came from," Chad Johnson said. "[I'm] not really understanding the whole thing. That's the business aspect of it."

Could this be the last run together for the remaining group that includes Palmer, Houshmandzadeh, Jones and Chad Johnson? As this core continues to age, there is mounting evidence that all of them may not be together in 2009.

As Chad Johnson mentioned, business is the primary reason the Bengals' core is slowly being plucked away in Cincinnati in favor of younger players. Also included are factors of health and production.

Cutting O'Neal, Anderson and Rudi Johnson this week reportedly saved the team approximately $9 million in salary this season. The trio averaged 30.7 years of age and at least two (Anderson and O'Neal) were guaranteed to be reserves this season.

"Obviously the play fell off in '07, and we just haven't seen a lot of change thus far this year," Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis said of the cuts last weekend. "It's a hard decision to make, but it is the decision we made at this point and we'll go forward."

So what does this mean for the remaining core of leaders going forward?

The reduction in salary does give Cincinnati some flexibility to re-sign some of its own key players.

Palmer, 28, is signed through 2014 so there's no worries there.

But Houshmandzadeh, 30, will be an unrestricted free agent after this year and will command a sizable contract. This offseason the Bengals weren't willing to extend Houshmandzadeh before the final year of his deal, yet talks should be more serious before he becomes an unrestricted free agent in March of 2009.

Chad Johnson, 30, demanded a trade several times this offseason to no avail and also expressed the desire for a new contract, which the team will revisit after this season.

The salary cap hit of $8 million for trading an unhappy Johnson was too much this year for the Bengals to take. But that number will be reduced nearly in half to $4.865 million in 2009, which at least makes a trade more plausible.

Chad Johnson -- who legally changed him name to Chad Ocho Cinco last week -- said he's focused on the task at hand. But he hinted this week that another awful season in Cincinnati might be trouble.

"If we lose, I'm going to be pissed," Chad Johnson said. "If we go 7-9, I'm going to be pissed and I'm going to fuss again if we lose now. Nothing has changed, but I'm here. So now my motive and my focus has to change.

"I've said what I said. I said my peace, now I'm here. I'm not going to shut up, but I'm going to put up."

Cincinnati drafted two rookie receivers in Jerome Simpson and Andre Caldwell in the second and third round, respectively, with the intention of giving the team flexibility next offseason.

The team also re-signed talented but troubled receiver Chris Henry to a two-year deal, which is an interesting length of time for a player who has had off-the-field trouble. But talent-wise, Henry has the ability to be a starter at a significantly cheaper cost.

Jones, a longtime left tackle, also reportedly was unhappy with his current deal that runs through 2012. But the Bengals' primary concern on the offensive line is extending left tackle Stacy Andrews, who replaced Anderson and continues the gradual youth movement in Cincinnati.

"The longest-tenured [linemen] now that's here is Levi," Houshmandzadeh explained. "[Guard] Bobbie [Williams] is older than Levi, but Levi has been here longer than he has, and Levi is young. So if that's the direction they want to go with, that can pretty much do what they want to do, because it's their thing."