January 2013

MRI Provides Good News For Cashmere Wright

If you watched Oprah Winfrey’s big interview with Lance Armstrong on Thursday night, it began with a series of yes/no questions in which Armstrong finally admitted using performance enhancing drugs in all seven of his Tour de France wins.

At the exact same time as the Oprah/Lance interview aired on TV, I was asking Mick Cronin a few yes/no questions on his radio show about Cashmere Wright’s knee injury and status for the Marquette game.

Question:  Will Cashmere play on Saturday night?

Coach Cronin:  He’s day-to-day.  That’s my status by the way.  That’s the life of a coach – day-to-day.

Question:  Did Cashmere have an MRI on Wednesday?

Coach Cronin:  Yes.

Question:  Is there any structural damage?

Coach Cronin:  No.

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The fact that there is no structural damage is the key piece of information.  Let’s face it, when Wright was helped off the court in agony on Tuesday after scoring 20 points and dishing out 7 assists in just 22 minutes of playing time, it was impossible not to fear the worst.

“He was headed for an easy 30 (points) and 10 assists which is complete domination of a game,” said Cronin.  “You don’t want to see him – or any player – go down, but especially him after what he’s been through.  And then factor in that he’s playing the best basketball of his career.  For him, (a serious injury) would be tragic, so it was great news that his MRI was negative.”

Ironically, Wright’s most recent injury was to his “good knee.”  He’s had three surgical procedures on his left knee after tearing his ACL as a freshman, but sprained his right knee against DePaul.  Fortunately, it didn’t take long for Cashmere to realize that it wasn’t as serious as his previous injuries.

“He went out at the 15:20 mark, and at the next time-out, I look up and he’s standing in the huddle and he’s giving me the eye like he wants to go back in the game,” said Cronin.  “I would say that it scared him more than anything.”

To make matters worse, Wright was not the only Bearcat to suffer an injury in the game.  In the first half, Justin Jackson was taken to the locker room with an injured wrist.  X-rays were negative and Jackson returned to action with his wrist heavily taped.

Wright and Jackson did not do much at practice on Thursday and Cronin says he’ll be cautious in determining if either player will be allowed to take court the court on Saturday.

“It’s a long year and we have a lot of games left,” said Cronin.  “Hopefully, we’ll have a lot of games in March, so I can tell you that I’m not going to take a risk now for no reason.

“(Cashmere) probably wouldn’t have practiced much anyway to be honest with you.  From here on out with our major minute guys, we don’t need to practice a whole lot.  Full-speed practice is not much more than an hour, the rest of it would be teaching points, scouting report, shooting, and individual work.  That’s something that I believe in a lot, and obviously with Cashmere, he’s had some injuries.

“It’s a little bit different with Justin.  He’s got a sprained wrist and he’s stiff.  He’s another veteran guy that doesn’t need a lot of practice.  So we’ll see how he feels.  It’s his right wrist so that’s an issue for free throws, not that he’s shooting a lot of jump shots.  But again, you’re not going to risk March for January.”

Since Jackson was able to return to the court after his wrist injury on Tuesday, it seems logical to expect him to play against Marquette.

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As for Wright, Coach Cronin loves to quote the end of Rambo: First Blood Part II when Colonel Trautman (Richard Crenna) tries to comfort John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) before Stallone’s character walks off into the distance as the credits roll.

Colonel Trautman:  How will you live John?

Rambo:  Day-by-day.

Cronin told reporters that he was “Bill Belichick-ing” them – or not saying much – on all injury-related questions on Thursday, but it appears that Wright’s status is truly TBA for the upcoming games against Marquette and Syracuse.

“We’ll see how he feels on Friday…and Saturday…and Sunday,” said Cronin.  “Seriously, I’m not trying to be funny, he is day-to-day.”

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Cronin Deserves Credit For Rebuilding Bearcats

Last year after the Bearcats’ thrilling road win at Villanova, a woman stopped Mick Cronin on his way to the team bus.  It was the mother of one of the ‘Nova players and she told Mick how much she appreciated his postgame comments after the Xavier brawl.

A few weeks later, a few of us were having dinner with Coach Cronin during the NCAA tournament when a similar thing happened.  This time it was a man who identified himself as a Musketeers fan and he praised Mick for the same thing.

I bring this up now because the Bearcats have dropped three of their last four games and I haven’t received a single e-mail criticizing Coach Cronin.  It’s my belief that the way he handled himself after last year’s Xavier game caused many people to look at Mick in a different light and reconsider what he’s accomplished as Cincinnati’s head coach.

“I don’t know because I’m not sure how people look at me,” Mick said when I asked if he agreed.  “You know me really well, and I’m concerned with being a great father, a great friend, a good brother, and a good son, but most importantly a great father.  (My daughter) Sammy’s opinion of me is the one that matters most.”

