The Cincinnati Bengals appear to have solved one image problem. In 2012, they'll be striving to put another one finally to rest.
For years, the Bengals had an infamous reputation of being the NFL's poster children for bad behavior, gaining more notoriety for their players' off-the- field conduct and outlandish antics than their accomplishments on it. An extensive house-cleaning prior to the 2011 season rid the team of many of its malcontents and locker-room corrupters, with the new blood helping to forge an attitude adjustment that paid dividends even faster than the organization could have ever imagined.
With a pair of character-conscious rookies, quarterback Andy Dalton and wide receiver A.J. Green, leading the way, Cincinnati orchestrated one of the NFL's largest and most surprising turnarounds of last season. The Bengals transformed a four-win flop in 2010 into a 9-7 record and playoff appearance, instantly stamping themselves as one of the league's up-and-coming clubs.
While the Bengals were able to change their stripes from a public relations perspective, there's still one ignominious label the franchise just hasn't been able to shake. Cincinnati hasn't reached the playoffs in back-to-back seasons since the 1981 and '82 campaigns, and hasn't produced a winning mark in the last five years that followed a postseason trip.
This latest edition may have a chance to buck that dubious trend, however. A league-best four players -- Dalton, Green, tight end Jermaine Gresham and defensive tackle Geno Atkins -- from Cincinnati's last two draft classes were voted to the Pro Bowl last season, while a defense that ranked seventh overall in yards allowed returns all but two starters.
But although the future appears very bright, there are still areas that the Bengals must improve upon to take that long-awaited next step. Last year's squad often came up well short when matched up against a heavyweight, winning just one of eight tests (including the playoffs) against opponents that finished above .500. While Dalton's debut was considered an unqualified success, the red-headed quarterback threw 10 interceptions against just five touchdown passes in those seven losses.
Dalton was picked off three times and sacked on four occasions in Cincinnati's 31-10 setback to fellow upstart Houston in the AFC Wild Card Playoffs.
"To make the playoffs last year was good, but you don't want to end it the way we did," he stated. "Our goal is to get back to the playoffs. Once you get to the playoffs, it doesn't matter what happened during the regular season -- it's one game at a time. Our goal is to get back there."
The remaining members from Cincinnati's 2010 debacle can point to that season as further motivation. The Bengals also came into that year with elevated expectations after producing 10 victories and an AFC North title the previous year, only to crumble under a rash of injuries and numerous chemistry problems.
This year's group insists it isn't fixated on exorcising previous demons, however, instead keeping the focus squarely on the present.
"2010 is gone and we've moved on, and now we're in '12," said head coach Marvin Lewis. "What's in the past is in the past, and let's keep it there."
Below we take a capsule look at the 2012 edition of the Cincinnati Bengals, with a personnel evaluation and prognosis included therein:
2011 RECORD: 9-7 (3rd, AFC North)
LAST PLAYOFF APPEARANCE: 2011, lost to Houston in AFC Wild Card
COACH (RECORD): Marvin Lewis (69-74-1 in nine seasons)
OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Jay Gruden (second season)
DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Mike Zimmer (fifth season with Bengals)
OFFENSIVE STAR: A.J. Green, WR (65 receptions, 1057 yards, 7 TD)
DEFENSIVE STAR: Leon Hall, CB (32 tackles, 2 INT)
2011 OFFENSIVE TEAM RANKS: 20th overall (19th rushing, 20th passing), 18th scoring (21.5 ppg)
2011 DEFENSIVE TEAM RANKS: 7th overall (10th rushing, 9th passing), 9th scoring (20.2 ppg)
KEY ADDITIONS: RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis (from Patriots), RG Kevin Zeitler (1st Round, Wisconsin), WR Mohamed Sanu (3rd Round, Rutgers), DT Brandon Thompson (3rd Round, Clemson), DT Devon Still (2nd Round, Penn State), DE Jamaal Anderson (from Colts), CB Dre Kirkpatrick (1st Round, Alabama), CB Terence Newman (from Cowboys), CB Jason Allen (from Texans)
