Funny team, those Bengals.
That they are the defending AFC North champions alone makes them worthy of being taken seriously as NFL training camps from coast to coast officially move into high gear.
But just how seriously can you take a team that was dealing with an undeniable circus atmosphere even before Terrell Owens — who arguably remains the NFL's ringmaster when it comes to gridiron shenanigans — sauntered into the team's training camp in Georgetown, Ky.?
Still capable of making movers and shakers around the league stand up and take notice despite being on the downside of his career, the 36-year-old Owens' July 27 signing — a one-year deal reportedly worth $2 million, with another $2 million possible in incentives — immediately triggered lively leaguewide debate.
Could Chad Ochocinco and T.O., teamed up as the Bengals' No. 1 and No. 2 receivers, respectively, actually rack up receiving numbers more noteworthy than their reality-TV show ratings?
Or is Owens just the latest potential problem child on a team chock full of them, when you also take into account Ochocinco, RB Cedric Benson, DT Tank Johnson, OT Andre Smith and fellow newcomers such as CB Adam "Pacman" Jones and WRs Antonio Bryant and Matt Jones?
Just as big a question is the extent to which the Bengals' offense changes with T.O. in the mix. One of the bigger reasons behind the team's first-place 10-6 finish in the AFC North last season was its conservative, run-oriented attack featuring Benson, who has had a coming-out party in Cincy after mostly spinning his wheels both on and off the field with the Bears.
Was that '09 offensive game plan just a passing fancy, with the team now gearing up for a more pass-oriented attack under the direction of QB Carson Palmer, who, along with Ochocinco, aggressively campaigned for Owens' arrival on the scene?
The additions of Bryant and newly signed first-round TE Jermaine Gresham also suggest the team could be moving in a more pass-oriented direction.
"To me, what I think the Bengals are trying to do is support Carson Palmer," said one high-ranking NFL talent evaluator. "If you double Chad (Ochocinco) and you have a one-on-one matchup on the other side, did they have a capable receiver to consistently beat coverage so that Carson could throw there, get 12-15 yards and move the chains?
"The thing with Chad is (that) he is a dynamic player, but he does not run precise routes, and he freelances a lot. So Palmer has to wait for him to come open. That is why it is so important to have a precise route runner like (former Bengals No. 2 WR T.J.) Houshmandzadeh on the other side, running the right route and being in the right spot where the quarterback counts on him being there. They did not have that last year, and I think they set out to get that guy. You look at Antonio Bryant and the rookie tight end (Gresham), and I think the other part of it is, they wanted to have four options. Getting the tight end on the field would do wonders for that offense, and I think they are counting on him.
"If Bryant, Ochocinco and T.O. are in sync and healthy and they can get that Gresham kid on the field to move down the middle of the field, they are going to create some serious matchup problems. I think they will interchange T.O. and move him around a lot, but where I think he'll be the biggest asset is moving the chains, like he did in San Francisco."
Unless, of course, Owens is more intent on creating serious morale problems, demanding the ball come his way more frequently, as was the case during prior stints in San Francisco, Philadelphia and Dallas.
Our sources on the scene in Georgetown tell us that Owens has gotten off to a pretty good start in early camp work, displaying flashes of the trademark skills that have made him one of the league's more accomplished pass catchers.
It's been a different story, though, regarding Bryant, who has missed the majority of practices since camp began.
"His knee apparently is still an issue, which makes the four-year deal the Bengals gave him look fairly dubious, given the early returns," one team insider said of Bryant.
As for Palmer, the verdict remains out for a quarterback who is among the league's most reliable when healthy, which, unfortunately, has not been the case three of the past five seasons, including '09, when he played through a broken thumb on his non-throwing hand.
"It's all legs and technique with Carson," said the talent evaluator. "If he can set and throw, he is very good. When he has time, he can pick you apart."
But will excess baggage prove to be the team's undoing? The checkered pasts of Owens, Benson, Johnson and the Jones boys have been well-documented. Then there's the case of disappointing former first-round pick Andre Smith, who is currently languishing on the physically-unable-to-perform list due to foot/conditioning issues.
Is a recipe for disaster looming?
For what it's worth, although some of our sources think he will have a difficult time making the final roster, we hear Adam Jones has apparently really been keeping his nose to the grindstone, working overtime with talented Bengals CBs Leon Hall and Johnathan Joseph.
But he's just one player.
"We saw what a disaster T.O., Tank Johnson and Pacman Jones turned out to be together in Dallas," said one league insider. "The locker room was out of control. It was Distraction City. Morale and team chemistry was as low as it gets. It was too much about 'I' and not enough about 'team' — too many individual agendas were being served. Why isn't the ball being thrown to me? The quarterback was never comfortable. (Offensive coordinator) Jason Garrett was always on edge. I think Jerry Jones learned the hard way. That is the reason I think there was resistance from (Bengals head coach) Marvin Lewis (about adding T.O.). He didn't want to become a full-time psychologist.
"I don't think they anticipated the problems coming from Andre Smith. They knew there was risk, but they thought they could control him and structured the contract with incentives. But as we have seen too often with these young kids who become instant millionaires, it zaps all their motivation when they get paid.
"I wouldn't say they have reached the point (with Smith) where (ex-Raiders No. 1 overall draft choice) JaMarcus Russell did, but it's sure a whole lot closer to that end of the spectrum than showing much promise right now. If I had a top-10 pick, I would not give it to a kid who is lazy and immature; that is a given."
However, the insider praised the Bengals' organization for keeping former "Bad Boy Bears" Johnson and Benson relatively in check.
"Tank has not had any problems since they brought him in. Cedric Benson has had a few run-ins but nothing serious. Give (Bengals RB coach) Jimmy Anderson and that staff a lot of credit," the insider said.
"Benson was never a dynamic back in college. He was a chain mover. He'll pick up the tough yardage between the tackles and give you 20-25 carries a game. He's not going to break many big runs, but he'll consistently produce yardage in chunks. He's a bell cow. That's what he is. The more you feed him, the better he gets. And they realized that and have done a great job of playing to his strengths."
Another reason the Bengals might still deserve to be taken very seriously is their deep, talented defense, which ended up ranking fourth in the league last season and features a host of ascending performers such as SLB Rey Maualuga and CBs Joseph and Hall.
"On paper, they have a better roster than last year's club," said the insider. "The defense is strong, and the offense should have a better passing game. Benson will not be suspended (for his alleged involvement in a bar fight in his native Texas), which is huge for the offense."
And let's not forget the rest of the AFC North, with Ravens players dropping like flies in the early stages of the offseason, the Steelers forced to get by for possibly as many as six games without suspended QB Ben Roethlisberger and the Browns improving but remaining a work in progress under the direction of new team president Mike Holmgren.
Maybe the Bengals will be a force after all.
Then again, maybe they won't be, when you take a look at a 2010 schedule that appears to be a lot more daunting, as well as the fact that they have reached the playoffs in consecutive seasons only twice in their history (1981-82).
It should be fun trying to figure them out all season, beginning with their matchup against Dallas on Sunday night in the 2010 preseason stage setter in Canton.
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