November 2012

Bengals Move Onward — And Upward — Without Palmer

Maybe Bengals fans weren’t really booing Carson Palmer on Sunday.  Perhaps the sound that echoed throughout Paul Brown Stadium every time that the Raiders quarterback took the field was, “Thank yoooouuuu.”

Thanks for two AFC North titles.  Thanks for two Pro Bowl seasons.  And most of all, thanks for unintentionally helping the Bengals by leaving.

“Right now we’re a better team without him and that’s just point blank period,” said safety Chris Crocker.

Let’s consider where the Bengals are without Palmer.

Andy Dalton is seven years younger than his predecessor.  He’s scheduled to earn roughly $2.7 million dollars over the next two seasons while Palmer is set to make $28 million.  And following Sunday’s 34-10 win over the Raiders, Dalton’s career QB rating is identical to Palmer’s at 86.1.

“Andy’s played like a 10-year vet from the day that he stepped into this locker room,” said Crocker.

Additionally, Dalton’s regular season won/loss record as a starting quarterback is 15-13 (I give Dalton credit for a win in the Washington game when Mohamed Sanu officially started at QB).  Palmer’s record is 53-64, including 7-13 in Oakland.

The organization that Carson left is in the hunt to go the playoffs for the third time in four years, led by a defensive front four that pummeled him.  According to Brad Ellis, our stat man on the Bengals radio network, Cincinnati hit Palmer 13 times on Sunday.

“He didn’t have a chance,” said Crocker.  “Our guys up front really beat him up.  They hit him, they got around his feet, and it’s not easy to be a quarterback when you have to deal with that kind of duress.”

“Our front four is the best in the league,” said Manny Lawson.  “As a linebacker behind them, I’m rarely touched.”

The organization that Palmer currently plays for appears to be headed for its 8th double-digit loss season in the last 10 years.  Since their last playoff appearance following the 2002 season, the Raiders are 48-107 for a .310 winning percentage.  For sake of comparison, in the 1990s when the Bengals struggles were well-chronicled, their winning percentage was .327.

In exchange for Carson Palmer, the Bengals already have Dre Kirkpatrick and will receive Oakland’s second round pick in next year’s draft.  Through 11 games, the Raiders share the third-worst record in the NFL with Cleveland meaning it’s a decent bet that Cincinnati will end up with a selection near the top of the second round.

Here are a few of the players selected in the top five picks of the second round over the last five years:

Jordy Nelson, Brandon Flowers, Derek Wolfe, Colin Kaepernick, James Laurinatis, Courtney Upshaw, Brian Robiske, and Coby Fleener.

Oh yea, and Andy Dalton.

Palmer and Dalton had never talked to each other until Sunday.  Their first-ever conversation apparently did not last for very long.

“We talked for a little bit – nothing more than anybody else,” said Dalton.  “At least I can say that I’ve met him now.”

And outplayed him.

We all know that those “boos” weren’t really “thank yoooouuuus” on Sunday.  But maybe they’ve should have been.

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Hue Jackson Plans To Avoid Palmer Questions

Hue Jackson is not taking any Carson Palmer questions this week.

In an effort to limit any potential sideshow caused by discussing his role in the trade that sent Palmer to Oakland last year, the former Raiders head coach is politely declining to address the subject.

But he is perfectly willing to discuss Al Davis.

Jackson was the last head coach that the legendary Raiders owner hired before he died of heart failure last October. The day after Davis passed away, Jackson guided the Raiders to a 25-20 win in Houston. On the final play of the game, Oakland’s Michael Huff intercepted Matt Schaub in the end zone to preserve the victory. It’s referred to as the “Divine Interception” because the Raiders only had 10 defensive players on the field.

In an emotional address to the team in the locker room after the game, Jackson said that Al Davis had his hand on the ball.

“It’s still emotional,” said Jackson wiping a tear when I asked him about working for Davis this week. “It was awesome…a great time. I’ll never forget it.”

Al Davis was a polarizing figure nationally since he was involved in multiple lawsuits against the NFL and went through six head coaches in his final 10 years in Oakland. But Jackson grew close to the man that gave him his first opportunity to be a head coach at any level.