KEY DEPARTURES: RB Cedric Benson (to Packers), WR Jerome Simpson (to Vikings), LG Nate Livings (to Cowboys), RG Bobbie Williams (to Ravens), DE Frostee Rucker (to Browns), SS Chris Crocker (released), WR Jordan Shipley (to Buccaneers), WR Andre Caldwell (to Broncos), TE Bo Scaife (free agent), C Mike McGlynn (to Colts), DT Jonathan Fanene (to Patriots), OLB Brandon Johnson (to Steelers), CB Kelly Jennings (free agent), S Gibril Wilson (free agent)
QB: The Bengals knew they were getting a quarterback with smarts and a winning pedigree in Dalton (3398 passing yards, 20 TD, 13 INT in 2011), who compiled a stellar 34-3 record over his final three collegiate seasons at TCU, when they tabbed him as the immediate successor to the disgruntled Carson Palmer. The 24-year-old's ascension into a competent director of offensive coordinator Jay Gruden's West Coast system was quicker and more seamless than the team initially envisioned, however. There's still room for improvement, though, as he often struggled when facing top-level defenses as a rookie, throwing 10 of his 16 total interceptions in Cincinnati's seven games against Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Houston and San Francisco. The Bengals are also pleased with backup Bruce Gradkowski (109 passing yards, 1 TD, 1 INT), a gamer who compensates for a limited set of physical tools with lots of moxie and a fiery demeanor. With a career 53 percent completion percentage and a 6-14 lifetime record as a starter, Cincinnati could be in some trouble if Dalton went down for an extended period, however.
RB: Cincinnati got plenty of mileage out of scrap-heap pickup Cedric Benson, with the Chicago castoff delivering three consecutive 1,000-yard seasons from 2009-11, but his heavy workload over that time frame prompted the club to go in another direction when he hit free agency this offseason. The Bengals instead signed BenJarvus Green-Ellis (667 rushing yards, 11 TD, 9 receptions) to be the new lead back, and the ex-Patriot brings a similar hard-driving style and similar skill set as his predecessor. Though lacking a game-breaking burst, he's an excellent short-yardage runner with outstanding ball security, having never fumbled in 510 career carries. Green-Ellis will be paired with returnee Bernard Scott (380 rushing yards, 3 TD, 13 receptions), a better outside threat and change-of-pace option but who's had a mostly undistinguished three-year tenure as a pro. Also back is Brian Leonard (22 receptions), the best receiver of the Bengals' stable who's utilized mostly on third downs, while fellow holdover Cedric Peerman is used sparingly on offense but is one of the team's top special teams performers. Fullback Chris Pressley also holds a key role in the running game as a strong lead blocker.
WR: While Dalton proved to be a great value pick in the second round, Cincinnati hit a home run with its selection of Green (65 receptions, 1057 yards, 7 TD) with the fourth overall choice of last year's draft. The former Georgia star immediately established himself as an upper-echelon receiver by displaying terrific hands and separation skills along with the deep speed to stretch a defense, and he's yet to even reach his ceiling. After letting Jerome Simpson walk in free agency, finding a capable secondary target to prevent Green from drawing constant double-teams became a primary focus of training camp, with a host of intriguing but largely unproven candidates vying for the position. Armon Binns, who spent nearly all his rookie year on the practice squad last season, and return whiz Brandon Tate emerged as the leading contenders in the preseason, but neither caught a pass in 2011 and may just be a place-holder until Rutgers product Mohamed Sanu, a third-round pick in April's draft who set the Big East record for career receptions, is deemed ready. The Bengals nabbed another rookie with some size and upside with its fifth-round selection of Cal's Marvin Jones, though he'll have some depth- chart climbing to do at first. Andrew Hawkins (23 receptions) did a credible job out of the slot after making the team as an undrafted college free agent last year, and he'll serve in that capacity this season after beating out injury-risk Jordan Shipley.
