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One year removed from a surprising first-place finish in one of the league's tougher divisions, the Bengals have undeniably become the "Bungles" again, with one ill-advised turnover after another turning them into an afterthought with six games still remaining this season.
Just as undeniably, after being assured of their 18th non-winning record in the last 20 seasons following their 49-31 collapse to the lowly Bills in Week 11, insiders around the league believe it's pretty much a done deal that head coach Marvin Lewis, who has managed only two playoff berths in his eight-year tenure, will be headed out the door a few months from now.
"This is the last year of Marvin's deal, and it shows," one veteran talent evaluator told PFW. "He's a lame duck. It looks like he has lost the locker room. The players know, and they're just not laying it on the line."
The way we're hearing it, that scenario would especially appear to be the case with a talented but mistake-prone receiving corps led by high-profile veteran enigmas Terrell Owens and Chad Ochocinco.
Forget the fact that Cincy's passing game — under the direction of veteran QB Carson Palmer, who has been more uneven than usual — has been ranked among the league's top 10 throughout the season. What's worth remembering are all the receptions that could have been had there been better route running and communication with Palmer.
In the Bengals' 23-17 loss at Indianapolis in Week 10, rookie TE Jermaine Gresham ran a wrong route that resulted in one of Palmer's three interceptions. Another pick was in great part due to Owens coming out of a cut too slowly on a pass at the Colts' 28-yard line.
"The two receivers (Ochocinco and Owens) are killing them," the talent evaluator said bluntly. "Chad is always freelancing. That's just what Chad has always done. He is not a technically sound receiver. If you were playing sandlot football, he would be the guy you would want on your team because he is so dynamic.
"He always got away with his great speed and quickness, but since he has lost a half-step, it's become that much more difficult for Carson (Palmer). Chad never runs routes at the same depth. So it is very (difficult) to throw a timing pass to Chad — you never know when he is breaking."
In an attempt to further break down Ochocinco's bad habits, the evaluator pointed out a specific example.
"If you remember the Tampa (Bay) loss (a 24-21 defeat in Week Five), he catches the ball but he never catches it the way you would teach it," the evaluator said of Ochocinco, who is due a $6 million option next season that the Bengals must decide whether they want to pick up. "He is not a natural hands catcher — on crossing routes, he always lets the ball come across his body and catches it behind him, like he would tracking it over his shoulder.
"Instead of reaching out and creating a triangle with his hands, he likes to basket catch it with his pinkies together, if that makes sense. Well, instead of turning his hands and snatching a perfect pass against Tampa, he lets the ball bounce off his stomach and it is an interception. He catches it from behind instead of turning his shoulder."
As for Owens, it's hard to find fault with his impressive numbers despite the fact he's a few weeks away from turning 37. Owens is ranked third in the NFL in both receptions (62) and yardage (897), while his eight TD catches are tied for the seventh-most in the league.
To his credit, Owens has not hesitated to man-up to his misdirected routes, as well as the team's penchant for ill-timed blunders (22, the second-most in the AFC).
"That's been our Achilles' heel — finding a way to lose instead of finding a way to win," Owens said not long after the loss to the Colts, which was earmarked by five turnovers.
But T.O. was defiant this past Wednesday in response to critics who said he did not give enough effort in the Bengals' loss to the Colts.
"People that say I have a lack of effort, they can go pound sand," he said.
But the people we talked to found plenty of shortcomings in Owens' game they deemed worthy of pounding away on.
"What's classic with T.O. — what made him great in his heyday — was how big and physical he played," said one league talent evaluator. "He's 6-3, 225 pounds, and could run after the catch. But how many times do you remember seeing him take a short crosser and break a tackle, break a tackle and he's gone for 25 (yards)? He CAN'T do that anymore. He can't break tackles anymore.
"I have seen him gator-arm three passes (this year), and I know he has gator-armed many more. What was crazy was the Miami game (a 22-14 loss in Week Eight). "He caught a curl and went to the ground like Isaac Bruce. He went down! It was vintage Rams football — he caught the ball and went straight to the ground.
"What the (expletive)? He's still 220 pounds. Run the ball!"
The way we hear it, the odds aren't great that Owens will be running routes for the Bengals after this season.
Said one league insider: "Given his age and soft play — especially if a new coach comes in and wants to change culture — that joker will be the first to go."
While Ochocinco and Owens caught most of the heat delivered by league sources on the subject of the Bengals, there were certainly other reasons given for their marked decline this season.
"A big problem is (ORT) Andre Smith, (ORG) Bobbie Williams and (OLG) Nate Livings — they are not very good," the personnel exec said of the Bengals' offensive line. "(C Kyle) Cook and (OLT Andrew) Whitworth are OK, but collectively, that is a bad group."
An even bigger problem, we hear, are personnel decisions that have been bringing down the defense, which has been particularly hindered by an impotent pass rush.
"Why does (DRT) Tank Johnson play on first down? I have no idea," the exec said. "He gets his butt kicked. But can he rush the passer? Yes. Who thinks Tank Johnson could play the run, I don't know, but they play the wrong guys at the wrong times way too much.
"They should let (DT Pat) Sims and (DT Domata) Peko play the run on first and second down and let (DT Geno) Atkins and Johnson rush. They should let (DEs) Frostee (Rucker) and (Robert) Geathers play on first down, and let Johnson and (DE Carlos) Dunlap rush on third down.
"They are playing Miami, and all of a sudden Dunlap is playing left end, and then in the fourth quarter, on fourth down, he is on the right side. And on a key 3rd-and-8, they have him dropping into the hook zone and he trips and falls and the guy catches it for a first down. But (defensive coordinator Mike) Zimmer got a new contract and got big money, so he is a genius."
Like Owens, Zimmer has admitted the Bengals have been guilty of way too much bungling.
"Nobody is scared of our pass rush; I can tell you that," Zimmer said a few days before the Bengals faced the Bills.
Here's something else that we can tell you: Nobody in the know is scared to predict a wholesale housecleaning in Cincinnati in the not-too-distant future.