“He was special and I don’t think people get that,” said Jackson. “I know that he gets a bad rap about being what he was to the league and against the league or whatever that was, but he was a tremendous person. Obviously he gave me my first opportunity, but more so than that, he taught me so much about the game and about people and how to deal with people. I’ll never forget that.”

Jackson was fired in January by the Raiders new general manager Reggie McKenzie despite going 8-8 and tying for the best record in the AFC West in his only season as Oakland’s head coach. After spending the previous 10 years working on the offensive side of the ball as an NFL assistant, including three years as Cincinnati’s wide receivers coach (2004-06), Jackson is broadening his expertise by working with the Bengals’ secondary and special teams.

“I’ve grown,” Jackson told me. “Had I known some of the things I’ve learned from Mike (Zimmer), maybe I would still be in Oakland. We had some things that we needed to shore up on the defensive side of the ball. I’ve learned a lot and I’ve grown a lot in that area and in special teams. It’s been a lot of fun.”

Jackson downplays his potential impact on this week’s game plan, but Zimmer says that the former Raiders head coach will be a valuable resource this week.

“He can tell us a lot about each player – their strengths and weaknesses, ways to rush against certain guys, what he feels their true playing speed is, and how they react to different situations,” said Zimmer.

Additionally, this week’s game is the second of three straight against teams from the AFC West. In Hue’s two years in Oakland (he was offensive coordinator in 2010), the Raiders went 9-3 within that division.

“Obviously, I’ve played those teams and had some success when I was with Oakland, so every now and then somebody might ask a question or two, but our staff here does a good job,” said Jackson. “We really work hard here at trying to understand what the opponents are trying to do. Jay does a great job on offense, Zim does a great job on defense, and Darrin Simmons is spectacular on special teams. Our groups are headed up by some very talented individuals and they come up with quality game plans for anybody that we play.”

But this game isn’t against just “anybody.” For many Bengals fans, it is against Carson Palmer. For Jackson, it is against the team that dismissed him after one season as head coach. But Hue insists that it isn’t a game that he’s had circled on the calendar.

“Honestly, I know it’s all ‘coach talk’ but this is the next one on the schedule,” said Jackson. “It just happens to be a place where I was at. They’re trying to get a win and get off the slide a little bit, and we’re trying to keep winning. It’s going to be a fun game.”

(You can hear the entire Hue Jackson interview on “Bengals Game Plan.” Join Dave Lapham and me on Wednesday night from 6-8 on Fox Sports 1360 or FoxSports1360.com.)

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A Dangerous Combination

On Saturday night at the team hotel in Kansas City, offensive coordinator Jay Gruden had a message for the Bengals.

“I told ‘em at a team meeting that momentum and confidence are a dangerous combination,” said Gruden.

Right now, the Bengals appear to have both.

Yes Kansas City is putrid (how do you get penalized multiple times in the same game for running out of bounds in punt coverage?), but Baltimore and Pittsburgh were only able to beat the Chiefs by three points apiece.  The Bengals throttled Kansas City 28-6, and have outscored their last two opponents by a total of 40 points.

“We’re starting to put it all together and it’s very important for us to continue to get better as the season goes on,” said Gruden.  “We’re starting to get healthy and guys are gaining momentum and confidence.  Right now we have that, but we have to keep it going.”

“The momentum is on our side now; we just have to keep it rolling,” said center Trevor Robinson.

After losing four straight games where the Bengals either had a lead or were within four points of the opponent in the fourth quarter, Cincinnati has put together back-to-back dominant performances on offense, defense, and special teams.

“It’s like a pro golfer,” said Marvin Lewis with a laugh.  “You can’t stay on the tour if you don’t do it time after time and round after round.  We know that it’s going to be a grind every Sunday and they’re getting good at grinding.”

“Winning in the NFL is definitely not easy, and we know that we can’t afford to make mistakes,” said Cedric Peerman.  “We just have to keep coming to work each and every day, be demanding, and be accountable to each other.  The rest will take care of itself.”

In their consecutive victories over the Giants and Chiefs, the Bengals have won the turnover battle five to one, scored touchdowns on seven of eight red zone possessions, and had seven sacks to only two for their opponents.

