CINCINNATI -- The Bengals are going to stink again this year. Or they're going to win the Super Bowl.
It's August. Predictions abound. And most of them are absurd.
Let's begin with the only absolute you will read about the NFL right now: nobody, at least not on this earth, can predict the future, about anything. Tell me if Andy Dalton will be healthy and playing the final week of November, and I'll tell you the kind of season the Bengals will have. Let me know if the Steelers offensive line will be able to run block as well as it has in the past. I'll let you know if Le'veon Bell will run all over the rest of the NFL.
Injuries, chemistry between critical parts of an offense or defense, suspensions - they all dictate the course of any season, in any sport, but particularly the NFL.
Still, none of that prevents the experts from weighing in. There are magazines to be sold, interviews to be listened to and clicks to be baited. "Hot takes," like candy, provide a 20-minute buzz and are then forgotten.
Pete Prisco of cbssports.com, a perennial Bengals booster, has the Bengals going 8-8 this season and missing the playoffs. Spoiler alert: Prisco has the regular season finale as a usual Bengals heartbreaker.
Over at Sports Illustrated, the folks at Monday Morning Quarterback are a little less robust about our Men in Stripes. 6-10? Well, that will bring some changes come December.
Meantime, Nate Davis at USA Today says everything new will be old again. He predicts the Bengals will be somewhere in between where Prisco and SI is predicting.
I like all of those guys. I've had them as rotating guests on my 700 WLW radio show. Will any of them be correct in their assessment of Marvin and his men? I don't know. Refer back to the second paragraph of this story.
So without predicting a number, here are five reasons why the Bengals will not only be better this season but will also return to the NFL playoffs.
1. The Bengals offensive line will remember how to block again.
It was totally inept the past two seasons and Big Red was picking grass out of his teeth. Eighty sacks in two seasons tells us this: YOU could have blocked better than Messrs. Ogbuehi, Bodine, Winston and Smith. I don't know three things about Cordy Glenn except that the Bengals virtually stole him before the NFL draft and that he was hampered by a bad foot with Buffalo. I also know that the Bengals made an awful mistake in letting Andrew Whitworth walk to the Rams two summers ago. Will Billy Price be any better at center than Russell Bodine was the last four years? He's a rookie. But last I checked, he wasn't wearing roller skates, which Bodine appeared to be sporting while he was here. Eighty sacks allowed in two seasons? It's hard to imagine things will be worse than that this year. But, as always, stay tuned.
2. Because of better line play, the Bengals will be able to run the ball a lot better than they have the past two seasons.
The first two games of 2017 were a mess because the then-offensive coordinator, Ken Zampese, thought it would be a terrific idea to rotate three running backs into the offense. It would have been a great idea if Zampese were coordinating Moeller's offense. But any brand of football above high school, not so much.
This time around, Joe Mixon gets the ball, a lot. The Bengals took on a lot of water when they drafted Mixon and his sordid off-the-field past. Why they didn't just buy in from the start is one of 2017's unsolved mysteries. Mixon has the talent to be everything that Le'veon Bell is. He's patient, waits on his blocks (when they actually occurred in 2017) and can catch the ball with ease out of the backfield. If Mixon doesn't have a big season, this season, then he's either hurt or something is fundamentally wrong with the Bengals offense.
3. William Jackson III will emerge as the premiere cornerback in the AFC North.
You can ask Antonio Brown about him. Jackson III shut down Brown when they went nose up last season. He's tall enough to deal with the bigger wide receivers in the league, and he's developing into a corner who can out-think his opponent. Darqueze Dennard and Dre Kirkpatrick are OK as the second and third corners. They're not great. But if Jackson III can take care of the other guy's No. 1 receiver, the Bengals will be able to slide safety help to the other corners.
4. Carl Lawson is a perennial Pro Bowler in waiting.
He had 8.5 sacks as a rookie - as a part-time player - last season. He has incredible "burst" off the snap. He is undersized. But the Bengals' smart guys, starting with the new defensive coordinator, Teryl Austin, should be able to figure out how to get Lawson on the field for more snaps. In fact, the Bengals' de facto general manager, Duke Tobin, said this past winter that that's a team priority.
