I was all set to exchange 5 questions with Josh over at Cincy Jungle, when he provided a better option. We've both been answering the same questions all season long about why our teams suck and you can probably see a general theme in the 5 questions I've exchanged with other teams. So, instead of exchanging a list of questions, we just bounced emails back and forth, as if we were a couple of buddies hanging out at a bar kicking a few beers back, talking about our favorite team. It's a little long, but gives a little more depth to things in my opinion.
Cincy Jungle: The Bengals are just under-achieving this year. Add that to the miserable injury bug and that's a recipe for bitterly disappointed fans. But considering the Super Bowl history between Cincinnati and San Francisco, Bengals fans, especially older fans, find peace of mind beating the 49ers. Is there a sense the 49ers have a direction for 2008?
Niners Nation: I think there's a definite maybe answer to that question. The problem is figuring out what the problems are and addressing them going forward. And of course there are only so many draft picks and free agency dollars going around (don't even get me started on giving up our 1st rounder to the Patriots...well at least not right now). The way I look at it, this team needs big fat offensive and defensive lineman early on in the draft as those are two big-time areas of need. Of course they need receivers that won't lead the NFL in drops and then there's always the question of Alex Smith and his health. I can honestly say I have no idea what to expect next year. It's gotten comical how inept things seem to be at times including miscommunications about injuries, poor coaching, you name it. They need to get serious this offseason and get some discipline, ironic considering Nolan has always seemed like the a disciplinarian-type coach.
I hardly have time to check out my own team it seems like, let alone other teams. However, the Bengals have always been a team that intrigued me, often due to the antics and talent of Ocho Cinco. But what I really am curious about is if Marvin Lewis is in the equation going forward? Put simply, when the season finishes up, who takes the blame or is it something they can be expected to bounce back from going forward?
CJ: Yea, Marvin Lewis is fine. His first three seasons were a breeze -- no controversy on or off the field. It was about hope, progress and excitement. None of which applied to the Bengals pre-Lewis. From 2006 and on, it hasn't been easy with the arrests and general performance on the field. It's the first time that Lewis has been heavily criticized under the scope of armchair quarterbacks. Every great coach goes though rough periods and I suspect that this is Lewis' time to struggle. We have to remember, this is only his fifth season as a head coach at any level. So he's still learning like any fifth year person acquiring a new position. Very much like Mike Nolan. He might be a gifted coach, but there's so much more to learn and do and that takes time to adapt.
Patrick Willis was nominated as one of ESPN's "Next" that eventually went to Jaba Chamberlain. What's he beeb like to watch this year?
NN: Watching Patrick Willis prowling the field has been one of the few pleasures of this season (that and superstar punter Andy Lee!). There was no question about the talent he had when he was drafted. Virtually every 49ers fan was more than happy with the selection of Willis. However, this season he has shown how much more talented he is than we imagined AND the heart and desire that he has to be great. Every game he seems to make a phenomenal tackle or break up a play in a spectacular manner. Every time he's faced a stud running back, the back will be cutting to the corner and ready to turn it and in a flash, Willis swoops in and drags the RB down for a 2 or 3 yard loss. However, the play that exemplified how much effort he has was the play where he ran down Sean Morey of the Cardinals. The Cardinals had the ball in overtime and Morey broke loose down the sideline deep into 49ers territory. Considering the way OT works, many players would just let Morey run in and end it. Instead Willis, a linebacker, came across to take down Morey, a wide receiver, at the San Francisco 24. A few plays later, Neil Rackers misses a field goal and the 49ers eventually win. That tackle of Morey is the highlight you'll see when Willis is the unanimous defensive rookie of the year, makes the Pro Bowl and gets some solid support for NFL Defensive Player of the Year, all as a rookie.
Now let's take a look at a guy who will get to see Patrick Willis up close and personal...As a fantasy owner who has been killed and saved by Rudi Johnson all in the same year, please tell me what the deal is with that situation? He's been an absolute rock the last three seasons and then this year he has really struggled. Are we looking at a Christian Okoye bright burn that lasts a short time? Or will he rebound next season?