“We squandered a lot of games and weren’t playing up to our potential,” said BenJarvus Green-Ellis.  “We can still get better, and we just have to keep taking steps every day.”

“The key is how hard we work at practice,” said Domata Peko.  “You win games Wednesday through Saturday.  Then on Sunday you can run out, have fun, and make plays.”

Their confidence is growing.  And they’ll try to continue their momentum by beating the 3-7 Oakland Raiders on Sunday.

“You want to get hot in November and December and that’s what we’re pointing to,” said Coach Lewis.

“It feels good to be 5-5 but that’s just the beginning man,” said Peko.

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Bearcats Add Talented Trio In Early Signing Period

After back-to-back 26 win seasons, an appearance in the Big East Tournament final, and a trip to the Sweet 16, is recruiting getting easier for UC head coach Mick Cronin?

“It never gets easier to recruit,” said Cronin.  “You do become more popular the more you win and you get on TV more.  So I have better name recognition because that’s the guy they see on TV and our program is winning.  It definitely has an effect, but at the same time, it’s still hard.  Recruiting is the toughest thing we do.  It’s the hardest part of the job for any coach – there’s no question about it.”

Today the hard work paid off for Coach Cronin and his staff as three high school standouts faxed in letters of intent to the University of Cincinnati on the first day of the early signing period.

Troy Caupain, a 6’3″ guard from Cosby High School in Midlothian, VA verbally committed to UC in June after averaging 26 points, 12.9 rebounds, and 8 assists as a junior last year.

“Troy is a huge recruit for us,” said Cronin.  “He’s a 6’3″ point guard and he’s 16-year-old on signing day.  He’s going to turn 17 in a couple of weeks.  He’s got something that you can’t teach – the gift of vision.  He finds the open man and has great leadership skill.  He’s a true quarterback and it’s natural for him to talk on the floor – I won’t have to coach that with him.  And he can beat his man.  More importantly, when he beats his man off of the dribble, he finds the open man and he’s a willing passer.  He’s a big-time recruit for us.”

This year’s class also includes a local recruit in Summit Country Day’s Kevin Johnson.

“I usually don’t mention that he’s local because I don’t want people to think that we recruited Kevin Johnson only because he is from Cincinnati,” said Cronin.  “That would be patently false.  We’ve passed on some guys that are from Cincinnati because maybe they weren’t the right fit for us and Kevin is the right fit.  He grew up within miles of our campus, he is a great kid, and we are fortunate to have him.”

Johnson is a 6’1″ guard who averaged 14.1 points, 6.6 rebounds, and 2.8 assists last year in helping the Silver Knights capture the Division III state title.

“He’s a guard that can do everything,” said Cronin.  “He can score, he can handle the ball, and he can pass.  He’s also a winner which goes a long way with me as he led his team to the state championship.  And he’s very unselfish – he could shoot a lot more for Summit Country Day than he did last year, but he played within their system and their team was extremely well-coached.  And he’s got great upside.  Kevin is a 17-year-old senior and won’t turn 18 until next summer.  He’s a long guard and can do a lot of things.”

Cincinnati added a post player in Jamaree Strickland who hails from Oakland, California.

“Even though he’s from California, he grew up a Bearcat fan,” said Cronin.  “That worked in our favor.  We didn’t know that until we contacted him and his father couldn’t have been more excited.  You would have thought we were the hometown school.”

Strickland was one of the top-rated big men in California when he suffered a knee injury in 10th grade that required surgery and wiped out his junior year.  A second surgical procedure caused him to miss all but two games of his senior year.

But Jamaree is no longer wearing a knee brace and is spending this season playing for Queen City Prep in Charlotte, North Carolina.

“Jamaree didn’t start playing without his knee brace until the fall, and everybody that saw him offered him a scholarship,” said Cronin.  “He’s left-handed; he’s 6’9 ½” or 6’10″ and has great hands and a soft touch.  He can score.  Most big guys can do one of two things – they are either a shot blocker or they can score.  Jamaree can score and is a very comfortable offensive player.  He has range on his jump shot, and has a nice jump hook and a soft touch.  We’re going to have to get his body together because he’s been out, but he’s lost weight and that’s why he’s come on so much after he got his knee brace off.  Once we get him in shape, he has a chance to be a great player for us.”

