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Most of the optimism starts under center, where Carson Palmer is said to be making strides this offseason. Any improvement, of course, would be a continuation of his 2004 season -- at least up until the point he was injured during a Dec. 12 loss at New England.
In his first seven starts last year, Palmer's passer rating of 62.6 was among the worst in the NFL but in his final six games that rating rose to 96.9 as he completed 68.7 percent of his passes with 13 touchdowns and eight interceptions.
In other words, his game appeared to be heading in the right direction.
While Palmer's progress is one reason for optimism, his supporting cast is another.
As Post staff reporter Kevin Goheen reminded readers on Monday, Rudi Johnson ran the football 361 times last season, 21 more times than any other running back in Bengals history. Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh combined to catch 168 passes in 2004, the second-highest total ever by a pair of Cincinnati wide receivers in a single season.
Right tackle Willie Anderson joined Rudi and Chad Johnson in Hawaii for the Pro Bowl this past February and all 11 starters for the offense return.
As Wheeler put it: "If you play Fantasy Football, you love this offense. If you don't, you just fantasize. ..."
Of course, until the rubber actually meets the road -- or the Bengals actually hit the field, speculation is all we have.
The good news? Nobody is more aware of the need to prove their worth than the Bengals themselves.
"I think we have the opportunity," said Palmer. "It's the work that you put in from March until the season's over that makes yourself an elite offense."'
"We haven't done anything," offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski added. "We weren't that good last year. There's potential, but that potential stuff, that's all it is. Potential will get you beat until you go play like your talent level says you can. ..."
"We've talked about from Day 1 how we haven't done anything yet," said tight end Matt Schobel, who had four touchdowns among his 21 receptions last season, a career high. "It's just like going into last year when (head coach) Marvin [Lewis] was saying that we don't start off 8-8.
"You've got to earn each win just like you have to earn being considered one of the best offenses in the league. We do have all of the same guys back from last year and there is no reason why we shouldn't be good but we have to go out and prove it each week."
"It's all on paper, but you've got to go out there and do it." Houshmandzadeh added. "Everybody can say we're a top-five offense, but until you put up top-five offensive numbers, it's all talk."
True that. ...
The Bengals scored 374 points last season -- including five defensive touchdowns and one by the special teams -- the most points by the team since 1989.
That total ranked the Bengals 10th in the league but the offense finished just 18th in the NFL rankings, which are based on yards per game, and as Goheen suggested, "it doesn't take a lot of digging to find room for improvement."
The passing game and the rushing attack were both ranked in the bottom half -- 17th -- in the league. And despite the defense creating 36 turnovers last season, the offense gave it back to opponents 32 times. Palmer and backup Jon Kitna combined to throw 22 interceptions and the offense lost 10 fumbles.
According to Goheen, the 12 playoff teams from last season averaged 24.7 turnovers, and only St. Louis, which sneaked in as the final team from the NFC with the same 8-8 the Bengals had, turned the ball over more times than Cincinnati did.
The Rams lost the ball 39 times and were one of just three teams to reach the postseason with a negative turnover ratio. The six AFC playoff teams averaged just 21.3 turnovers in 2004.
But as noted above, there are plenty of signs it's "go time" for this offense.
And again, as the team ended a mandatory mini-camp at Paul Brown Stadium on Sunday, Palmer's progress is the most encouraging sign of all.
Losing weight has made him more comfortable this spring. According to observers, Palmer is noticeably lighter and quicker at 230 pounds compared to the nearly 250 he carried last season.
But it's not just his physical condition. Palmer also knows more about the offense and he's putting that improved understanding to work. In fact, teammates and coaches alike have picked up on differences in Palmer's play and presence this offseason.
According to Cincinnati Enquirer beat man Mark Curnutte, Lewis especially likes the quarterback's behavior after the offense leaves the huddle and before the ball is snapped.
"I think his ability to handle the changes we like to do at the line of scrimmage is big," the coach said of Palmer.
"I think his maturity in not trying to score two touchdowns at once -- I think we'll see this from him this year. I think he'll let go of a bad play and get to the next play a little quicker than a year ago."
"He's more comfortable in the role," Kitna, Palmer's mentor and the team's starter from 2001-03.
