Bengals believe it's time to take next step

CINCINNATI -- Each year, Cincinnati Bengals coach Marvin Lewis comes up with a slogan to put on T-shirts for his players. He hasn't found the right one yet for this season, and he wants it to reflect the attitude of the team.

"I've got it," Lewis said. "I just can't figure out how to make it catchy.”

My suggestion, after spending time in the locker room for the first day of mandatory minicamp, is simply "It's Time." This may not be as memorable or flashy as Lewis would like, but it epitomizes the sentiment of a young, talented and hungry team that wants more.

In 2011, Cincinnati went from starting the season as the No. 32 team on ESPN.com's NFL Power Rankings to earning a playoff spot. Last season, the Bengals proved they could handle success, reaching the playoffs in consecutive seasons for the first time since 1981-82.

The next wall that must come down for this franchise is not just qualifying for the playoffs, but advancing -- something it has not done in 22 seasons, the longest active playoff victory drought in the league.

The previous time the Bengals won in the playoffs was a wild-card game, on Jan. 6, 1991. How long ago was that? "Home Alone" was the top movie at the box office, Lewis was the linebackers coach at the University of Pittsburgh and A.J. Green was 2 years old.

What makes you believe that the Bengals are ready to take the next step is their mindset. You can knock Andy Dalton's arm strength or their lack of an established wide receiver other than Green. You can criticize the Bengals for sitting on their $20 million-plus in salary-cap room and not making a significant free-agent signing other than linebacker James Harrison.

What you can't question is this team's focus, which was evident on a warm day in June, to make some noise in January. The biggest offseason addition wasn't Harrison or first-round pick Tyler Eifert. It's a heightened sense of urgency.

Just ask Dalton whether this is a big season for him, and you'll understand.

"I think it’s big for this team," Dalton said. "What we’ve done since I’ve been here, we’ve made two playoff appearances and haven’t played well once we got there. I think it’s big for us to show that we’re going to get back to the playoffs, and then not only get to the playoffs, but win a playoff game and make a run at it. It’s what this team expects. With everybody we have here, we brought everybody back from last year’s team, basically, and I think it’s the attitude that we’re taking into this year.”

The Bengals certainly have the talent to match that attitude. They have the top offensive and defensive players in the AFC North in Green and defensive tackle Geno Atkins. They'll be more explosive on offense. They'll be more dominant in the pass rush, which was already a strength on the team.

Unlike the Ravens, who parted with nine starters from their Super Bowl championship team, the Bengals took the opposite philosophy and retained most of theirs. The only two starters not re-signed were outside linebacker Manny Lawson and safety Chris Crocker.

That shows the Bengals believe they have the right players to win. They just have to get those players to execute better.

Lewis wants his players to remember the sting of that 19-13 playoff loss at Houston five months ago, as well as the times that could have changed their fate. He's talked to them about making the play when it's second down and you're wide open. He's pointed out that you can't bobble the ball on third-and-4.

The biggest missed opportunity from that playoff game came with three minutes to play in the game and the Bengals facing a third-and-11 while trailing by six points (19-13). Green ran a double move to get behind the Texans' defense, and Dalton overthrew him.

Lewis was asked whether it was fair to say an elite quarterback would make that throw to Green.

“Let’s just say that, for our quarterback, we want to make one of those throws and complete them," Lewis said. "We had a couple of opportunities to make big plays in that football game, and we missed out on them. Those are the things that a very good player is going to get. A great player is going to get those things and hit some of those. That’s how you get to that status. If not, you’re never going to be looked at as that. You have to win big games -- which he’s won -- but you have to win playoff games and then, obviously, win a Super Bowl to be looked at as an elite quarterback in the NFL.”

As I've written repeatedly, Dalton is the key for the Bengals to make a run in the playoffs. They did everything they could in the draft to help the third-year starter, using their top two picks on playmakers, tight end Eifert and running back Giovani Bernard. Cincinnati also re-signed right tackle Andre Smith to keep Dalton's offensive line intact.

The other substantial offseason move was signing Harrison, the 2008 NFL Defensive Player of the Year who played the past nine seasons with the Pittsburgh Steelers. He brings championship experience as well as a much-needed nasty disposition to a young and impressionable Cincinnati team.

Asked if he sensed the Bengals are in line for a special season, Harrison said, "I haven't been here long enough to say what I'm feeling. I haven't went into a game with these guys yet. I've had times I thought we may be in trouble this year, and we turned out to be great. So, you really can't go off practice."

Harrison is right. Offseason talk often has proved meaningless. Last season, in a news release about training camp, Bengals executive Katie Blackburn was quoted as calling this the Super Bowl championship season. Lewis handed out T-shirts that read DNO, which meant Destination: New Orleans, site of the Super Bowl.

If the Bengals want to reach the same level as the Ravens, New England Patriots, Denver Broncos and Houston Texans, it's time for this team to prove it on the field.

"We're a hungry team. We're still young and we still want it," Atkins said. "We know it's time, and Coach Lewis has stressed it to us that each year is going to be a different year so we have to take advantage. I think this year he got the point across."