Mick at NCAA (440x323)

Of course, the key for any coach to win over fans is to win games.  Cincinnati has increased or equaled its win total in each of the last five seasons, made it to the Big East Tournament championship game for the first time last year, and advanced to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2001.

Simply put, Mick Cronin has successfully rebuilt Bearcat basketball.

“We had to rebuild a winning culture,” said Cronin.  “Now the expectation of winning is there and the players are willing to listen, practice appropriately, and give the required effort – I don’t like to say extra effort – the required effort that it takes to win games.”

After starting this season 12-0 and climbing into the Top 10 for the first time since the 2003-04 season, the Bearcats have stumbled over the last two weeks in home losses to New Mexico, St. John’s, and Notre Dame.  Scoring was a problem in all three defeats as Cincinnati averaged 55.3 points.

“Offensively, we’re just leaving too much on the table,” said Cronin.  “We had seven second half turnovers (against Notre Dame) and they were all unforced.  We shot over 50% in the second half, but we didn’t get enough shots off.  We have to get ‘tighter’ on offense and the guy with the ball has to slow down so he can make a play.  Whether it’s a simple ball reversal, making an assist, or putting the ball in the basket – when we slow down we’re fine.”

It would obviously help if Cincinnati had a reliable low post scorer.

“Would it be nice to have some guy down low that’s a monster that we could throw it to?  Sure, but that’s an easy excuse,” Mick told me.  “We just have to do a better job of moving the basketball.  The key to making shots is taking easy ones.  I need to do a better job of coaching our guys so that our passing improves.  As our passing improves, we’ll make plenty of shots.”

Additionally, the Bearcats need to get more offense out of their defense.  Last year in a 71-55 win over Notre Dame, the ‘Cats had 11 steals.  In Monday’s 66-60 loss, UC only managed two steals and 21 deflections (UC’s goal is 40).

“We’re constructed to play in the passing lanes, run up and down, and stay on the attack,” said Cronin.  “We need to be on the attack.  The key for us is to get into transition.”

At one point last year, the Bearcats lost three straight Big East games to fall to 5-4 in league play.  After that, they did not lose back-to-back games for the rest of the season.

There are at least 16 games remaining this season, and Cronin and the ‘Cats will look to get back on the winning track on Saturday at Rutgers.

“When you’re coaching basketball, it’s never as bad as it seems when your team is struggling and it’s never as good as it seems when your team is winning – that’s why you have to watch the film and evaluate,” Mick told me.

“They don’t give away wins in this league.  We have to take it as a learning experience and do what we have to do to get better.”

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The Bengals Were — And Are — One Year Away

In his first two NFL seasons, Baltimore’s Joe Flacco won three out of four playoff starts – all on the road.

Pretty incredible right?

Here are Flacco’s stats for those four games:  37-for-85, 471 yards, 1 TD, 4 INT for a passer rating of 45.8.  In one of the wins, Joe was 4-for-10, 34 yards, 0 TD, 1 INT for a QB rating of 10.0.

I bring up those stats because it seems to me that the national bash-fest of Andy Dalton after his second subpar playoff game is absurd.  The playoff losses in Houston were not strictly Dalton’s fault, just as Flacco clearly didn’t deserve all of the credit for Baltimore’s postseason wins in his first two seasons.

Dalton and Whitworth (440x319)

Look, nobody knows for sure if Andy is going to develop into one of the top quarterbacks in the NFL, but I do think that his career if off to an outstanding start – especially when you consider that he inherited a team that was 4-12 the year before he arrived.

“I think Andy is an incredible quarterback,” said Andrew Hawkins.  “He is going to continue to progress and continue to get better and he’s going to bring the Bengals a lot of wins and playoff wins for many years to come.”

Going into this season, I thought that the Bengals young nucleus was still one year away from being a championship contender.  With a quarterback in his second season, a receiving corps made up mostly of first and second-year guys, and two rookies starting for most of the year at center and right guard, the offense is still developing.  But despite their inexperience, the Bengals went 10-6 and ended the franchise’s 30-year draught without consecutive playoff appearances.

“We wanted our season to go further and felt like we had the potential to go further, but it was still a good season,” said Andrew Whitworth.  “To make back-to-back playoff appearances is an accomplishment.  It’s a young football team with a lot of promise and there’s a lot ahead of us.”

Unlike last season, the Bengals didn’t slide into the playoffs by simply taking advantage of a soft schedule.  They beat three teams that finished with winning records (Baltimore, NY Giants, and Washington) and earned their postseason berth by knocking out the Steelers in Pittsburgh in a must-win scenario.

“Going into this season, I told the guys that we really hadn’t beaten anybody in big games,” said Chris Crocker.  “We finally got over that hump, but we also gave away games that we should have won.