Cincinnati still has one scholarship available.

“That’s by design,” Mick told me.  “When you get your program on solid footing you’re not desperate so you don’t have to just take guys and hope for the best because you need bodies.  When you’re in a good position you can confidently say, ‘We have 11 or 12 players and that’s enough.’  Then you have a scholarship available when things happen.  For instance, we have one available now.  So second semester, if a very good player wanted to transfer here over the Christmas break, we could take him.  If that doesn’t happen, then Alex Eppensteiner will get to use it in the second semester.  I would definitely rather have a scholarship than take a chance on a guy that you’re not really sure about.”

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Bengals Dominant D-line Makes Statement

The New York tabloids like to refer to the Giants as “Big Blue,” but this morning, quarterback Eli Manning is black and blue.

In Cincinnati’s stunning 31-13 win over New York, the Bengals nailed Manning 12 times (four sacks plus eight quarterback hits) while the Giants vaunted front four of Tuck, Pierre-Paul, Umenyiora, and Canty only got to Andy Dalton once (one QB hit and no sacks).

“They’ve got a good front – there’s no doubt,” said Michael Johnson.  “They’re the Super Bowl champs.  But we’re alright too.”

“They’ve earned the right to be considered one of the top D-lines in the league so when you’ve got those guys coming into your home, you want to play better than the competition,” said Wallace Gilberry.  “We took pride in it and made it an issue to come out and get the job done up front.”

Gilberry had one of the four sacks as he stripped Manning of the ball and then recovered the fumble in the fourth quarter.  After failing to record a sack for the first in 32 games last week against Peyton Manning and the Broncos, the Bengals were determined to get his younger brother on the ground.

“Last week was embarrassing for us – not touching the quarterback,” said Johnson.  “Today we played how we can play.  We played almost to our full capability.  We just have to continue to build on that every week.  That’s how we’re supposed to play.”

“One of the chips we had for this week was to out-play their defensive line,” said Carlos Dunlap.  “We knew we had the ability, but we just have to go out there and do it — don’t talk about it, be about it.”

Dunlap led the Bengals with 4.5 quarterback pressures, but all seven defensive linemen had impact plays.  Robert Geathers, Geno Atkins, Wallace Gilberry, and Domata Peko also delivered hits on Eli Manning, and Michael Johnson deflected a pass that was intercepted by Pat Sims.

“It felt great to be back,” said Sims who played for the first time since the 11th game of last season.  “I had fresh legs and I’m just thankful that coach gave me the opportunity to go out there and play.”

“When we get that rotation going and guys get in a groove and play how we know we can play, big things can happen,” said Johnson.  “We were able to force a lot of turnovers today, that’s always good, and we just want to build on it.”

If the Bengals defensive lineman is as dominant as it was against the Giants, climbing back into playoff contention is a possibility.

“Beating the Super Bowl champs and doing it how we did it today – ain’t no telling what he can do if we can keep playing like this every week,” said Sims.

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Win Worth Wait For Kay

Before Saturday’s 34-10 win at Temple, the last time that quarterback Brendon Kay started a game was November 24, 2007 when he led Marine City (MI) High School to a state title at Ford Field in Detroit.

That’s a Rip Van Winkle-like 1,813 days between starts.

So was the fifth-year senior able to sleep the night before his first start as a Bearcat?

“Not really,” Brendon told me with a laugh.  “I’ll be honest with you – I didn’t.”

Imagine what he’ll do with a good night’s rest.

After coming off the bench last week to help rally the Bearcats to a win over Syracuse, Kay left no doubt who the starting quarterback will be next week against Rutgers, completing 13-of-21 passes for 244 yards and 2 touchdowns, while running for an additional 71 yards on 7 carries.  He even caught one of his own passes for a five yard gain when it ricocheted off of a Temple defender.

“It was awesome to be out there,” said Kay.  “You prepare all week like you’re the starter, but when you hear that you are, your mentality changes a little bit.  When you get the opportunity you have to take advantage of it.”