5. Marvin Lewis isn't as bad a coach as you think he is.
There, I've said it. Actually, I've said it a lot. Does he mismanage game clock situations? Yep. Every coach not named Bill Belichick does. Does he play favorites? Guilty as charged. Primary evidence is his tolerance of Chad Johnson's nonsense and the inexplicable decisions to add Terrell Owens and Sam Adams, moves that polluted the Bengals locker room. But Marvin, like most coaches, is only as good as the players he is given. And when he's had the talent, he's won. The seasons of 2006-09, when the Bengals were horrendous, were in large part due to the "lost draft" of 2005. David Pollack, Odell Thurman and Chris Henry were all legitimate draft busts. They were also the Bengals' top three picks in that draft. You hope to get decent players in the latter part of the draft. You have to get terrific players at the top of your draft.
So what happened in 2011? Carson Palmer refused to play for the Bengals, as in ever again. That sent about a cascading effect. Finally, Lewis was able to shed an offensive coordinator, Bob Bratkowski, whom Lewis had to inherit to become the Bengals head coach. Jay Gruden brought in fresh ideas and actually designed plays to include the tight end. A.J. Green was drafted in the first round. Andy Dalton arrived in the second round. The Bengals then proceeded to make the playoffs five consecutive seasons.
What, you say? Marvin has never coached the Bengals to a playoff win?
Guilty as charged.
The Bengals missed the playoffs the past two seasons?
Look at their track record with first-round picks, dating back to 2013. Check the immediate (as in the first-year) contribution of each. The only name you're going to find there belongs to Tyler Eifert, who's been hurt and unavailable for more than half of the games he's been here.
Most teams would have said good-bye to Lewis for the team's performance between 2006 and 2010. But that would have been done, in large part, to appease the fans. Coaches don't start getting dumber the day after they're hired. But owners get antsy because, well, a bad move beats no move. But the Bengals aren't most teams. And despite an inordinate amount of patience or stubbornness by Mike Brown, Lewis hasn't gotten dumber since the winter of 2003.
But that kind of analysis doesn't abound nationally.
"Well, you have to figure, they're going a little backward, in terms of where they want to be."
This is Vinnie Iyer, national football writer for sportingnews.com, talking.
"And, the other teams are going a little forward. The Steelers are treading water. The Browns, they've completely overhauled their team. The Ravens could have a completely different look here, soon. The Bengals are caught in limbo."
Limbo, like the back-to-back nine-loss seasons we're just emerging from?
"That's a really hard place to be, in terms of knowing what kind of team you are," Iyer told me. "I don't really say they're a contender. I don't think you can say for sure they'd be at the bottom of the league."
Iyer and sportingnews.com, by the way, picked the Bengals to finish 4-12 this season, at the bottom of the AFC North. Iyer's running buddy at TSN is Bill Bender.
"I do think the sense is that this could be a year that the bottom falls out," Bender said to me the other day. "Pittsburgh is probably going to win this division. It's the movement of the other three teams that I'm really going to be watching. I thought they were going to push the reset button last year. Now, they do have the talent to finish 7-9. And an AFC team could make the playoffs with an 8-8 record."
Not exactly a ringing endorsement.
Meantime, over at USA Today, their king of all internet sports media is Neal Coolong. I was talking to him about this very topic the other day.
"I think the three teams below Pittsburgh improved, somewhat," he said. "It's not a great division. I think we'll see 9-7 win it. I don't think a wild card is going to come out of that division."
But it's not like the Steelers don't have a few flaws. For one, the Killer B's are older. Robocop, otherwise known as Ben Roethlisberger, is good for a foot and knee injury every season. Bell is no different than any running back. When it leaves them, it leaves them. See Rudi Johnson. And Brown will only be as effective as the Steelers' running game will allow him to be. When Brown is running wild in defensive secondaries, it usually means Bell is running wild at the edge of opposing defenses. But then there's the Pittsburgh defense, which has hardly made anyone forget about the Steel Curtain, or James Harrison.
"This defense now, they're without Ryan Shazier," Coolong points out. "Ryan Shazier was their only playmaker. Cam Heyward is one of the best in the game. But you're not going to see a defensive lineman make the kind of plays that Shazier has. He was just entering his prime.
"If you look at it, you can make an argument that he was their team MVP. I don't think Artie Burns is going to get any better. I don't think Terrell Edmunds, a random first-round pick that they took, I don't see him making much of an impact this year. They're going to roll into Cleveland in Week One, just like last year, with a defense you're not quite sure about."
So if questions exist everywhere, here now are mine about this Bengals team this season.