“The tide is kind of turning in this division.  It’s not Pittsburgh and Baltimore anymore; we’re really somebody to reckon with.  I feel really good about this team.”

“Everyone is learning and gaining from experience,” said Rey Maualuga.  “Last year I thought we were good, and this year we were even better.  With the guys coming back next year, who knows what this team can do?  ‘Look out,’ I guess.  These guys are a team to watch and a team to beat next year.”

The key is to keep getting better from top to bottom.  Dalton appeared to regress late in the season, and needs to continue to improve at reading defenses and throwing accurate deep balls.  A speedy and shifty compliment to BenJarvus Green-Ellis would be a boost to the running game, and Jermaine Gresham needs to become more consistent to live up to his immense potential at tight end.  On defense, there are obvious questions at linebacker and safety that have to be answered, but the key pieces will be back from a unit that was the NFL’s best over the second half of the season.  It’s a roster that needs tweaking instead of wholesale changes.

“The truth is there aren’t a lot of teams playing now,” said Whitworth.  “Whatever we’re missing, there are a lot of other teams that are missing more.”

A second straight playoff loss in Houston has left a bitter taste in all of our mouths, but it hasn’t changed the way I felt about this team all along:  It was – and is – one year away.

“Next year for the season to be a success, we have to go to the playoffs and win a playoff game.  That’s how you take the next step,” said Hawkins.

“We have to live and learn from it and keep growing and keep beating on that door until we beat it in,” said Marvin Lewis.

“It’s time to push ourselves further,” said Whitworth.  “It’s still going to be a young team, but we’re going to expect a lot of ourselves.”

“The sky’s the limit for this team in 2013,” said Geno Atkins.

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Bengals Fail To Go Green In Playoff Loss To Texans

The Bengals front office and Senior Producer Greg Cosell of NFL Films have something in common:  Both had A.J. Green listed as the #1 overall player in the 2011 NFL draft.

“He is unbelievable,” Cosell told me recently.  “When you watch him on tape, he’s just a ‘wow’ player.  He is so smooth that you lose sight of the fact that he is almost 6’4” and nearly 210 pounds.  He moves like a much smaller guy.  He’s so smooth and fluid and has such great explosion – to me he’s an absolute joy to watch.  He’s my favorite wide receiver to watch.”

But there wasn’t much of Green to see in the first half of Saturday’s 19-13 playoff loss in Houston.

Green with towel (440x293)

Andy Dalton threw 10 passes in the first 30 minutes and none of them were tossed in the direction of Green.  Five were thrown for Jermaine Gresham, three to Marvin Jones, and two to BenJarvus Green-Ellis.

“A couple of times Andy took off and ran when A.J. was the number one target,” said head coach Marvin Lewis.  “But he can’t force the ball into coverage.  He’s got to read the coverage and throw the ball into the weakness of the coverage.  That’s what you want him to do.  He can’t give in to ‘Oh A.J. didn’t touch the ball here.’  He’s got to make sure that he’s doing it the way it’s designed.”

“I would love to get the ball on every play but when they double me there are other guys on the team that can make plays,” said Green.  “I tried to make plays whenever my number was called but we didn’t make enough as a whole team to come away with a win.”

It was clear that the Bengals coaching staff thought that the Texans defense was vulnerable up the middle and that Gresham would have opportunities, but it’s hard to fathom not throwing to Green at all for a half.

“You have to do what you do,” said my partner on the radio broadcasts Dave Lapham.  “You can’t say, ‘OK, they’re playing Cover 2 and Jermaine Gresham is going to be on a linebacker or a nickel defensive back that he can physically dominate.’  Baloney.  A.J. Green got you to the dance.  I don’t care what the game plan was.  You cannot go an entire half without putting the ball in his hands one time.”

To their credit, the Bengals adjusted in the second half as Green was targeted 11 times and caught five passes for 80 yards.

“We want to get the ball to A.J. as much as we can, and in the second half we were able to move him around a little bit and make some plays,” said Lewis.

Unfortunately, the Bengals were not able to connect with Green on a play that would have given them the lead with less than three minutes to go.

On third-and-11 from the Houston 36-yard line, Green blew past Texans cornerback Johnathan Joseph and safety Danieal Manning and was open in the end zone, but Dalton’s heave was beyond A.J.’s grasp.

“I was digging and I laid out, but I couldn’t get a hand on it,” said Green.  “We’re both young and that’s something that we need to work on.  Our deep balls this whole year weren’t consistent enough.  That’s me and him – both parts.  That’s the stuff we need to work on in the off-season.

“Football is a game of inches and that’s one thing that we need to get better at.  We need to capitalize when plays are presented our way.  That’s the next step to being a great team.”

The Bengals made strides in 2012 as they improved their record to 10-6 and made back-to-back playoff appearances for the first time in 30 years.  But the season ended exactly where it did one year ago – with a first round playoff loss in Houston.