“I’m proud of him,” said wide receiver Anthony McClung.  “This is what everybody dreams of.  He’s been the backup all season and now that he got his opportunity, he came through for us.  I told him, ‘It’s not like you’ve never done this before.’”

Kay was especially impressive throwing the deep ball as he tossed a 75-yard TD pass to Kenbrell Thompkins and a 65-yard TD to Chris Moore.

“That pass to me was right on the money,” said Moore.  “All I had to was put my hands out and it was right there.”

Kay’s college career has been slowed by a series of knee injuries that have required him to undergo three surgeries.  That were times where it appeared that his Bearcat career was over.

“That’s what makes this even better,” Brendon told me.  “All of the people who say ‘You can’t do it.’  All of the doctors who say, ‘I don’t think you can come back from this’  When you come out and do it, it’s that much more rewarding.

“I’m alright now.  I’ve put in the time and I feel good.”

Due to his multiple knee injuries, Kay hopes to be granted a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA.

“Right now, all indications are that it’s very favorable,” said head coach Butch Jones.  “That’s something that we’ll work on once the season is concluded.”

“It’s not in my hands so I can’t really worry about it,” said Kay.  “I’m going to approach these last few games like they’re my last.”

While there wasn’t much of a crowd at Lincoln Financial Field, the spectators did include several members of Kay’s family.

“My mom, my grandma, my girlfriend, my dad, and my stepmom were all here,” Brendon told me.  “It was awesome to see them out there.  It was pretty emotional.  I saw my dad after the game and he came down and gave me a hug.”

After going nearly five years between starts, was it worth the wait?

“Honestly, looking back on it, it goes by quickly,” said Kay/  “But it was a long process, so it was definitely rewarding.  I’m going to celebrate for the rest of the day.  Tomorrow I’m going to get to work and start watching film.”

After all, he only has seven days to get ready for start number two.

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Boomer Esiason On Dalton And Leadership

When Marvin Lewis publicly challenged Andy Dalton last week to become a more forceful leader on offense – even if it meant being a “jerk” – it brought to mind a former Bengals quarterback who had no problem stepping on toes when he saw fit – Boomer Esiason.

“I cringed a little bit when I heard that comment because everybody’s not made out to be that way,” Esiason told me.  “I know what Marvin is doing – he’s trying to raise the compete level.  He’s trying to agitate some guys and trying to put a spotlight on some guys.  Believe you me, if he didn’t think that Andy could handle it, he wouldn’t do it.  If Andy were a wilting flower, he would never do that to this kid.  He knows that Andy can handle it and knows that he can get to another level, and he knows that this kid just needs a little shot in the arm in terms of confidence by saying, ‘We believe in you.  You’re our guy and in this league, we’ve got to have the guy behind center in order to win, and I know that you can do it.’”

But the 1988 NFL MVP cautions Dalton not to suddenly attempt a personality change.

“When people try to be somebody they’re not, number one, they’re very uncomfortable,” said Esiason.  “And number two, it comes off wrong to the people that he’s trying to lead.  Andy is a really good player and is going to be a good long-term player.  He’s a serious football player.  He’s not a jackass, he doesn’t screw around, he pays the price, all of those things.  They’re just trying to get him to be a little more aggressive verbally, but that’s not who the young man is and he shouldn’t try to be somebody like that.  He’s more like Kenny Anderson, and I think that he’s going to have a great career.”

After leading the Bengals to the playoffs and making the Pro Bowl as a rookie, Dalton is on a pace to pass for more than 4200 yards this year which would break Carson Palmer’s single-season team record.  But he’s also the only quarterback in the NFL to be intercepted in every game this season and is only completing 44.8% of his passes on third down.

