by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

A year ago at this time, we were wondering if Marvin Lewis could survive another losing season as the Bengals’ coach. Which seemed a likely development with Cincinnati using a rookie QB (TCU’s Andy Dalton) as it tried to save Lewis’ job.

We’ll never know what would have happened if the Bengals stumbled, because John Boehner’s favorite NFL team pulled a 9-7 mark and AFC wild card berth out of the fire last fall. Which merely marked another escape by Lewis, who had similarly delivered when under the gun in 2009 (when Cincy finished 10-6 and won the AFC North) but nonetheless had two miserable four-win seasons out of the three campaigns previous to a year ago.

Indeed, we are hard-pressed to recall an NFL coach still employed after nine seasons and an overall losing record (69-74-1) as is Lewis with the Bengals. But effectively spacing out the three winning seasons and playoff berths (and, perhaps, working for less salary than most NFL head coaches) has kept team prexy Mike Brown from hitting the eject button on Lewis.

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One of the problems Lewis’ record provides for Cincy fans this season is that his Bengals are a combined 12-20 in seasons immediately following his two previous winning records and playoffs berths. We wonder if Lewis could find himself in hot water once more if the career pattern repeats itself this fall as Cincy shoots for back-to-back postseason berths for the first time since Forrest Gregg’s teams in 1981-82 and only the second time in franchise history, which began in 1968 (we recall it well).

Offseason developments, however, were very un-Bengal-like, with Cincy among the most active NFL teams in the free agency. Moreover, a bountiful draft haul considered as one of the best in league suggests that Lewis is leaving no stone unturned in order to keep pace with the Ravens and Steelers in the rugged AFC North.

But Las Vegas oddsmakers, obviously considering the demanding division assignment, have priced the Bengals accordingly in 2012. Their season-win total sits at a very modest 8, while they’re also a clear third choice in the North, priced at 4/1 and behind favored Baltimore and Pittsburgh. Cincy also offers some interesting value with its AFC title (20/1) and Super Bowl win (40/1) prices. Although it has been almost a quarter-century since the Bengals last qualified for a “Supe” when Sam Wyche’s 1988 team featuring QB Boomer Esiason made it to Super Bowl XXIII in Miami against the 49ers.

The Bengals have another disadvantage from a year ago in that they will certainly not be able to sneak up on anyone this fall. Especially QB Dalton (left), who transitioned smoothly from the college ranks to the NFL a year ago, becoming one of the rare rookie QBs to lead a team into the postseason and also the first QB not selected in the first round to start all 16 regular-season games and lead his team to the playoffs as a rookie.

Critics, however, maintain that for all of Dalton’s moxie, he isn’t yet a complete QB because he lacks the deep-ball capacity. While he’ll never have John Elway’s cannon arm, Dalton has at least displayed better long-ball ability than a year ago in training camp. How that translates into the fall remains to be seen.

Still, Dalton’s numbers were rather modest last season (20 TD passes and 13 picks), and the Bengal “O” remains a collaborative effort. With last year’s leading rusher Cedric Benson (1067 YR) having departed, the Bengals went looking for infantry help in free agency and found ex-Patriot BenJarvus Green-Ellis, but his ability as an every-down back has been questioned by some after specializing in short-yardage and red-zone roles with the Pats. It could emerge as a RB-by-committee situation in fall with Green-Ellis complemented by holdover Bernard Scott (right), anxious to stake a claim to more carries that he could not provide when Benson was doing most of the grunt work a year ago.

Preseason developments impacting the ground game, however, have been a bit troubling, as LG Travelle Wharton, added from the Panthers in the offseason and ticketed for starting duties, was lost for the season when injuring his right knee on the third offensive play of the opener vs. the Jets. It’s the first significant injury the Bengals have endured in preseason since 2009, and one that Lewis and o.c. Jay Gruden hope aren’t a harbinger of things to come.

One of the high-profile draftees, first-round pick G Kevin Zeitler from Wisconsin, had already been penciled into first-string duties on the right side of the line. Pay attention to the evolving OL situation as the regular season approaches.

