CINCINNATI -- The Cincinnati Bengals got over one hump only to find a bigger one in front of them this season.
Last season, the Bengals proved they weren't a one-year wonder, reaching the playoffs in back-to-back seasons for the first time since the Reagan administration. Instead of feeling a sense of accomplishment, the Bengals consider it a painful reminder of their shortcomings.
This franchise hasn't won a playoff game since the 1990 season. This 22-year drought is the longest current one in the NFL and the seventh-longest in league history.
All of the hard work the Bengals are putting in this summer, which is being chronicled on HBO's "Hard Knocks," is done with the hopes it pays off in January.
"We made it to the playoffs back-to-back when we were young," defensive end Carlos Dunlap said. "Now that we have two years of experience under our belt, we expect to make some noise rather than just making an appearance."
Unlike the Baltimore Ravens, the Bengals kept most of their team intact. Cincinnati had to replace one player from the starting lineup in last season's playoff game against Houston. The additions of linebacker James Harrison and tight end Tyler Eifert have helped make the Bengals the trendy pick to win the AFC North. And, after the Ravens lost tight end Dennis Pitta for the season, some may consider the Bengals the favorites.
At a time when the expectations are heightened, coach Marvin Lewis continued his tradition of handing out T-shirts with his theme for that season. This year, the orange letters on the black shirt read: "Success, A lot of little things done well."
"If you go into the season and you’re picked first in the division and you work out in the offseason and approach training camp like you’re the best, I don’t think that will be beneficial," cornerback Leon Hall said. "If you approach it with the same mindset like you’re supposed to be last, you have that chip on your shoulder. We still have to work hard through the season. We open up in Chicago, and they’re not going to lie down for us just because of what people expect out of us."
You could argue that the Bengals are ahead of the curve. It was only two years ago when Cincinnati began the season at the bottom of ESPN.com's NFL Power Rankings. Now, there's talk that the Bengals are better than the defending Super Bowl champions.
Has this turnaround happened more quickly than Lewis anticipated?
THREE HOT ISSUES
1. Determine whether Dalton is the team's franchise quarterback. A former second-round pick, Dalton has exceeded expectations in his first two seasons. He's thrown 47 touchdowns in 32 career games. The only quarterbacks who have passed for more in their first two seasons in the NFL are Dan Marino (68) and Peyton Manning (52). There's no question that Dalton is good enough in the regular season to get the Bengals to the playoffs. But there are doubts whether he can take them to that next level.
Dalton is 0-2 in the playoffs and is a major reason for those defeats. He threw three interceptions in his first playoff game in the 2011 postseason (including a crucial pick returned for a touchdown by J.J. Watt) and failed to complete half of his throws in his second postseason game in the 2012 playoffs. That's not going to cut it in a division where quarterbacks like Joe Flacco and Ben Roethlisberger are measured by the postseason.
Judging by his performance in the first week of training camp, Dalton remains a streaky passer. He went from having a rhythm in the first two days to forcing throws into coverage over the next couple of practices. The Bengals, though, remain supportive.
"The way he’s commanded the offense, he knows it’s his team now," Green said.
2. Harrison's transition to a 4-3 defense. Harrison insists it's not much of a change going from an outside linebacker in Pittsburgh's 3-4 defense to Cincinnati's 4-3 one. But defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer disagrees.
"I don’t think it’s overblown because it’s a different position," Zimmer said. "He’s exceeded my expectations, to be honest with you. Typically, that transition is a little more difficult. Shoot, we’re finding a lot of things for him to do. The coverage part was what I was a little worried about. But he’s doing things really well. We’ll find a lot of ways to use him in all kinds of different packages."
The Steelers rarely asked Harrison to drop into coverage. He didn't have one interception or pass breakup in the past two seasons. What won't change is his ability to rush the passer. While some point out that last season was Harrison's least productive, his six sacks match the total of all of the Bengals' linebackers last year.
The Bengals aren't naïve. They're not expecting the NFL Defensive Player of the Year from five years ago. The Bengals are certain that Harrison is more of an impact player than Manny Lawson, last year's starter. Harrison's biggest contribution won't be measured on the stat sheet. His toughness and leadership alone will elevate a defense that has a lot of talent but has always lacked an edge.
3. Game plan for the running backs. Offensive coordinator Jay Gruden hinted before training camp began that there could be an equal distribution of carries between BenJarvus Green-Ellis, last year's starter, and Giovani Bernard, the first running back selected in this year's draft. But, barring injury, this is unlikely to happen. The Bengals have been impressed with Bernard. They're just not ready to reduce Green-Ellis' role. Remember, Green-Ellis averaged 92.8 yards rushing in his final six regular-season games last season.
The Bengals are hoping Bernard will produce big plays, especially in the passing game, and carry the ball enough to keep Green-Ellis fresh late in contests. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Green-Ellis ranked seventh in the NFL in fourth-quarter rushing yards last season. But his per-carry average was a less-than-stellar 3.9 yards. Bernard will eventually become the Bengals' starting running back. It just won't happen this year.
REASON FOR OPTIMISM
The Bengals have one of the top playmakers and top defenses in the NFL. Green can score from anywhere on the field and makes everyone around him better because of the attention that he draws. His 162 catches are the second-most in NFL history for a player in his first two seasons. With an underrated defensive line headlined by Geno Atkins, the Bengals defense finished No. 6 last season and should be more dominant this season. This is why Cincinnati is among the dark-horse picks for the Super Bowl this season.
REASON FOR PESSIMISM
How far the Bengals go this season falls on Dalton's play. He's the biggest question mark on a team primed to climb to the level of the Patriots, Broncos and Ravens. In the regular season, he turned the ball over 20 times (16 interceptions, four fumbles) and was one of two starting quarterbacks to complete less than half of his throws on third down. In two postseason games, he has thrown for a paltry 384 yards with no touchdowns and four interceptions. The Bengals have done everything to surround Dalton with playmakers, using their top two picks on Eifert and Bernard. It's up to him to deliver.
The front-runner for the strong safety job is rookie third-round pick Shawn Williams. After watching two training-camp practices, it was apparent to me that he has more of a feel for that position than Taylor Mays. On one play, a breakdown in coverage by Mays led to a long touchdown pass. On the very next play, Williams jumped a route and made an interception. "He’s got a chance [to start]," Zimmer said of Williams. "He could end up being the guy."
Wide receiver Mohamed Sanu is running very well, and you wouldn't know he had a season-ending foot injury in late November. But the wide receiver who stood out the most was Marvin Jones. A fifth-round pick from a year ago, he has a knack for getting open and can take off after making the catch.
Here's the best stat a local reporter passed along to me: Nine of the 11 linebackers on the Bengals roster were undrafted. One of them is Vontaze Burfict, who is still carrying a large chip on his shoulder after every team passed on him in the 2012 draft. He takes out his frustration with each explosive tackle.
Eifert's position is listed as tight end, but the Bengals are moving him all over the field. To his credit, he's learning everything the team is throwing at him. The Bengals are trying to exploit mismatches with the 6-foot-6 first-round pick, as they did when he pulled down a jump ball in the end zone over Williams, who stands 6-0.
When you enter the locker room where all the defensive linemen stand, you feel like you're covering the NBA, not the NFL. There are three players 6-6 or taller: Dunlap (6-6), Michael Johnson (6-7) and rookie second-round pick Margus Hunt (6-8). "I know they always say they’re looking for the next big thing," Dunlap said. "Each year, they keep getting bigger and faster."