CINCINNATI -- The Bengals' focus this year isn't on battling history. They're quite aware of the franchise's failure to put together back-to-back winning seasons since 1981-82, even though only five players on the current roster were alive at that time.
Coming off a surprising 9-7 season and a trip to the playoffs, Cincinnati has its sights set straight ahead. Way ahead. The players walk around the locker room with shirts that read "DNO." It means Destination: New Orleans, the site of this season's Super Bowl.
"Our guys know that there is more beyond just qualifying for the playoffs," coach Marvin Lewis said. "We all experienced the Houston game and knew what the flight back felt like."
Seven months after that playoff loss in Houston, the Bengals have put together one of the best teams in Lewis' 10 years in Cincinnati. Quarterback Andy Dalton and wide receiver A.J. Green are entering their second seasons as the foundation of the offense. The defense, which ranked No. 1 at one point last season before finishing seventh overall, returns all but two starters.
On paper, this team should produce another winning season, contend for the division title and return to the playoffs. But can this franchise deliver consistency for the first time in three decades?
"I can say all I want to right now. But, to be quite honest, until that first snap on Monday night, we’ll never know," said cornerback Leon Hall, who was on the 2010 team that finished 4-12 after winning the division the previous season. "I’m confident in the team that we have that we can have back-to-back winning seasons and get to the playoffs. But there are a lot of teams that look like an All-Star team, and they don’t do very well. Nobody is walking around like they own everything around here. I think we’re still a humble team, and we work pretty hard."
THREE HOT ISSUES
1. Who's the No. 2 wide receiver? Dalton doesn't think there will be one receiver who will start opposite Green. He envisions a receiver-by-committee setup with Brandon Tate, Armon Binns and Mohamed Sanu. Tate had an impressive offseason, which is why he's listed atop the depth chart. Binns, a practice squad player from a year ago, has the size at 6-foot-3 and 210 pounds. Sanu, a rookie third-round pick, has the most intriguing upside.
"Right now, the way they’ve performed, I have no reservation whatsoever of anybody coming in there," offensive coordinator Jay Gruden said. "My play calling won’t alter one bit if Sanu, Armon or Tate is out there."
Although Tate has become the early favorite and Sanu is probably the future at this spot, don't be surprised if Binns is the starter for the season opener at Baltimore. Binns lacks the flash of Jerome Simpson, last year's No. 2 target, but he's a much more reliable route runner. Regardless, tight end Jermaine Gresham will be the No. 2 target behind Green.
2. Uncertainty in the secondary. A run of injuries and the unexpected release of strong safety Chris Crocker has made the secondary the biggest question mark on a defense that finished ninth in points allowed last season. Only cornerback Leon Hall and free safety Reggie Nelson are guaranteed spots. The other starter at cornerback has been determined by who's healthy. Nate Clements (abdominal strain), Dre Kirkpatrick (leg), Adam Jones (hamstring), Jason Allen (undisclosed), Brandon Ghee (wrist) and Shaun Prater (knee) all have missed time in training camp.
The Bengals are trying both Taylor Mays and Jeromy Miles at strong safety, but neither has distinguished himself in the offseason or training camp. Perhaps that's the reason Cincinnati has given Clements, a 12-year cornerback, some reps at safety. Moving Clements would allow the Bengals to get their top four defensive backs on the field. The Bengals believe Terence Newman, who was pushed out of Dallas after nine seasons, still has some productive years left at cornerback. Newman has ties with defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, who was Newman's coordinator in his first four seasons with the Cowboys.
3. Will Dalton suffer a sophomore slump? Dalton and Cam Newton became the first rookie quarterbacks to reach the Pro Bowl since Vince Young in 2006. Young followed up that season with 17 interceptions the next year, causing some to wonder whether Dalton will stumble in his second season as well.
"You definitely hear it. If you turn on the TV, everybody is talking about me and Cam and is there going to be a sophomore slump," Dalton said. "I don’t see that happening. For me, I feel like it’s the second year and you’ve got that year of experience. You know what’s going on. You should be even better going into Year 2. That’s how I’m treating it."
It hasn't been the smoothest offseason for Dalton. He spent most of the spring defending his arm strength and then struggled for the first couple of days in training camp. Dalton has turned it around in camp, where he has been connecting on some deep shots downfield to prove his point. "I wouldn’t be a starting quarterback if my arm strength was such an issue," he said.