CJ: Rudi's struggle is a combination of things. After his franchise setting season in 2005, he lowered his weight to become quicker. Unfortunately, that reduced his leg strength. Whereas he used to break tackles and fall forward, he's often hit and dropped in the backfield. The offensive line lost a lot with the retirement of Rich Braham (former center) and the loss of Eric Steinbach to Cleveland. Additionally, Johnson's biggest impact was at the end of games when the team needed to run the clock out. This season, the Bengals offense is constantly playing from behind. Add everything together and you have a free-fall of regression.
Not only do we question if he'll rebound, we're not sure he'll be on the team next season. His regression, along with Kenny Watson, Kenny Irons and the surprising emergence of DeDe Dorsey could be the final act of Rudi's tremendous career in Cincinnati. It's not likely that Rudi will get to the 1,000-yard mark. Will Frank Gore?
NN: Well, with 3 games left, Gore needs 219 yards or 73 yards per game. He's surpassed that number 4 times this season, so it'll be interesting to see if he can meet that magic number. Gore is not regressing, so much as he's dealing with an inept offensive line and a weak passing attack that has allowed defenses to stack 8 men in the box and dare Smith/Dilfer/Hill to beat them, which they usually can't. Gore's best performance of the season came in the OT Cardinals game when Dilfer actually managed to make some passes and force Arizona to play a little more honestly. I'd suspect the 49ers will grab a big ole offensive lineman (possibly Faneca) to anchor the line as Allen is probably finished and Jonas Jennings has been way to injury-prone. If they can clean up the offensive line and get even some threat of a passing attack developed, Gore will be back in full force next year. On a side note, if Gore gets to 1,000 yards it'll be further proof that 1,000 yards is no longer a good enough measurement for a running back, considering the struggles Gore has had this year.
I just read an article about Chad Johnson's man-crush on Patrick Willis. Speaking of Johnson, in spite of another stellar statistical year, it just feels like he's been a little inconsistent at times. What do Bengals fans think?
CJ: Chad is Chad. And I'm not a good benchmark for general fans. Most Bengals fans hate his antics and hate it when he starts jawing to the media. Me? I love it. When Chad is floating around chatting up our opponents, he typically does well. We've learned that a quiet Chad, is a non-productive Chad. Some call him a distraction saying that can do what he does without needing the extra stuff. And while that's true, he's as harmless as they come with his comments and such. And I've found it very difficult to accept that we go after Chad Johnson, one of the league's best receivers, while our less talented guys miles below Chad's production. Chad is doing this year what he's always done.
The Mitchell report just came out for baseball. Do you think there's a similar problem with football or do you think football is given a free pass?
NN: I actually worked in baseball for 6 years (1 for a minor league team then 5 for the Oakland A's) so I'm prone to defending baseball when I can. I think that baseball is held to a higher standard than the other sports and I think football certainly has a PED issue. Yes they test for steroids in the NFL, but as with baseball, there is no blood testing for HGH and other such enhancers that can't be discovered through urine tests. While MLB has stumbled in building their drug policy, it shows you that even though NFL is America's game right now, MLB is on a whole other level in the grand scheme of things. Also, with football you're dealing with a violent sport that requires large individuals. I think people just assume most NFL players (at least the larger ones) are using something and just say whatever. It's an interesting issue to consider, but I certainly have noticed other sports' bloggers are quick to reference the steroid issues of baseball without considering the issues in their own sport. What are your thoughts on such a hot-button issue?
CJ: Well, I think the Mitchell Report will be over-scrutinized with a plethora of over-reaction. A majority of the media and fans will completely miss the underlining topic. Most will actively search for player's names damning them into asterisk hell. Demanding that we persecute them in a modern session of the Salem Witch Trials without defense. Does that seem fair? But the Mitchell Report was never intended to call players out. But that's exactly what this is turning out to be.
I think you have a point about the standards between baseball and football. And the appearance of doing something is probably better than being called to Congress asking why you haven't done a thing. Historically speaking, steroids hurt football in the 70s with players dying several years after retirement. So in a big way, I think steroids negatively affected football then it ever will with baseball. I just hope that we don't find ourselves having this landscaping day with football anytime soon.