"[Palmer] has taken the reins. 'It's my team.' Guys know he's unquestionably the No. 1 guy."
Asked if there were a defining moment in Palmer's development, Kitna told Curnutte it might have taken place between the end of the season and the start of on-field work in May.
On the field, especially during practice, Palmer said he is not trying just to beat the defense that he's facing; he's trying to see what Baltimore or Pittsburgh might do on certain downs and distances.
"I'm working on the little things," Palmer said. "I feel completely different. I really feel comfortable with everybody around me; I feel comfortable with the offense. I feel comfortable with what's going on defensively and what's going on against certain defenses. Having experience is everything."
That experience has led to confidence.
"Now he's had a year under his belt, and you see him out there with the same calm mentality, but he's getting a lot more done," said third-year left guard Eric Steinbach, a close friend of Palmer's. "He's picking up defenses quicker, he's changing plays at the line better, more confidently. When he's playing better, the offense is going to do better."
Said tight end Reggie Kelly: "You can hear (Palmer's confidence) in his voice. You can see it in his body language and in his attitude. He is confident. He knows what everybody is doing."
"He's doing all the right things, but we'll see when we start playing games again," said a slightly more cautious Bratkowski. "He found a comfort level with the offense last year in those four or five games, and that shows itself out here now: The way he calls plays in the huddle, takes commands in the huddle, it's just a comfort level."
Rudi Johnson likes how Palmer rebounds quickly from a bad play, not getting down on himself and instead moving on to the next snap.
"That's a sign of a leader," the star halfback stated.
"He's getting better as time goes on and more vocal; he has to talk more to call the plays," Chad Johnson said. "He knows what's going on now. He knows more. He learned it as time went on."
"He's doing things out there now with changing protections calls, making adjustments we need to make, getting people lined up right," Bratkowski explained. "We all learn at different speeds. I'm a bit of a slow learner. I kind of need to see things and think them through and get a feel for it a few times and then I get it, and I think Carson's probably like that. But once he gets it, he's got it.
"(Quarterback coach) Ken Zampese has done a great job with Carson's footwork; and things like that are so important for a quarterback. Now it's gotten to the point where it's a subconscious thing. His mind's not focusing on footwork, it's focusing on what's down the field."
Indeed, Palmer's biggest problem could be keeping his supporting cast happy.
But Bratkowski is determined to open things up and allow Palmer to use all the weapons surrounding him. The club wants to build leads with a quick-strike passing game and then milk the clock in the fourth quarter by having the bruising Johnson move the chains.
According to observers, the attack mode will include an empty backfield, three wideouts and two tight ends for a seven-man protection scheme that will give Palmer the time to find Chad Johnson, Houshmandzadeh and either Peter Warrick or Kelley Washington. Newcomers Chris Henry and Tab Perry also hope to work their way into the receiving rotation this summer.
Although Kelly is primarily a blocker, the other two tight ends -- Schobel and Tony Stewart -- will also contribute as receivers.
"We do have a lot of weapons," Bratkowski admitted. "And we just have to find ways to utilize everybody, give everybody their little niche in the offense, create roles for them. That's where we have to make sure as a team we don't get into selfish behaviors.
"We're going to face issues with selfishness. 'I need the ball more. I need the ball more. I need the ball more.'"
Of course, how everybody involved handles those issues will play a major role in determining the unit's overall success this fall. ...
Other notes of interest in Cincinnati. ...
Chad Johnson plans to take Henry, selected in the third round of April's NFL Draft, to the Phenom Factory, an offseason training camp in Los Angeles run by former Canadian Football League receiver Charles "Coach C" Collins.
Houshmandzadeh and sixth-rounder Perry will join Johnson and Henry for three weeks of intense workouts prior to the reporting date for training camp.
Johnson says Henry needs to contribute right away, and Johnson is more than willing to help the rookie receiver do that. "There's no time to take a year off; no time to adjust. He's got to come in and play right now," Johnson says.
According to the Sporting News, Henry's leaping catch in the end zone on a corner route during rookie mini-camp reminded observers of ex-Bengal Carl Pickens. ...
On the injury front. ...
Johnson showed no aftereffects from arthroscopic ankle surgery one month ago. "Five little (bone) chips, about the size of peas," the loquacious receiver said of what doctors removed from his ankle. "I saved them."
