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The Bungles Return to Cincinnati
Backsliding Team Faces Offseason Questions of Coach's Status, Quarterback's Health

By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 10, 2008

They are back to being the same old stumbling and bumbling Cincinnati Bengals. The respectability to which Marvin Lewis and Carson Palmer elevated them just a few years ago is a quickly fading memory.

Now the questions are: Will Lewis hang around as their coach beyond this season to try to get things fixed again? And will Palmer be healthy enough to assist him as the team's quarterback?

The answers probably won't be known with any certainty until after the Bengals finish playing a dreary season that next includes a meeting with the Washington Redskins on Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium.

The Bengals take a record of 1-11-1 into the game, and there's little reason to believe things will be any different for them in the coming weeks. Palmer has been sidelined since Oct. 5 by an ailing right elbow, and his replacement, Ryan Fitzpatrick, neither scares anyone nor has much help. The Bengals lost Sunday to the Indianapolis Colts, 35-3.

Lewis is doing his best to remain upbeat.

"I'm positive we're going to win the last three games," he said during his postgame news conference Sunday. "Very positive. That's what we're going to do. We're going to work our butt off to win the last three games."

But what really matters for the franchise is what happens when the season ends. Any NFL team revolves around its head coach and its quarterback, and the Bengals have huge questions about both.

Several people within the league said in recent weeks they believe owner Mike Brown is unlikely to fire Lewis and pay him the remainder of a contract that runs through the 2010 season. In a recent interview with the team's Web site and the Cincinnati Enquirer, Brown praised Lewis for continuing to get his players to put forth effort.

"In many ways he's done an incredibly good job," Brown said, according to the Bengals' Web site. "Our players still try hard, and that's hard to come by when you go through all the losing this team has gone through."

But some also speculate privately that Brown and Lewis could agree to part ways after the season over team operational issues. Lewis fueled the notion an offseason parting is possible when he said in a story published last month on NFL's Web site, "It's not a shock to say that we have to make some changes for the future for me to remain here."

Lewis was asked about that statement during his news conference on Nov. 20 following a loss to the Steelers in Pittsburgh. He said: "We need to change how we're getting things done. And I'm talking about playing. I'm not talking about anything other than that. . . . I didn't mean anything other than that context. We need to make sure that we continue to develop our guys and do a good job of coaching and playing."

Lewis also said that night he hadn't given any thought to not being with the Bengals next season. He was asked how draining this season has been on him, and said: "It's part of my job. When you don't win, it's draining. When you win, it's draining. It's all the same. It doesn't change much. . . . My feelings don't matter for anything, anyway."

The former Redskins defensive coordinator didn't respond to a message seeking further comment for this story. When he was asked during a news conference last week about the roster and assistant coaching evaluations he must make after the season, he refused to answer.

"I'm not going to get into any of that," Lewis said. "Obviously, at the end of any season, I think all the things you asked always happen."

He did talk Monday, though, about wanting to re-sign several players.

Lewis inherited a laughingstock of a team in 2003 and got it fixed within three years, going to the playoffs in the 2005 season. However, a three-year slide has followed. He is in his sixth season as the Bengals' coach and has a regular season record of 43-49-1. He is 0-1 in the playoffs. Without Palmer, the Bengals have reverted this season to being one of the league's worst teams.

Palmer has started only four games this season. He resumed throwing last week after a nearly two-month layoff. There is little to indicate he will play in another game this season, although Lewis wouldn't rule that out Monday. Lewis announced then that Palmer's doctors don't think surgery is necessary, barring a setback, but a final determination won't be made until Palmer completes the throwing program that is part of his rehabilitation.

The Bengals are hopeful Palmer will avoid surgery and be ready in plenty of time for next season. Clearly, they need their franchise quarterback.

"Hopefully [this] week I'll be throwing more and more and get some work with our receivers," Palmer told reporters following Sunday's game. "I just have to take it slow and do what the doctors tell me."

For Lewis, the season has included not only the losing and Palmer's injury, but also the soap opera of dealing with Chad Ocho Cinco. The wide receiver, formerly known as Chad Johnson before legally changing his name, spent last offseason lobbying very publicly for a trade. The Bengals rejected an offer from the Redskins that reportedly could have included two first-round draft picks, based on the wideout's productivity in Washington.

But Ocho Cinco underwent ankle surgery before training camp and suffered a slight shoulder separation during the preseason, and hasn't been as productive as usual. Lewis deactivated him from the Steelers game after reportedly exchanging heated words when the wide receiver was late to a team meeting the previous day. Lewis had him out of the starting lineup Sunday, yet Ocho Cinco had a season-high 79 receiving yards on five catches against the Colts.

"We just have to finish these last games up and look forward to next year," fellow Bengals wideout T.J. Houshmandzadeh told reporters after Sunday's game. "Nobody likes to lose. That's the tough part of it. It's weird. It's not going anywhere near the way we thought it would, [but] we still have to play and have fun."

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