NN: Until sports start blood-testing (or a better test is developed), I'll continue to take their drug-testing policies with a grain of salt.
So let's cut to the chase. Since this year is lost for the 49ers and Bengals, what do you think the Bengals do in the offseason and what do you expect from the team next year. Since we're talking as fans here, a good fan always puts the present behind and look to the future when things are crappy!
CJ: There's two thoughts on this one, David. One, we could rebuild. Take what we have, see what draft picks we can get and build a more balanced team in terms of offense and defense. Or, and this is the way I'm projecting the team to go, wait and see how critical injuries pan out and find a few players to fill in the gap for those departing for free agency. Injuries paralyzed this team and suspensions from conduct policy violations took out the league's best #3 wide receiver (Chris Henry) and a defensive rookie of the year candidate in 2005 (Odell Thurman) -- who's in the middle of his 32-game suspension. Just think about that. A suspension going 32 games. We still have the base of our 2005 team (11-5) that was beating Pittsburgh in the wild card game during their Super Bowl run. To this day, and homerism is exploding here, I believe if Palmer doesn't shred his knee, then the Bengals beat the Steelers. After that, who knows?
The 49ers seem to have a decent up-and-coming defense, but their offense. What has to happen, other than building the offensive line, to get the 49ers back on track. Is it coaching? Philosophy?
NN: There are people arguing a million different things the 49ers can do to improve next season. A common refrain is getting rid of Jim Hostler, the offensive coordinator. They brought in Ted Tollner as a consultant, which certainly can't be good for Hostler. As with Marv Lewis, Mike Nolan is really still learning what it takes to be a head coach. It feels like he wants to turn the 49ers into a version of the Super Bowl champion Ravens with a great offense, a good running game and a quarterback who doesn't screw up. The defense is on the rebound and is performing better than the statistics would indicate. I think that if they could solidify the offensive line and keep Alex Smith healthy, they could leap back into contention. Smith still has plenty to learn about being an NFL quarterback, but he showed he could improve last season. If he's healthy and the offensive line is at least not a liability, Frank Gore will improve and with that the passing game will improve...of course this could also be the partisan 49er fan in me because if they improve the line and they still suck, Alex Smith might really not be the answer and we'll have wasted 3-4 years and some prime Frank Gore performances.
CJ: Being in the NFC West, dealing with Seattle seems like Cincinnati's Pittsburgh Steelers.
NN: The problem with that analogy is that Seattle is just not that good really. They're a product of a shitty division. Even though Pittsburgh and Seattle have the same record, the Steelers are a legit good team, while the Seahawks remain an enigma to me. Seattle isn't a bad team, but they seem to continually under perform (minus the Super Bowl year of course). That's what bugs me about this 49ers season even more. If they had performed the way they were expected, the division would be theirs for the taking. Ahhh, the frustrations of rooting for a crappy team.
CJ: Bengals fans always know the road to the playoffs is a difficult one with Pittsburgh taking the division each year. That's the impression I get, as a mid-western junkie in the NFC West. What are you expecting on Saturday night?
NN: I'd like to think Shaun Hill will step up and make things happen, but I really don't know. I really don't think the 49ers can keep up with the Bengals offensively. Even if the 49ers defense steps up, I think they just eventually get overwhelmed. Of course, if Shaun Hill turns out to be the next Tony Romo, ignore everything I've said. If I had to make a prediction, I'd go Bengals 34 - 49ers 13 and that's in part because I still think the Bengals are a freakish offensive team. I may change my mind multiple times between now and tomorrow night of course. How about you?
CJ: Not to play the homer-role intentionally, but the Bengals defense is picking fans up. While they are known for being an awful defense -- with reason -- they are playing a stretch of defense we haven't seen since the turn of the century.
The key right now, however, is Carson Palmer. He's off. Way off. Hasn't thrown a touchdown in back-to-back games -- first time since game #2 and #3 to start his career. If he plays awful again, while the Bengals struggle in their rush offense, then the 49ers will easily pick us apart.