Johnson also said the ankle hurt -- the result of bone spurs rubbing -- while he stood still. He felt no pain while running, he said. Johnson missed the first week of on-field coaching sessions in May following the procedure. ...
According to Dayton Daily News staffer Chick Ludwig, Warrick is "close, very close," to being medically cleared for practice. He's expected to be 100 percent physically when players report to training camp on July 28.
"Peter's worked hard," Lewis said. "But when you're coming back from an injury, you've got to do double time. You don't just get to do what you're used to doing. You've got to do more because you've got to catch up physically, mentally and with your conditioning.
"Hopefully, he's into the stage now where he can push to do more because he's getting pretty close to being back."
That said, the former first-round pick seems to be more focused on regular-season action than proving himself this summer.
"It ain't no question," Warrick said last week. "It's all about what I do when the time comes. The time will come when the games count. ..."
Also according to Ludwig, second-year tailback Chris Perry has been called a lot of things during his football career. Like quick, fast, sleek, smooth, strong, tough and durable.
But he's never had the word "bust" attached to his name.
"Oh, no, I haven't heard any whispers like that," said Perry, the Bengals' No. 1 draft pick in 2004 whose rookie season was ruined by a sports hernia that limited him to two carries for one yard and three catches for 33 yards in two games.
Perry's comment prompted Profootballtalk.com editor Mike Florio to quip: "In that case, he's both a bust and legally deaf. ..."
Perry, however, doesn't equate being injured to being a bust.
"I haven't had a chance to get on the field," he protested. "If I got out there and ran for 200 yards in 57 carries, then I could understand why there would be rumblings. But when you haven't had a chance to show what you can do, I don't think there's any reason to pass judgment as of yet."
His rehabilitation from two offseason surgeries caused him to miss last weekend's mini-camp, but he's hoping to be ready for training camp.
"My goal is to get into camp, and get my body right and my mind right for the season, and the pounding that football puts on you," Perry, who estimated Saturday that he is 60-65 percent healed, said. "I'm hoping that on July 29 I can be out there."
Unlike other injuries, sports hernias are -- as described by Ludwig -- "hidden terrors."
Perry looks healthy, but he isn't. He had a torn muscle in the right side of his abdominal wall that required surgery and then the same condition flared up on the left side, requiring an additional surgical procedure. The best therapy is rest, and that's difficult for an athlete who's hungry to compete.
"That's the tough part," Perry said. "Everything looks fine until you try to burst and have an explosion. That's when you feel the sharp pain. I've had a lot of people come up to me and say, 'Hernias are tough,' because they've had it. But you can't really know how I feel unless you've had that injury before. ..."
So, what would a healthy Perry mean to the team?
"His versatility running the football, catching the football and in pass protection," Lewis said. "He's the complete player. That's why we picked him where we did. He's chomping at the bit, but these (injured) guys have to earn their way back onto the field. ..."
In fact, Lewis recently told Bengals.com online editor Geoff Hobson that Perry is "one of the most talented guys we have in this building."
Unfortunately, the rest of us have seen little evidence of that talent and it remains to be seen whether we'll actually get a preview when training camp opens.
I'll also remind you that veteran Kenny Watson will be standing in the way upon Perry's return.
As FOXSports.com pointed out this week, Watson, a solid special teams player, has good size and power and has worked hard to improve his speed and ability to catch the ball out of the backfield. He runs with good body lean and has a natural feel for the passing game, but he needs to show better concentration and ball security.
But according to the FOX report, if he can conquer that part of his game and become more reliable, he'll get an opportunity to contribute on third-down passing situations and serve as Rudi Johnson's top backup ahead of Perry. ...
And finally. ... The Bengals claimed the second-year quarterback Craig Krenzel off waivers from the Bears on Monday, bringing him back to the state where he won a national championship in college.
Krenzel, a fifth-round draft pick in 2004 out of Ohio State, appeared in six games last year and became the first Bears quarterback in nearly 40 years to start his career with three straight victories. But he lost his last two starts and Chicago waived him last week.
Last year, Krenzel was 59-for-127 for 718 yards. He threw three touchdowns and six interceptions. He'll have to battle Casey Bramlet and Josh Haldi for a roster spot behind Palmer and Kitna.