“Like all young quarterbacks – you can ask any of us that ever played the position – there is going to be a time where you hit the wall and it becomes very frustrating,” said Esiason.  “If Andy can come out this week and do what Tony Romo, Ben Roethlisberger, and RGIII have all done in the last three weeks against this Giants defense, he’ll feel a lot better about himself and I wouldn’t be surprised if they won the game,” said Esiason.  “Everybody’s confidence goes in the tank every now and again – all of us went through it.  I suffered through these awful losing streaks and awful losing seasons as well.  He needs to have a good game.  He needs to have a high QB rating game, he needs to make some big plays with his favorite target A.J. Green, and the next thing you know you just let it loose on the field and it’s not such a pressing game anymore.  You wish you could articulate this to every young player, but the only way that they become better players is to go through stuff like this.”

Ironically, if Dalton needs inspiration, Boomer says he should study the quarterback that he will try to beat on Sunday.

“I would say, ‘Andy, look up Eli Manning’s 2007 season.’” said Esiason.  “Because right around Thanksgiving that year, his general manager Jerry Reese came out and said that he was skittish.  I remember that it sent all of us in the media here in New York on a feeding frenzy.  Nine weeks later, Eli Manning was a Super Bowl MVP for crying out loud.

“Should we panic in the short term?  I guess you can if you’re a Bengals fan and you’re in the midst of a four game losing streak.  But big picture?  I think the long-term prospects for Andy Dalton are very bright and these are the moments where you’re going to find out exactly what he’s made of.”

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ESPN’s Pollack Can Feel Stewart’s Pain

It’s impossible for most of us to imagine the anguish that Walter Stewart must have felt when he was informed that a congenital defect in his spine would likely end his football career.

But David Pollack can identify.

Six years ago in the second game of his second season with the Cincinnati Bengals, Pollack broke his sixth cervical vertebrae while making a tackle.  It ended his NFL career after playing in 16 games.

Pollack met Stewart earlier this season while he was in Cincinnati to broadcast the UC-Pitt game on ESPN, and called the Bearcat senior this week to offer his encouragement.

“I’ve been through having football being a huge part of your life and then all of the sudden it’s gone,” Pollack told me.  “That can be extremely tough, so I just wanted to reach out to him and tell him a little bit about my experience.  I wanted to share any words of wisdom – which doesn’t come from my mouth very often – or anything that I thought was a big help for me during a time when I needed it.”

“They’ve really bonded and formed a close relationship,” said head coach Butch Jones.

“He’s a kid that I have a lot of respect for,” said Pollack.  “When you see people and the way that they play, I think that tells you a lot about them and he’s one of those guys that plays really hard and loves the game.”

By all accounts, Stewart has handled the news of his injury remarkably well.

“I talked to Cincinnati trainer Bob Mangine and he told that he cried when he told Walter the news, but Walter didn’t cry,” said Pollack.  “He’s handled it as well as you can when you get that kind of news.”

“He’s dealing with it in Walter Stewart fashion – very poised, very calm, very realistic, and just a model of resiliency,” said Coach Jones.

Stewart had five sacks in five games this season before suffering his injury and was likely to be a high NFL draft pick in April.  But Pollack says it’s important not to dwell on what might have been.

“It’s always easy to look at a situation like that and see the bad,” said Pollack.  “But I think it’s extremely important to look at the positive too.  He’s in a situation where he can walk, he can move – he’s not in a situation as severe as Eric LeGrand or Kevin Everett several years ago – so I think right away you count your blessings.  One thing that kind of gave me hope and clicked in my brain when I was going through my situation is that at some point, there comes a time when you’re going to have to hang your cleats up.  That day will come.  Whether it’s now or 10, 12, 15 years down the road, it will come.  It’s about how you handle it and how you move on.”

Over the past several weeks, Stewart has remained an integral part of the Cincinnati football program as he has tried to lead his teammates in the locker room and on the sideline.

“I’m trying to convince him to give coaching a try because I think he can impact lives on a day to day basis,” said Coach Jones.  “I think that’s his passion, I think he needs to be around the game, and I think he can be an asset to our profession.  When he speaks the kids listen and he has credibility behind him.  I fully anticipate him doing that – if playing football is out – I think you will see him on the sideline with us.”

“The most important thing to remember is that life is never going to be perfect,” said Pollack.  “It’s never going to go exactly how you planned it, and it’s always important to know that God never closes one door without opening another one.  Walter is a great kid with great perspective and I think he’ll be absolutely fine with whatever comes his way.”

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