1. Vontaze Burfict can not be counted on. Period.
Is he talented? Yes. But dependable? No. He's been suspended for multiple games (he's gone for the first four this season after flunking a PED test) or he's been hurt. And without Burfict, the Bengals linebacker corps looks pedestrian. Nick Vigil? OK. Preston Brown? Well, OK. Nothing overly exciting there. Lawson has unlimited potential IF the smart guys can figure out where and how to use him.
2. Where is the pass rush besides Geno Atkins?
Andrew Billings was supposed to be the second coming of Atkins, when the Bengals drafted him three years ago. We're all eagerly awaiting his arrival. Michael Johnson and Carlos Dunlap had nice seasons last year, but neither looked unblockable. Unless the Bengals figure out pure pass rush, without sending a safety or linebacker on every snap, this will be a major hindrance to their defense this season
3. Who winds up playing the right side of their offensive line?
From center-left, the Bengals look better than last season. Price, though, is a rookie. And rookies, regardless of position, will struggle. Clint Boling is the anchor of the line. Glenn will be a major upgrade from last year. Well, YOU lining up at left tackle would be an upgrade. But the right side of the line looks shaky. Bobby Hart had a nice season a couple of years ago, but the Giants gave up on him. Tre Hopkins was anywhere from struggling to adequate last season. Jake Fisher, loaded with potential, is back for a fourth season. But he missed most of last year with a heart problem. That apparently has cleared up. But unless the right guard and right tackle positions stabilize between now and the season opener, that's trouble with a capital T.
4. Can Tyler Eifert actually stay healthy for an entire season?
Since Eifert arrived as a first-round draft pick in 2013, he's missed more games than he's played. Eifert has been hurt so much in his time in Cincinnati he is now a walking HMO. But IF he is over his various maladies, then Andy Dalton has his "blankie" back. Eifert, down the middle of a defense, or across the seam of a defense, has been Dalton's favorite target. And that opens everything up downfield for A.J. Green. The rest of the Bengals tight ends have played all right. "All right" is about as much praise as you can give that group. Eifert's health is key. And there is nothing to suggest that we should expect that this season. And if that is really the case, that is trouble.
5. Can you really count on John Ross and Tyler Boyd to become legitimate second wide receivers?
Short answer: no. Boyd has been a disappointment since arriving here. He's loaded with talent. But where is it? Ross' rookie season was a gigantic whiff. Fumbled pass that wound up in the arms of a Houston Texans defender. Cut off a route and allowed an interception. Ross arrived hurt and then proceeded to hurt the reputation that allowed him to become a first-round pick. One of those two has to seize the wide receiver's spot opposite A.J. Green. I don't see "seize" on the horizon. I do see the coaching staff settling for one or the other. And that's not good.
"This is one of those crossroads-type seasons," said Iyer. "And if they do wind up going 4-12, it may not be as bad as it would seem. Because it forces some changes, and things that need to be evaluated will finally get to be evaluated."
So goes it this time of the year. Predictions are worthless. Performance is everything. And it's still more than a month away before the scores start to count.
On a more pleasant note ...
Forty-one years ago today, Elvis Presley died.
I wasn't a big Elvis fan when he was in his heyday. The emerging rock and roll acts made Elvis seem more like a guy my mom listened to. But as the years have passed, I've become more appreciative of his immense talents and his impact on American music. If a Mount Rushmore existed of the singers and musicians who have had the most impact on American music, it would include Elvis, The Beatles, Chuck Berry and The Rolling Stones.
I went to "Elvis Week" a couple of summers ago. It was eye opening. The immediate impression was how wide-ranging his music was and how many different generations, races and cultures he touched. It was a virtual United Nations waiting in line to pass by The King's grave.
The second impression for me was how small Graceland is. It's a mansion in comparison to the other homes around it. But it is hardly spacious.
Presley surrounded himself with his posse of friends. And in the end, he didn't have enough of those "friends" to help him stay away from the things that killed him. But he also surrounded himself with some of the best musicians in the world, many of whom called Memphis home.
Elvis had 18 No. 1 hits and 37 Top 10 hits, according to Billboard Magazine.
This song wasn't a No. 1 hit. In fact, it reached only No. 16 on the Billboard charts in 1970. But, it's Elvis at his best.
It was co-written by the late Eddie Rabbit. Not bad for a boy from New Jersey. It was recorded at American Sound Studios in Memphis and produced by the studio owner, Chips Moman, who died just about a year ago now. The lead guitarist on this song is a session legend, Reggie Young. In the recording session that produced this song, Young also played on Elvis classics "In The Ghetto" and "Suspicious Minds."