Here's an excerpt from my 2006 Bengals season preview:
"The Bengals have the best offense in the NFL. The more I think about it, who else could it be? The Colts lost Edge. The Cards have a crappy line. The Seahawks don't have a #1 WR, plus they lost Hutchinson. The Chiefs have lousy WRs and an O-line that isn't the force it used to be. Admit it, I'm right. The Bengals have an elite O-line, a 1,400 yard rusher, probably the best WRs 1-3 in the league (quick, who is Arizona's 3rd WR? Exactly) and most importantly, they have Carson. Carson is everything to the Bengals. Without him, they're a 6-10 team; 8-8 at best. Marvin's importance to this team pales in comparison to Carson's. Carson would flourish without Marvin. As for Marvin, I don't know. I wouldn't trade him for many coaches but ask him what it's like to have Jon Kitna as your QB.
Other than Carson's health, the reason I most often hear as to why the Bengals won't make the playoffs is the schedule. There is no question that, on the surface, the Bengals have a tough road to hoe. You know what, I don't care about that. The Bengals could play the '85 Bears every week and still make the playoffs. Please, somebody...anybody, give me one example of a team that missed the playoffs with an offense this good. It's not potential, either. They proved it last season and with 11 starters back, only a fool would think that the offense won't improve. Do I have to remind the naysayers about the 38 points they scored in Pittsburgh (in November) that essentially wrapped up the division? Weren't the Steelers a good team with a good defense?
Here's the thing, I'd expect big things even if Carson was surrounded by average talent. Great QBs find a way to win games. Sounds like something Joe Theisman would say, I know, but it's true. Think back to the late 80's/early-mid 90's...how many times did Elway and Marino have their teams in the playoffs despite having no RBs (apologies to Bernie Parmalee and Bobby Humphrey) and average playmakers on the outside (remember, Clayton and Duper were finished after '91)? A star QB can get his team to a 8-8 record. With talent surrounding him, sky's the limit. Cue the Biggie music...
I am fully aware that it's premature to place Carson in the discussion with Marino and Elway historically. But right now? Carson is undeniably great and has a chance to be considered one of the all time-all timers at QB. I'm talking about sittin' at the head table with Graham, Unitas, Montana, Elway, Marino and Falco. I really hope that Bengals fans understand how lucky they are. There is only the slightest chance that, before death (in my case, a likely suicide after seeing another frat boy throw up the "shocker" symbol), we'll ever root for a QB as special as Carson. Great QBs are like (lack of witty pop culture reference), well they're rare. Just ask Chicago Bears fans. That franchise has been around since 1920 and who's their best ever QB? Jim McMahon? Really, I don't know. But I do know that they'll continue to draft guys like Cade McNown and Rex Grossman in search of the next Carson.
And all of that means...what, exactly?
I believe the Bengals will win at least 10 games and repeat as AFC North champs. I also believe that the Bengals will be the most feared team in the AFC come playoff time. Super Bowl? Why not. I'll always remember Dick Vermeil saying, "When a talented young team starts believing in themselves, anything is possible." He said that after his Rams won the Super Bowl in '99. I couldn't get those words out of my head last season as the Bengals won week after week. If not for Kimo-gate, who knows what happens? The Bengals were, after all, a talented young team that was believing in themselves. I'll hold off on any grand predictions but this team has a realistic chance to finish what they started last season."
That was exactly one year ago, on the eve of the 2006 season. My outlook has changed for sure, but not as drastically as you might expect.
I keep hearing from pessimistic Bengals fans that they don't think this team is any good. It's the the usual stuff, too. I hear that the D stinks. I hear that the lack of depth at WR is going to kill them. I hear that the health of Willie and Levi is worse than Marvin Lewis is letting on, and without are star tackles, Palmer is going to take a beating.
And, in many cases, I'm with you. All of the concerns mentioned above scare the bejesus out of me. BUT, have you ever heard of focusing on the positives? Has it really been that long since LeBeau and Akili were the men leading us into battle? Good God, we would have killed for a grouping of Carson-Rudi-Chad-TJ at the skill positions. Ditto for a 10.5-sack DE (Geathers) and a second-year CB (Joseph) who was fantastic as a rookie. Plus, the O-Line depth could be at an all-time high.
But again, just like in last year's preview, the focus should be Palmer, who is light years ahead of where he was at this point last season, both mentally and physically. And I hate to sound like a broken record, but for whatever reason the following point isn't getting through to a lot of you...Great QBs routinely take their teams to the playoffs, and Carson Palmer is undeniably great.
Really, it's that simple. And if the 2006 Bengals hadn't taken Murphy's Law (more on that in a second) to new heights, Palmer would've had them in the playoffs for the second time in his third season as a starter. Sure, somebody like New England would've pounded them, but that's besides the point.
The Murphy's Law thing: Let's list the crap that went wrong in 2006...