REASON FOR OPTIMISM
The Bengals are a much better team than the one that shockingly made the playoffs last season. Few teams had a better draft and free-agency period than Cincinnati. Although the Bengals didn't make a big-money splash, they upgraded several key positions.
The biggest improvement should come in the running game, which ranked 27th last season in yards per carry. Instead of re-signing Cedric Benson, Cincinnati added former Patriots running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who provides more dependability (no fumbles in his four-year NFL career) and a much-needed punch in the red zone. (His 24 rushing touchdowns over the past two seasons led New England.) The Bengals addressed the guard position, which was their weakest spot, by drafting Kevin Zeitler in the first round and signing Panthers free agent Travelle Wharton.
Cincinnati brought in defensive depth by adding former first-round picks in free agency: Terence Newman, Jason Allen and Jamaal Anderson. "We took opportunity to get good veteran players who fit what we do and fit to our guys," Lewis said. This doesn't even take into account that Dalton and Green enjoyed their first full offseason with the team this year and that defensive end Carlos Dunlap is primed for a breakout season.
REASON FOR PESSIMISM
The Bengals went 0-7 against playoff teams last season, which prompted skepticism in their turnaround. Cincinnati has to beat the Ravens and Steelers to win the division, and that's been a major obstacle the past two seasons. The Bengals have lost seven straight to Baltimore and Pittsburgh, scoring a meager 14.1 points per game during that skid.
"Last year, we were in every game we played against them except for that one game against Pittsburgh [a 35-7 loss in December]," Dalton said. "For me, I know I turned the ball over a couple of times that hurt us, but we were close. This is one of the toughest divisions in football. We have to play our best each week."
In four games against Pittsburgh and Baltimore, Dalton had an 0-4 record with four touchdowns and five interceptions. Against the rest of the NFL, he was 9-3 with 16 touchdowns and eight interceptions.
I've visited Baltimore, Cleveland and Cincinnati, and Dunlap has been the most dominant defensive player in practice. He spent as much time in the backfield as Cincinnati's running backs. As long as he continues to be this explosive, Dunlap will achieve his goal of being an every-down player this year.
Hall has looked impressive in coming back from a season-ending Achilles injury. He is not hesitant making sudden cuts on the field, which was apparent when he covered the slot receiver. Trusting the Achilles is usually a big mental hurdle to overcome.
When Green-Ellis gets the ball, he rarely cuts to the outside. He thrives on being a tough, inside-the-tackles runner. But the most impressive part of his game has been his pass protection.
Defensive tackle Geno Atkins, aka Geno Sacks in the locker room, was limited this week in camp after limping off the field Tuesday. It's not considered serious, but he's the one player in the front seven that Cincinnati can't afford to lose. Atkins, whose 7.5 sacks were tied for the best among all NFL interior linemen, is special in his ability to collapse the pocket.
The Bengals believe that Rey Maualuga struggled in his first season as an NFL middle linebacker because he wanted to be too much like Dhani Jones. "In Dhani’s case, he was so smart. He knew every single person’s job," Maualuga said. "[Zimmer] told me that he didn’t want me to be Dhani or Ray Lewis. I tend to worry about other people’s responsibilities instead of worry about myself."
The Bengals' offensive linemen certainly make an impression when they break the huddle. Every starter is at least 6-foot-3 and 315 pounds.
Backup running back Bernard Scott was expected to be involved in a running back-by-committee situation this season, but he's been sidelined by a hand injury. That will allow special-teamer Cedric Peerman to get a lot of carries in the first couple of preseason games.
Andrew Hawkins, who is the top slot receiver on the team, isn't comfortable being a returner. "I’m a work in progress. I’m new to it," he said. "The more reps you get, the better you get at everything." The safer option seems to be Tate, last year's returner, especially if he comes up short in the battle to be the team's No. 2 wide receiver.
Jordan Shipley, who is behind Hawkins as the slot receiver, doesn't appear to have enough burst to get separation from defenders in man coverage. Coming off season-ending knee surgery, Shipley is best at finding soft spots in zone defenses. He needs a strong preseason to get off the bubble.
The Bengals' coaching staff is extremely high on undrafted rookie linebacker Vontaze Burfict, the one-time first-round prospect. Playing at a much lighter weight than he did at Arizona State, Burfict is always around the ball in camp.