“We were 3-5 and dug ourselves out of that hole to put ourselves in the playoffs,” said Green.  “We won 10 games which is difficult in this league so I feel like we took a step.  The next step is to get past the first round.”

“We have to get better,” said Coach Lewis.  “We can’t be satisfied with where we are.  We’re not going to New Orleans, so we’re not satisfied.  We have to push ahead and get better.”

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Bengals Need Dalton To Deliver In Return To Houston

One of my favorite stats about Andy Dalton is that he has thrown 35 touchdowns in the red zone in his NFL career and no interceptions.

That’s spectacular.

But ball security might not be enough to win in the playoffs.

Dalton vs Texans (320x440)

Dalton has been sacked 46 times this season including eight times in the red zone – at least in part because of his reluctance to throw risky passes.  Taking care of the football is obviously a good thing.  But if the Bengals are going to beat the 12-4 Texans, Andy is going to have to take advantage of his opportunities to make plays.

“I watched all 46 sacks on Tuesday night because I wanted to see if there was any kind of consistency to them,” said analyst Mike Mayock who will call Saturday’s game on NBC.  “I’m a big believer that pass protection starts with the quarterback and Andy is a young quarterback who is really concerned about protecting the football.  So on the one hand, you applaud that – especially in the red zone – and he hasn’t thrown a red zone interception in his career.  But the flip side to that is that I don’t think he rips the ball when he has a chance to rip it.  I think what you’re seeing is a really intelligent young guy trying to figure it out, but for my money, right now he’s too far on the conservative side.”

“He’s a perfectionist and if it’s not perfect he’ll choose not to throw it,” said offensive coordinator Jay Gruden.  “Sometimes he makes the right decisions and sometimes you’re like, ‘Thrown the dang ball please.’  But he’s got the ball in his hands and only he can see what he sees and the more he sees the route combinations and gets a feel for the defenses and how they’re covering, the better he is going to be.  But for 30 starts or whatever it is, I think he’s done pretty darn good.”

If the Bengals can give Dalton time to throw against J.J. Watt (20.5 sacks), Antonio Smith (7 sacks) and the Texans pass rush, there will be opportunities to make big plays.  Houston has good cornerbacks in Pro Bowler Johnathan Joseph and Kareem Jackson, but safeties Danieal Manning and Glover Quin have not graded as well.

“The Texans have given up 29 touchdown passes compared to 18 last year,” said beat writer John McClain from the Houston Chronicle.  “The only playoff team that’s given up more is Washington with 31.  They’ve given up 54 pass plays of at least 20 yards.  That is third worst among the playoff teams.  It’s not the corners, it’s the safeties.  They’ve had injuries and the backup safeties playing in the two-deep have killed them.  They have just not played well on the back end in passing situations so I would expect Andy Dalton to be throwing the ball deep to A.J. Green quite a bit.”

“They’re not playing cohesively in the back end,” said Mayock.  “My take on Houston is those two pass rushers on the inside make all the difference and when you protect your quarterback you can get into their secondary.  I don’t think their secondary when you break them down individually is great.  When you get time, you can get into the secondary and without (the injured) Brian Cushing back there, that’s another problem because he’s an athletic linebacker and not having him in that intermediate area is a big deal.”

Unlike Cincinnati’s AFC North rivals Pittsburgh and Baltimore, the Texans are not especially confusing on defense.  It’s a straight-forward scheme led by a tremendous player in Watt.

“I’ve never seen anybody in all the years that I’ve covered football have a season like Watt has had,” said McClain.  “He has 90 plays – 90 – for zero or negative yards.  On running plays alone, he has 24 tackles for loss and 15 tackles for no gain.  He’s been involved in nine turnovers, set an NFL record with 16 passes deflected – the only thing he hasn’t done is intercept a pass and return it for a touchdown like he did in the playoffs last season.”

“They have some good blitzes here and there, but basically, they’re going to get after you with their front four and play a lot of man-to-man,” said Gruden.  “By the time you can get open down the field, J.J. Watt and company are feasting at the quarterback.  They done a great job with it, and the energy level that they play with on every snap is very impressive.”

“Their defense is more ‘Here’s what we do – beat it,’ ” said Dalton.  “They have really talented guys up front and do a great job of rushing the passer and they rely on those guys a lot.  That allows them to not do as much other stuff because they have a good front.”

Dalton was 2-0 at Reliant Stadium as a Katy Tiger and 1-0 as a TCU Horned Frog.  He’s 0-1 as an NFL player in Houston, and Andy looks forward to getting another shot at beating the Texans in their own building.

“I know the stadium, I know the layout, I know all of that kind of stuff,” said Dalton.  “Now it’s time for me to get the first win there as a pro.”

I’d love to hear from you at Dan.Hoard@Bengals.nfl.net

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