TE: With the uncertainty at wide receiver, the Bengals will be counting on Gresham (56 receptions, 6 TD) to further build on a solid second season in which the 2010 first-rounder placed second on the team in touchdown catches and was chosen as a Pro Bowl alternate. He's the headliner of a pretty deep pool of players at the position that also includes reliable vet Donald Lee (11 receptions) and talented rookie Orson Charles, Green's former college teammate at Georgia. The 21-year-old comes to the pros with some off-field baggage, but is a quality receiver and a competitive blocker who could prove to be a fourth-round steal. If he develops quickly, he could push either Lee or blocking specialist Colin Cochart (5 receptions, 1 TD) off the roster.
OL: The Bengals are undergoing a changing of the guards in 2012, with the team using both free agency and the draft to find intended replacements for erstwhile starters Bobbie Williams and Nate Livings after each wasn't retained. Ex-Panther Travelle Wharton was signed in March to take over at left guard, but the experienced veteran unfortunately tore his ACL in the preseason opener and was forced to injured reserve, elevating the lightly tested Clint Boling into the regular lineup. Although the 2011 fourth-round choice had a baptism by fire in three early-season starts at right guard as a rookie, he's got the agility and intelligence to become an asset in time. The time is already now for new right guard Kevin Zeitler, one of Cincinnati's two first- round selections in this past draft who was immediately installed into Williams' old post. The Wisconsin alum is big, tough and a sound technician who should provide instant benefits in the run game. Center Kyle Cook has provided stability and durability in the middle, having started every game over the past three years, but he's in jeopardy of missing a significant chunk of the season after hurting his foot in late August. With undrafted rookie Trevor Robinson next on the camp depth chart, the Bengals clearly hope that isn't the case. There are far fewer concerns outside, where the underrated Andrew Whitworth has quietly emerged as one of the league's better left tackles and former top 10 pick Andre Smith can be a dominating mauler on the right side with his massive frame and rare athleticism. They'll both be backed up again by swingman Anthony Collins and Dennis Roland, with the latter occasionally deployed as an extra tight end in jumbo packages.
DL: The strength of a front four that was responsible for Cincinnati ranking near the top of the NFL in run defense for a portion of last season lies in its depth, with coordinator Mike Zimmer routinely rotating as many as eight players over the course of the year. The group isn't littered with big names, though Atkins (47 tackles) and third-year end Carlos Dunlap (23 tackles, 4.5 sacks) are beginning to make one for themselves with their all-around play. Atkins' exceptionally quick first step and high motor enabled the first-year starter to notch a team-best 7 1/2 sacks, tied for the league lead among interior players, while the 6-foot-6, 280-pound Dunlap is a physical freak who amassed 9 1/2 quarterback takedowns as a rookie in 2010 before having his production curtailed by injuries in his follow-up season. He'll again share snaps with seasoned run-stopper Robert Geathers (29 tackles, 2.5 sacks) at left end, with the also-athletic Michael Johnson (42 tackles, 6 sacks, 1 INT) the main man on the opposite side who's also coming off the best year of his relatively young career. Nose tackle Domata Peko (66 tackles, 2.5 sacks) also returns as one of the team's anchors in the middle and most valued leaders, with capable sub Pat Sims (20 tackles, 1 sack) back to chip in as well once he's over an ankle problem that's kept him out of the majority of camp. The Bengals also brought in former first-round pick Jamaal Anderson (24 tackles, 3 sacks with Colts) to spell Johnson and plucked tackle prospects Devon Still (2nd Round, Penn State) and Brandon Thompson (3rd Round, Clemson) in the draft to offset the offseason departures of Jonathan Fanene and Frostee Rucker.
LB: Cincinnati brings back all three starters from a linebacking crew that put forth a very respectable overall performance in 2011. Weakside regular Thomas Howard (99 tackles, 1 sack), cut loose by Oakland prior to last season, is a blazer who led the team in tackles while also displaying good coverage ability, while the tandem of Rey Maualuga (88 tackles, 1 INT) in the middle and Manny Lawson (52 tackles, 1.5 sacks) on the strong side gives the team a pair of physical tacklers that are strong in run support. Maualuga also lived up to his reputation as an intimidating presence by forcing a club-best three fumbles, and the former USC All-American exhibited improved discipline after being exploited for his aggressiveness earlier in his career. The reserve corps is headed by overachiever Dan Skuta (31 tackles, 0.5 sacks), a core special-teams player who did an adequate job in three stand-in starts for an injured Maualuga last season, and Roddrick Muckelroy, back from an Achilles tear that sidelined him for all of 2011. The Bengals also may find a spot for rookie gamble Vontaze Burfict, considered a possible first-round talent heading into his final year at Arizona State but who went undrafted entirely due to makeup and commitment concerns.
