CINCINNATI -- The rest of the world of sports journalism isn't buying into your 2018 Cincinnati Bengals, so let me offer nine reasons why I think they'll be much better than what we've seen the past two years.
Go ahead, scream "Homer." Dirty little secret: Most fans prefer complaining about their team to complimenting them. Tune in to any sports talk show from Jacksonville to Seattle, and you'll learn every NFL city not named Boston thinks their coach is a moron sometimes.
"What was he thinking?"
"As long as [INSERT COACH'S NAME] is here, we have no shot of winning."
Internet arguments, Twitter takes, hot takes and chili-dusted smokin' hot takes are a staple in discussions of every city and every coach.
Somewhere, shrouded in the rhetoric, could be fact, but he who screams the loudest is rarely right.
I have nine reasons why, as Al Haig once famously said, we all need to remain calm. Nine. There could be more -- there might be fewer -- but I work for a station who once was designated "9" on the analog dial, so here goes.
1. The offensive line can't possibly be as bad as it was last year
Look, the line coach is gone. Nothing against Paul Alexander, but he probably "lost the room." He certainly whiffed when he lobbied Big Mike and Katie to draft Cedric Ogbuehi in 2015 and follow that up with a second act titled "Ladies and Gentlemen, put your hands together for Jake Fisher."
Ogbuehi was the bigger miss of the two. Fisher, who missed a lot of last season with a heart ailment, still shows promise. However, having your hands on the departure of the best left tackle in Bengals history is pre-qualification for an Uber to the airport.
The new line coach is loud. I have no idea whether Frank Pollack is a better coach than Alexander, but it's a new voice.
And a new voice, even saying the same things as the old voice did, sometimes gets better results. A new voice saying different things may also earn better results. Whichever turns out to be true, Alexander outlived his welcome by about eight years.
Cordy Glenn appears to be an upgrade over the players the Bengals were running onto the field to play left tackle the past two seasons. There's a legitimate chance you would be an upgrade over who was trying to block for Andy Dalton.
At right tackle, it wasn't "one for the ages" last season. It was "one for the aged" in 34-year-old Eric Winston. He's gone.
Just in from the Giants, whose line was a travesty last year as well, it's Bobby Hart at right tackle. Or maybe Fisher. Or anybody other than Winston and/or Andre Smith. Curt Boling remains at left guard. Right guard, for the moment, is Alex Redmond, who stood around and watched for all but the final two games of the season and then, miraculously, Alexander and Marvin Lewis discovered they'd been feeding Redmond pre-game meals all season, so why not play him. He did OK. At center will be Ohio State rookie Billy Price. The best thing about Price is he doesn't appear to be wearing roller skates, like the last guy. So, chances are, he won't be rolling back into Andy Dalton's lap on every passing play.
Dalton was sacked 79 times in the last two seasons. I don't see that happening nearly as much this season as in the past two.
2. Andy Dalton will be better because of that
Look, Dalton is not now, nor will ever be, an elite quarterback. Unless your definition of "elite" is he can complete a pass if protected and can audible out of a play at the line of scrimmage. Dalton is exactly the same as all other NFL quarterbacks not named Brady, Roethlisberger, Rodgers or Brees. Andy Dalton didn't suddenly wake up this past spring and take over the body of one of those four.
Here's is the one, common thing every NFL quarterback needs: blocking. Rare is the quarterback (see the aforementioned four) who can win a game without it. Dalton is no different. When the Bengals had Andrew Whitworth, Kevin Zeitler and the rest of that group of linemen who populated the Bengals offensive line from 2011 through 2015, things were percolating around here. They didn't know what to do when they got there, but the Bengals at least made the playoffs.
I've already said the line will be better in 2018. And because of that, so will Dalton. He doesn't need a lot of time to operate. But Dalton is ultra effective when protected. We saw it, in flashes, this preseason. But there's another reason why Dalton will be better in 2018 than he was in 2017.
3. Tyler Eifert returns and is apparently healthy
With Tyler Eifert, you never know. The guy has missed more games than he's played since joining the Bengals in the 2013 draft. When he plays, the entire dynamic of the Bengals offense changes. When he plays.
Eifert is Dalton's comfort blanket. As spectacular as A.J. Green is streaking downfield and making terrific catches, it's Eifert that opens that up.
Eifert has played in just 24 regular-season games in the last four seasons. 24 of a possible 64 games. That includes 13 games in 2015, when Eifert caught 13 touchdowns. Even at his best, Eifert has never been a big "yards guy." But he's Dalton's go-to guy when the team needs a first down. In that 2015 season, Eifert caught 38 passes that resulted in first downs, 23 the year before that.
If he remains healthy, and that's a big if, it wil be a major plus the Bengals.
And then there's this: Eifert is only here on a one-year contract. One year, that could return him $8 million. One year. Because of his injury history, that's all Eifert could wrangle out of the Bengals. The man has a lot to play for.
Look at the tight ends that were in his draft class and the contract they've signed in the last year.