1. The Bengals basically played the entire 2006 without Tab Perry, Chris Perry, Odell Thurman and Rich Braham, all of whom were key contributors to the 2005 AFC North Championship team.
2. The suspensions of Henry and Odell (and the subsequent "character issues" stories by the national media that never went away) always hung over the team's collective head.
3. The uncertainty of Palmer's return, and his failure to consistently prove to us that he was 100 percent mentally.
4. Palmer's obvious shoulder injury toward the end of the season, which Marvin Lewis correctly kept quiet about.
5. Deltha O'Neal taking a year off because his contract wasn't renegotiated.
6. Tory James turning into an 85 year-old man right before our eyes.
7. The phantom roughing-the-passer penalty on Justin Smith that kept Tampa's game-winning drive alive.
8. Michael Vick completing 113% of his passes in a 29-27 Bengals loss.
9. Chris Henry's drop--which could've forced overtime--at the end of the 49-41 loss to the Chargers.
10. The botched XP (thanks, Brad St. Louis) that would've tied the Broncos game with under a minute remaining.
11. Moonlight's missed FG that would have won the Steelers game.
That extraordinary stretch of bad luck/unfortunate occurrences has never--and will never--be duplicated in my next hundred years as a Bengals fan. And you know what? All of that crap happened and the Bengals still went 8-8 against a murderous schedule.
So I don't care if Levi and Willie aren't 100 percent, and ditto for Henry's suspension and Chris Perry's injury. Sure, it seems like this is going to be 2006 all over again but please, please...never ever ever forget that we have Carson Palmer on our side. It's plain math, really: If he plays 16 games this team makes the playoffs; it's as simple as that.
Still don't believe me? Take a look at the best QBs from my twenty years as a football fan: Montana; Elway; Marino; Kelly; Moon; Aikman; Young; Favre; Manning; McNabb; Brady; Palmer.
If it seems like the list above is comprised of guys who were in the playoffs every year, it's because they basically were. I went to pro-football-reference.com and did some research on this topic, and here's what I found out: I'm absolutely right about this. Follow me...
Here are the season-by-season won-loss records--for every season of their careers--of the aforementioned superstar QBs (Note: Some seasons weren't complete ones for all of the QBs listed below. For instance, McNabb is given credit for a 10-6 record last year but Garcia started crucial games down the stretch...either way, McNabb started the majority of the games and the Eagles won the AFC East):
Montana: 13-3; 3-6; 10-6; 15-1; 10-6; 10-5-1; 13-2; 10-6; 14-2; 14-2 with SF. 11-5; 9-7 with KC
Elway: 9-7; 13-3; 11-5; 11-5; 10-4-1; 8-8; 11-5; 5-11; 12-4; 8-8; 9-7; 7-9; 8-8; 13-3; 12-4; 14-2.
Marino: 12-4; 14-2; 12-4; 8-8; 8-7; 6-10; 8-8; 12-4; 8-8; 11-5; 10-6; 9-7; 8-8; 9-7; 10-6; 9-7.
Kelly: 4-12; 7-8; 12-4; 9-7; 13-3; 13-3; 11-5; 12-4; 7-9; 10-6; 10-6;
Moon: 3-13; 5-11; 5-11; 9-6; 10-6; 9-7; 9-7; 11-5; 10-6; 12-4
Aikman: 1-15; 11-5; 13-3; 12-4; 12-4; 12-4; 10-6; 6-10; 10-6; 8-8; 5-11.
Young: 10-6; 14-2; 10-6; 13-3; 11-5; 12-4; 13-3; 12-4.
Favre: 9-7; 9-7; 9-7; 11-5; 13-3; 13-3; 11-5; 8-8; 9-7; 12-4; 12-4; 10-6; 10-6; 4-12; 8-8. (By the way, doesn't it seem like Favre has been much worse in the last five years?)
Manning: 3-13; 13-3; 10-6; 6-10; 10-6; 12-4; 12-4; 14-2; 12-4
McNabb: 11-5; 11-5; 12-4; 12-4; 13-3; 6-10; 10-6.
Brady: 11-5; 9-7; 14-2; 14-2; 10-6; 14-2
Have I proved my point yet? You can't tell me that each and every one of those 10-6 teams above were more talented than the 2007 Bengals. I'm sure some of those teams dealt with injuries, bad luck, crappy officiating, lousy coaching, team drama, tough schedules and everything else. But they always had a star QB at the helm; a guy who can find a way--regardless of the situation--to lead his team to a 9-7 record. Carson Palmer is one of those guys.
It should be noted that Palmer's ability to keep the team afloat in the regular season says nothing about his ability to lead his team to a championship...we might not find out that answer for years (Elway in '97, anyone?). Of the guys on the list above, only Moon never made an appearance in the Super Bowl, and Palmer--in terms of ability--is quite comparable to Moon. So titles are never guaranteed, but regular season success almost always is. At least with the great ones.
And Carson Palmer is great.