The main question for the strike force probably involves finding a complementary wideout to explsoive A.J. Green (left, in the wild card playoff loss at Houston), the ex-Georgia Bulldog who has blossomed into a big-play threat and caught 65 passes (including 11 of 35 yards or more) as a rookie a year ago. Summer has been audition time for the wideout spot opposite Green, with holdovers Armon Binns (ex-U of Cincinnati) and Brandon Tate (ex-North Carolina) seeming to hold the inside track. A receiver to watch, however, could be Rutgers rookie Mohamed Sanu, a 3rd-round pick who caught 115 passes for the Scarlet Knights last year and versatile enough to be considered for direct-snaps in any Wildcat looks Gruden might wish to introduce this fall. Cal rookie WR Marvin Jones is another potential deep threat who could work his way into the wideout mix.

We spent a bit more time with the offense because that accounts for the bulk of Cincy’s questions heading into the fall. Lewis, a respected defensive tactician whose claim to fame prior to taking over the Bengals in 2003 were his duties as coordinator for the 2000 Ravens’ famed Super Bowl defense, and d.c. Mike Zimmer have forged a feisty stop unit that finished among top ten defenses for the second time in three years last season, ranking 7th at a solid 316 ypg.

Nonetheless, Lewis wanted to improve depth on the platoon in the offseason, and focused mostly upon the “D” in the draft while filling gaps where needed in free agency.

The secondary loomed as a major area of concern, and Lewis addressed those needs with the Bengals’ extra first-round pick in the draft (courtesy of the Carson Palmer trade with the Raiders) when tabbing Alabama CB Dre Kirkpatrick with the 17th overall selection. And with the status of holdover CB Leon Hall up in the air after rupturing his Achilles tendon last November vs. Pittsburgh, Lewis also went fishing for DB help in free agency and lured ex-Cowboy Terence Newman, who provides extra cover in case Hall is slow to get back into playing shape.

Lewis is also going to be experimenting at strong safety, where ex-Southern Cal star Taylor Mays will be given a long look with hopes that his pass coverage skills can improve.

The Bengals also had to scramble for defensive line reinforcements in the offseason after the departures of DEs Frostee Rucker (to the Browns) and Jonathan Fanene (to the Patriots), replaced by FAs Derrick Harvey (ex-Bronco) and Jamaal Anderson (ex-Colt). The pass rush should again be a feature of the platoon, especially if injury-prone DE Carlos Dunlap can stay healthy and complement DT Geno Atkins, off of a Pro Bowl campaign. Dunlap already suffered a knee injury in the preseason opener vs. the Jets (shown at right) and will likely miss the rest of the exhibition slate, if not longer.

Thanks to re-signing OLB Manny Lawson (left, chasing down Steeler WR Antonio Brown last December), the LB spots were kept intact during the offseason although depth remains a concern at the positions, more so with MLB Ray Maualuga battling knee injuries in training camp. A wild card could be moody Arizona State rookie Vontaze Burfict, whose combustible college career scared off suitors and caused him to be bypassed in the draft, but who has been a model citizen thus far in Bengal camp and has opened some eyes in the summer. Some AFC North sources are wondering if Burfict, a big-play talent, could be the signing steal of the offseason by Cincy.

Special teams are solid, with PK Mike Nugent off a team-record 33 field goals last season (although he was a bit inconsistent down the stretch), and the coverage units were among the NFL’s best last fall. WR Brandon Tate also helped out on punt returns, and a year ago became the first Bengal to take one of those to the house since 2003.

Cincy has been prone to pointspread streaks throughout the Lewis years, with the last two campaigns no exceptions featuring four streaks (win and lose) of three games or more. Although after surprising foes in the first half of 2011, the Bengals’ spread fortunes (along with their SU mark) regressed down the stretch last season, covering only 2 of the last 9 on the board.

Also note extended negative trends for Lewis' teams when favored, standing just 7-22 vs. the line in the chalk role since 2007.

Summary...There are enough pieces (especially on defense) for the Bengals to remain in the playoff mix, but also just enough question marks to suggest that the team could regress from last year’s 9-7 mark. Though a pleasant surprise as a rookie, the league seemed to figure out what QB Andy Dalton could and couldn’t do as last season progressed, and we wonder if the “O” has enough dimensions to keep pace with the other contenders in the AFC.

The Bengals’ late-season slowdown a year ago suggests that Cincy might continue on a downward spiral this fall. And don't be surprised if that happens...remember, it's been the pattern of Marvin Lewis’ teams the year after they make the playoffs.


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