DB: The secondary ranks as the greatest area of uncertainty on Zimmer's defense, as the Bengals are a bit long in the tooth at some spots and somewhat green in others. Additionally, the group's best member, cornerback Leon Hall (32 tackles, 2 INT), missed nearly half of last season with a torn Achilles that could rob him of some of his previous playmaking ability, though he's shown very positive signs of regaining his excellent prior form in camp. On the other side, 12th-year vet Nate Clements (55 tackles, 1 sack, 2 INT) is 32 and lost a step, and was thought to be on the roster bubble when the team took Alabama standout Dre Kirkpatrick with the 17th overall pick of this past draft. The rookie has been sidelined much of the preseason with a knee injury, however, and will likely be eased in behind Clements, still a savvy defender and a top-notch tackler, and the also age-advanced Terence Newman (53 tackles, 4 INT). The soon-to-be 34-year-old ex-Cowboy is coming off a poor and injury- plagued last season in Dallas, but appears rejuvenated in his new surroundings and is well-versed in Zimmer's system from the latter's former days with the Cowboys. The backfield's one constant should be free safety Reggie Nelson (85 tackles, 2 sacks, 4 INT), Cincinnati's leader in interceptions last year whose above-average range can help compensate for what Clements and Newman may have lost. There are questions at strong safety, however, after the team released the declining Chris Crocker in April. Failed 49ers high draft choice Taylor Mays (10 tackles) and special-teams demon Jeromy Miles (16 tackles) are both hard hitters who can make contributions stopping the run, but neither offers much experience or fluidity in coverage. Zimmer has tinkered with the idea of inserting Clements there on passing downs, and free-agent pickup Jason Allen (45 tackles, 4 INT, 11 PD with Texans) has played on the back end before and has the size to handle a switch from his more familiar corner position. Cincinnati also drafted 6-foot-4 specimen George Iloka in the fifth round, but the Boise State product may be too raw to be anything more than a work in progress at this stage.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Kicker Mike Nugent's career had been marked with inconsistency ever since being a second-round pick of the Jets in 2005, but the Ohio native put it all together last year and was rewarded with a big pay raise as a franchise-player designee. He knocked home a personal-best 33 field goals in 38 tries, including a 14-of-16 success rate from 40 yards or beyond. Punter Kevin Huber also set a new career standard with a 44.2 average in 2011, though the lefty's hang time and placement could use some fine-tuning to move into the league's upper echelon at the position. Tate can continually put the offense in good spots with his prowess in the return game, where he averaged a very respectable 10.6 yards taking back punts last year and owns a 24.8 career average along with two touchdowns on kickoffs. He also took a punt back 56 yards for a score in a midseason win at Seattle back in October. The continuity in this department was further maintained when long snapper Clark Harris, a steady performer since joining the Bengals in 2009, was brought back as a restricted free agent in the spring.
PROGNOSIS: The speedy development of players such as Dalton, Green and Atkins has the Bengals on the right track in the long term, but it still remains to be seen whether the present will be as bright as the future appears. Cincinnati handled the cream puffs on last year's schedule but wasn't quite ready for prime time when matched up against the tougher foes, raising questions as to whether its 2011 success can be sustained. This is a competitive club with a solid defense and a smart and efficient quarterback, but there doesn't seem to be any weapons on offense that can truly strike fear into opponents other than Green and the injuries the line incurred in the preseason could be an issue for a team with a lot of untested depth. While last year's unexpected playoff berth breeds optimism, the reality is the Bengals were closer to mediocre than elite on the league spectrum. Unless Dalton can take a big step forward or this draft class can have the impact of the previous one, the middle of the road appears to be their most reasonable destination.