Philadelphia rewarded Zach Ertz, a second-round pick, with a five-year, $42.5 million deal. Third-round pick Travis Kelce signed a five-year, $46 million deal after his rookie contract expired. Another third-rounder, Washington's Jordan Reed, just signed for five years, $50 million, with $22 million of that guaranteed. So among other things, Eifert is playing for money this season, a lot of money
4. The Bengals' perimeter players on offense
It's been awhile since they've, potentially, been this good. In fact, you may have to go back to the days of Chad Johnson (pre-Ochocinco) and TJ Houshmandzadeh to find a receiving corps this good. A.J. Green is arguably one of the top three receivers in the game. Tyler Boyd looks ready to show us a reason why the Bengals drafted him in the second round in 2016. And fully recovered from knee surgery two off seasons ago, Gio Bernard, in space, is a devastating talent.
And then, of course, there is John Ross, whose rookie season was a complete blank. He arrived hurt, then got hurt in preseason and then played so poorly, he never made it out of Marvin Lewis' dog house. But his speed, as we saw this preseason, is lethal. He still drops too many passes. It would be hard to envision him as a No. 1 wide out. But his ability to stretch the field and draw safety coverage will open a lot of territory for Green, Boyd and Eifert.
The Bengals didn't run the ball all that well in the preseason. But it's obvious what they're trying to do: use short passes with yards after catch, as opposed to "tackle to tackle" runs. There's a good reason why.
5. Bill Lazor is finally in charge of the offense
Bill Lazor ran the Bengals offense for the final 14 games of the 2017 season. And while he tweaked things along the way, he was basically running the offense left behind by Hue Jackson and Ken Zampese. Jackson ran exotic formations. Zampese relied more on more basic football. Jackson's work here earned him the head coach's job at Cleveland. Zampese left here for Cleveland, too, but with his tail between his legs and now is back to being a quarterbacks coach.
Lazor's offense still relies on quick passing and timing routes. And Dalton's the perfect quarterback for it. He continues to have one of the quickest releases in the game. Lazor also views running back Joe Mixon in a more versatile way than his predecessor. While Zampese's sample size with Mixon was limited to two games and a muddled running attack, Lazor's offense treats short passes as a substitute for a traditional running attack. Mixon's ability to catch the ball gives Lazor's offense an entirely different dimension from Bengals offenses of years past.
6. The Bengals defensive line is the real deal
It's the strength of this team. Period, end of story. Geno Atkins needs no introduction. Neither does Carlos Dunlap. Neither do their bankers. Both players just signed big-dollar, long-term contract extensions. But, as they say in those infomercials, wait, there's more!
Andrew Billings is back and healthy. And he remains a human brick wall. The former Baylor defensive tackle missed all of his rookie season with an injury. Last year, he played sparingly, just 59 plays all season. This preseason, he's been a star. By the way, Billings was a power lifter in high school, breaking a Texas state record.
Second year lineman Jordan Willis has had a strong preseason. So has rookie Sam Hubbard. And somewhere in the mix is the most electrifying player on the Bengals defense: Carl Lawson. Lawson recorded 8.5 sacks in his rookie season, with limited playing time.
7. William Jackson III is a top-tier defensive back
And the last top-tier corner the Bengals had was ... ? The Bengals dropped top-tier money on Dre Kirkpatrick in March of 2017. Five years, $52.5 million dollars later, it doesn't look like a great investment. Kirkpatrick is good, not great. But William Jackson III looks like he might be. Jackson is developing into Antonio Brown's worst nightmare. And in the AFC North, if you can't cover the Steelers' top wide receiver, you can't win.
Jackson is long, rangy and physical. And with George Iloka gone, Jackson seems to be the logical successor.
Jackson will be matched up with the other team's top receiver, more often than not. And that's good. Because he's the best the Bengals have.
8. There's a new boss on the defensive side of the ball
And Teryl Austin has a goal for his side of the ball: take the ball away a lot more than Bengals defenses have in the past.
The numbers don't lie. Austin's defense in Detroit last season took the ball away 41 times: 19 interceptions and 22 fumble recoveries. The Bengals managed just 22 takeaways.
It stands to reason, the shorter the playing field, the easier it is for an offense to score. That's what turning the ball over does for a team. If Austin is successful in that area of the game, the Bengals will be a lot better this year than last. In 2015, the last year the Bengals made the playoffs, they took the ball away 36 times, 21 by interception. That level alone would be 14 more turnovers than last season.
And here's another key component to all of this: Vontaze Burfict will return after the fourth game. Sitting out yet another suspension, Burfict will be a fresh pair of legs for the final 12 games of the season. He'll miss only one division game, the second game of the season against the Ravens. He'll get to play twice against the Steelers. Burfict, with his ferocious hitting, has the ability to create havoc for offenses.
9. The schedule favors the Bengals
Only Houston and Tennessee play a schedule weaker than the Bengals. While the past is not a great prologue for the future in the case of football, their pathway to a playoff berth is a lot easier than any other division partner, including Cleveland.
But the schedule does the Bengals no favors. Three of the first four games are on the road. Three of the last four games are road games too.
Health is the overriding factor on how well a team does. That's why preseason wins-losses predictions are so ludicrous. Tell me what kind of health a team will be in during November and December and I'll tell you right how what that team's record will be.
But the Bengals will be better this season than last. What record that translates to depends on a lot of factors. But these nine things? Keep an eye on them as a barometer on how things may transpire. Every year, teams come out of nowhere to contend and teams disappear into nowhere and disappoint. We've seen too little of the former and not enough of the latter in Cincinnati.