The gum-flapping is over. They start keeping score on Sunday. So what's the bottom line on your 2017 Cincinnati Bengals?
I'm only one man and I have only one opinion -- which I don't mind changing on a regular basis. Here is what I see as the Bengals open the season against the Baltimore Ravens at Paul Brown Stadium:
1. If they want to make the playoffs, they'd better finish 10-6. Could 9-7 get them in? Maybe. But the AFC West looks loaded again and there's no reason to believe that it won't produce three playoff teams this season. The AFC South gets a bad rap, but largely because the Jaguars stink and the Colts don't have Andrew Luck yet, but it does have Houston and Tennessee. Both of those teams look good. The Bengals will help their January chances in a large way if they beat both this season.
2. If the Bengals don't find a way to get AJ Green and Tyler Eifert on the field together, the offense will struggle. I don't want to hear about Joe Mixon and John Ross. They're rookies. Any team counting on rookies to help you wins games is playing a fool's game. For every team like the 2016 Dallas Cowboys, there are dozens in NFL history who've placed their faith in rookies only to have their faith shattered. Without Green and Eifert on the field together, this team will struggle to score points and to win games.
3. The Bengals can afford to lose Andy Dalton for short period of time and survive. But if Dalton is out long-term, they're in trouble. The most popular player on any team is the back-up quarterback. In spots, AJ McCarron has played well. But for as much as some fans are enamored with McCarron, he hasn't done enough in the games he's played, or in practice, to create a legitimate quarterback dilemma inside of Bengal-dom. If he did, he'd be starting. The Bengals have paid Dalton his bonus money. Marvin Lewis knows he has to win games to continue as Bengals head coach past this season. If he thought McCarron gave him a better chance of winning games, McCarron would be starting.
4. I think the Bengals defense is going to be pretty good this season. It was statistically good last season, but the overall feeling is it needs to be more disruptive and needs to make more "plays." Interceptions (17) in 2016 were good. Sacks (33) were less than stellar. But the addition of rookie Jordan Willis and his edge speed and the stability that linebacker Kevin Minter brings are big pluses. 2016 first-round pick William Jackson III is healthy. He brings an interesting dynamic to the secondary. One of the older defenses in the NFL in 2016 has just gotten young and, it appears from the exhibition games, better.
5. The place kicking last season was awful. Loyal to a fault, the Bengals stuck with Mike Nugent far too long. I have no idea if Randy Bullock is going to be a long-term answer for the Bengals. But in retaining their fifth-round pick, Jake Elliott, the Bengals have a fall-back option. Some fans were upset that Elliott was one of the players cut by the Bengals, but they took a two-pronged approach in addressing their problem. If it's fixed, it was brilliant. And with Elliott on the practice squad, Bullock's leash will be short.
6. It's a good thing that Marvin Lewis is in the final year of his contract with no extension offered so far. Actually, "it's a good thing" is a Marvin-ism. It's good for the franchise, because there is a large part of the fan base that isn't all that fond of Lewis. It's good for Lewis. Look, I've said this consistently since he arrived: Marvin Lewis can coach football. In my honest opinion, he's a damned good football coach. He can identify talent and he can coach it up. Look at the number of late-round draft picks who've made the Bengals rosters since Lewis has been here. Look at the number of players that arrived here via free agency who've been major contributors. It's easy to point to his playoff record and it's also lazy. It's also amnesia-esque. The Bengals were a joke before Lewis arrived. Yes, he's far too tolerant of the bad behavior some of his players have displayed since 2003. Yes, his in-game management is at times questionable. He tends to treat timeouts like stocks, with potential re-investment. He can be curt and abrupt with the media, not realizing that he's really talking through us to the fans, who pick up on it. But the guy can coach. If he leaves after this year, at some point, even those who don't get that will eventually welcome him back as one of their own.
7. I think the Steelers win the AFC North. They're just better than any of the other three, top to bottom. It's all predicated on health. If the Bengals can survive losing Dalton for a short period of time, the Steelers can't survive for any point of time without Ben Roethlisberger. It's amazing that Landry Jones is still on that team. Running backs tend to get older more quickly than most other positions on a football team. It will be interesting to see how Le'Veon Bell's holdout affects his play this season. If Bell can't perform to his past standards, that will have a cascading effect on the Steelers' ability to throw. But as we know all too well here in Cincinnati, it doesn't really matter whom the Steelers have at running back, he always seems to have a big game against the Bengals.
8. The Ravens have the best placekicker in the NFL, but the rest of their team looks really average to me. Joe Flacco is a statue. And while I like the signing of Jeremy Maclin, there's nothing really that jumps out at me that says they'll contend for a playoff spot. I think they'll finish ahead of the Browns, but I don't see them finishing ahead of the Bengals.
9. The Browns will win more games than most people think, but does anyone believe that Deshone Kizer is the quarterback that will lead that franchise out of the wilderness? Hue Jackson is into year two of his five-year contract. The owner has said he realizes he has to be patient with his coach and the Browns' front office. But I'm beginning to think Jackson is going to pay the price for not drafting and developing a franchise quarterback. I'm also beginning to think if the Browns don't surprise a lot of folks this season, that price is going to be paid sometime in 2018.
Now then, some random notes on a random Thursday...
Great that a number of young Reds pitchers are throwing well over the last month. I'm not sold on Sal Romano yet, nor Robert (Call me Bob) Stephenson. But Luis Castillo is pitching like a top-of-the-rotation guy and Homer Bailey has been more than encouraging. The Reds still need to find at least three more Major League-ready pitchers before next spring. And Bob Castellini, as I've written before, needs to do something dramatic in the off-season to regain the interest of the Cincinnati ticket-buying public...
Good move bringing back Bryan Price. If his area of expertise is developing young pitching, why make the change? Have you ever bought a ticket to a game to see what a manager does?...
I don't see any way the UC Bearcats win this Saturday against Michigan in Ann Arbor. I also don't think it'll get out of hand. Latest line has UC plus-34. I think they'll cover...
Oklahoma at Ohio State Saturday night is 'the' game so far this season. The Buckeyes better be on guard. Oklahoma's quarterback, Baker Mayfield, might be the best in college football. OU plays fast and its tight end, Mark Andrews, looks like the real deal.
By the way, both the UC at Michigan game and the Oklahoma at Ohio State game are on WCPO 9 On Your Side.
One of the great, early rockers would have been celebrating his 81st birthday today. Buddy Holly had a short and meteoric rise in the music industry. He made this Sonny West song a top-10 hit back in 1958.
Holly and his band, the Crickets, cut this song in Clovis, New Mexico. That was long before multi-track recordings and slick post production work. If you listen late in the song, you can actually hear Holly clearing his throat.
Holly's story is well-known, told on screen in an Oscar-worthy performance by Gary Busey back in the '80s. Holly was killed in a plane crash, after a concert in Clear Lake, Iowa. "The Day The Music Died," according to balladeer Don McLean.