Palmer, defensive additions keys to growth

The NFL is geared to be a league of parity, as evidenced by the number of teams that annually fall somewhere between 9-7 and 7-9. But the toughest move sometimes is making that next step, getting to the 10-win level.

Being stuck in the middle of the pack can become a dangerous rut because fans – and often owners – get frustrated. Good coaches can't become great coaches without having playoff games on their résumés and many good coaches lose jobs by not advancing to that next step.

The Cincinnati Bengals are perhaps the most promising team in the middle of the pack. Coach Marvin Lewis has made miracles in putting together back-to-back 8-8 seasons. For one, he's brought the organization into the 21st century. Thanks to Lewis, veteran free agents now have their agents accepting phone calls from the Bengals. Before Lewis, Bengals offers were used only as leverage against more promising franchises. In addition, Cincinnati has drafted well under Lewis.

Coming out of the offseason workouts, the Bengals have a different buzz. While many prognosticators may put them behind the Steelers and Ravens in the increasingly competitive AFC North, the Bengals have earned a tag as one of the sleeper teams to watch. This could be their year to contend.

How things come together in training camp will ultimately tell whether they will be one of the surprise teams. Thanks to parity, a couple teams can jump from worst to first. The Chargers did that last year in the AFC West. So did the Falcons in the NFC South. Visits to training camps sometimes tip off those jumps. Other teams, like the Chargers, just get on a roll during the season, stay healthy and simply defy the odds.

Lewis' meticulous building through the draft could enable him to break through to that next level on two fronts. Quarterback Carson Palmer should only be better coming off his first successful season as a starter. His numbers were better than outsiders think. He completed 60.9 percent of his passes, threw 18 touchdown passes and was sacked only 25 times. A second season of starting should lower the number of interceptions he threw (18) in 2004.

"Carson is more deliberate,'' Lewis said. "He knows the things he likes. Last year, he might have wanted to have all passing plays called. Now, he knows and he wants to incorporate more [running]. Plus, he's grown as a leader. Carson was really demanding of getting guys out on the practice field before we had a chance to get to them in the coaching sessions.''

It's only natural to think Palmer will make that next step in becoming a big-time quarterback. He earned the honor of being the first player taken in the 2003 draft, and Lewis groomed him the right way. Far from the Bengals' past history of mistakes, Lewis didn't rush Palmer. He let him sit and watch as a rookie, much as the Titans did with Steve McNair.

In Year 2, Palmer was named the starter. Still, taking over wasn't easy. Palmer adjusted by having his teammates believe in him. Remember, Jon Kitna was the players' choice at quarterback after making a push for the playoffs in 2003. His offensive players loved him for his leadership and fire on the field. That passion didn't evaporate during Palmer's 2004 campaign.

To keep his starting job, Palmer had to perform, and he did. He won over his teammates as the leader, which creates the best of both worlds for the Bengals. Should anything happen to Palmer because of an injury, the offense won't lose much going back to Kitna. Suddenly, the Bengals have depth and success at the quarterback position.

Offensively, the Bengals have all the makings of a 10-win playoff team. They have the quarterback in Palmer who can compete against Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Chad Pennington, Ben Roethlisberger and others in the AFC. The Bengals have a 1,454-yard runner in Rudi Johnson. They have a Pro Bowl receiver in Chad Johnson who should improve on his 2004 numbers (1,274 yards, nine touchdowns). Third-round choice Chris Henry, a wideout, is also drawing buzz because he appears to be the big-play third option the Bengals had been hoping for in Kelley Washington.

Henry has displayed a lot of promise during the offseason program. In fact, he's already moving past Washington. The question will be how much he will press Peter Warrick for time as the third receiver behind Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh.

"Chris Henry has been tremendous,'' Lewis said. "It has not only been his speed, but he's a big target getting up there and making catches and coming back to get the ball. As a blocker, even though we haven't had pads on, he's shown he's willing to go in there and be physical. He's really been impressive.''

While Palmer's development was expected, the moves that could really put the Bengals over the top were at linebacker. David Pollack and Odell Thurman are the inside-outside tandem that should complete the defensive transition of the team. Prior to Lewis' arrival, the Bengals figured Takeo Spikes and Brian Simmons would be the heart of their defense for 10 years. However, things changed.

Spikes got tired of losing and celebrated when the Bengals didn't stop him from heading off to Buffalo prior to Lewis' first season as head coach. Lewis used the big money it would have taken to keep Spikes to bring in veterans to change the work habits and attitudes on defense.

Getting Pollack and Thurman finally puts Lewis' athletic stamp on his defense.

"They are both tremendous athletes,'' Lewis said. "More than that, they are very well-rounded, well-coached football players. The games aren't going to be too big for them. They are going to be able to handle the flow of the game and not let things get out of their hands.''

The buzz of their additions to the linebacking corps compares to what the Jets did last season in adding Eric Barton and Jonathan Vilma and promoting Victor Hobson to the starting lineup. In 2003, the Jets were decent but slow on defense at linebacker. Marvin Jones and Mo Lewis were on their last legs. Sam Cowart struggled to stay healthy with knee problems.

In case you're wondering, the Jets finished seventh defensively, thanks to the contributions of Vilma and Barton. They made the playoffs with 10 wins. The value of tough linebackers is even more valued in the AFC North than the AFC East because the division features more physically imposing running backs such as Jerome Bettis and Jamal Lewis.

Pollack is a linebacker who is big enough to be a defensive end, and he brings pass-rushing skills and toughness to the outside. Thurman may not be as gifted as Vilma, a Pro Bowl middle linebacker in the making, but he's close. He's got great speed and leadership. With Pollack, Thurman and Simmons, the Bengals have one of the best linebacking corps in the league, and Lewis knows the value of athletic linebackers.

"Good athletes at linebacker shed blockers or beat the block to prevent larger plays from occurring,'' he said. "Other times, they are going to make a big play with that athleticism.''

For a couple of years, the Bengals tried to plug the linebacking corps with veterans. Kevin Hardy helped to get the Bengals to that 8-8 level, but the NFL is a league that needs infusions of youth. The energy and excitement created by Pollack and Thurman put the Bengals' defense in position to jump into the top 10.

The Bengals are indeed ready to take the next step.

John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.