This year began with the Cincinnati Bengals finishing off their 4-12 season with a dispirited loss at Baltimore. Late in the day that Jan. 2 there wasn't much reason to hope that 2011 would be a year to celebrate.
A lot has happened to make Bengals' fans cheer, however, in 2011. Bengals 101 pored over the stories of the past year and tried to whittle them down to the top five. Here's what we determined were the most important moments for the Cincinnati Bengals in the past year.
5. Carson Palmer traded to the Oakland Raiders: Carson Palmer was the face of the franchise. In January he told the team that he wanted out. He didn't care if they traded him or released him, he just wanted out of Cincinnati. In no uncertain terms, Palmer informed Mike Brown and Marvin Lewis that he had taken his last snap in a Bengals uniform. He would retire if the team didn't let him go elsewhere.
What ensued was a staring contest that rivaled Kennedy and Khrushchev. Palmer was serious about not playing and Mike Brown was equally serious about holding Palmer to the terms of his contract. With the labor dispute cutting off communications, no one knew how this would be resolved. When labor peace was established and players started to return to camp, Palmer was there… Jordan Palmer that is (who would be released soon after).
A funny thing happened though. Palmer counted on the Bengals struggling behind rookie replacement Andy Dalton. They didn't. The Bengals were 4-2 headed into their bye week. The Oakland Raiders, however, were also off to fast start under former Bengals' assistant Hue Jackson and had just lost starting QB Jason Campbell for the season. Jackson got on the phone with Mike Brown and Marvin Lewis, and after putting together an offer too good to refuse, Palmer was traded to the Raiders.
Palmer has gone 4-4 as the Raiders' starter, thrown more interceptions than touchdowns, and generally been his mercurial self. Oakland can make the playoffs with a win and some help. We know the Bengals playoff scenario, but the team now hold two additional high draft choices thanks to saying goodbye to their franchise quarterback.
4. Out with the bad: Palmer wasn't the only high profile face from 2010 to be gone before kickoff of 2011. Wide receiver Terrell Owens wasn't resigned and the team's "mouthpiece" Chad Ochocinco was traded to the New England Patriots at the start of training camp. Also gone through free agency or getting released were Johnathan Joseph, Antwan Odom, Tank Johnson, and Dhani Jones among several. Marvin Lewis was serious about remaking his roster and didn't hesitate to let go those who didn't want to be there or who didn't fit into the system.
3. In with the good: 2011 Draft and free agency: The Bengals' haul in the 2011 Draft and acquisitions of key free agents made the aforementioned roster purge possible. In rounds one and two in April, Cincinnati drafted two of the top contenders for this year's rookie of the year award in AJ Green and Andy Dalton. This WR/QB duo already shows promise to be one of the most effective in the NFL. All told, six of the eight picks made the final roster. Additionally, the Bengals were able to acquire linebackers Thomas Howard and Manny Lawson and cornerback Nate Clements to upgrade the defense, and Bruce Gradkowski was brought in as a veteran mentor to Andy Dalton.
2. Beating Buffalo: The Bengals won nine games while the calendar read 2011. None was more significant than their home win over the Buffalo Bills on Oct. 2. After narrowly winning in Cleveland on opening day, the Bengals had dropped two straight to Denver and San Francisco. With the 3-0 Bills coming in fresh off their beatdown of the New England Patriots, everyone was certain this would be the nail in the coffin for this young team.
When they went into the locker room down 17-3, things didn't look good at all. The Bengals' defense got a wake up call, however, and clamped down on Ryan Fitzpatrick and the then-potent Bills' offense while Andy Dalton went to work picking apart the Buffalo defense like a veteran. Mike Nugent kicked his third field goal of the day as time expired and the Bengals were 23-20 winners. Instead of being 1-3, they were now 2-2 with a "signature" victory that caught the eye of the national media. The victory would be the first of five consecutive wins that would ensure the Bengals remained a part of the playoff picture in the second half of the season.
1. Bringing back Marvin: It may end up being the most important decision in the history of the franchise. It was most definitely the most important in 2011. With many calling for Marvin's scalp following the debacle of 2010, Mike Brown opted to re-sign his head coach. As usual with Brown, the exact terms of the deal were not made known, but it's fairly clear from the events that transpired that Brown also ceded some significant control over personnel decisions to Lewis in the deal.
Lewis responded by letting go long-time offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski and replacing him with Jay Gruden who brought in his version of the West Coast offense. Defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer was retained and continued to develop his young and improving defense. Combined with the previously mentioned personnel decisions, the Bengals were significantly upgraded.
Keeping Lewis provide some key continuity within a framework of major change that was necessary for the team's success. With a lockout and no off season workouts, having Lewis at the helm was just the kind of firmness the team needed.
It wasn't evident at the January press conference, but by the time training camp started in August, it was clear Lewis had the reigns of the team as well. When Jerome Simpson showed up to practice in the wrong color workout shorts, he was sent back to his dorm to get the right ones and ran the rest of practice. The circus had left town.
2011 has been a year of change and the great majority of that has been positive for the Cincinnati Bengals. Tomorrow they'll kick off 2012 with a chance to go to the playoffs. Who would have thought that 365 days ago?
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