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How the Cincinnati Bengals could become the New England Patriots

01.04.11 at 2:13 pm ET

I grew up with the Paul Brown-led Cincinnati Bengals, the greatest teacher the NFL has ever known. The Bengals of the 1970s had players like Ken Anderson, Tommy Casanova, Bill Bergey, Al Beauchamp, Ken Riley and later Anthony Munoz, Tim Krumrie and Boomer Esiason. All of them had the great combination of talent, character and intelligence. The criticism of the 2-14 2002 Bengals (coached by Dick LeBeau) was that they had character and intelligence but not enough talent. They drafted talent but not enough character and football IQ. Now – following a 4-12 season with lots of questions about the future – it’s time to reassess and come up with a comprehensive football operations plan to put the Bengals on the right path.

No matter the criticism of ownership (some of it very legitimate) or how bad it gets, I believe the Cincinnati Bengals will someday compete year-in and year-out for an NFL championship with the right short-term and long-term plan. Do it the right way, and you wind up like the New England Patriots, the premiere organization in the NFL. That’s what they should aspire to. I’ve had the true privilege and benefit of watching the team work at different levels up close – or at least as close as you can without having Robert Kraft sign the paycheck.

If Mike Brown and his daughter, Katie, asked, here’s what I’d do:

1. Hire a true GM and a coach. Don’t laugh but this could be Marvin Lewis. Lewis is a tremendous evaluator of talent, much in the fold of Ozzie Newsome in Baltimore. There’s a reason Lewis is greatly respected around the NFL by people like Bill Belichick (who is for all intents and purposes GM/HC of the Patriots). If you’re Mike Brown, you have to start with the front office and the coaching staff. If you decide that Lewis is a good man and the right coach you’re most comfortable with – which I think is the case and that matters a lot to Brown – then bring him back for another year. Marvin has had to do way too much baby-sitting in the last four years, robbing him of on-field focus.

2. All about operations. If you bring back Lewis (and as I type this, NFL Network’s Steve Wyche reports and the Bengals later confirmed that Mike Brown has done just that) then that means you’ve decided to agree – to some degree – to his conditions of reworking the front office and facilities. While much has been made of the need of a true GM – like Mike Holgrem in Cleveland and Newsome in Baltimore – the Bengals desperately need to invest in their personnel/football ops departments even more. They need more people who can dedicate themselves to football research, including remote college, area and pro scouts who can offer constant input. Jim Lippincott is a terrific football man but he needs help like every other NFL Super Bowl-contending franchise has.

3. Decide Carson Palmer’s future. There is an out clause in his contract – which the Browns smartly wrote in – that allows them to move in a different direction if the wheels fell off. There are obviously those who think that’s what happened this year but upon further review, it is the opinion of this close observer that Palmer was distracted by receivers who made demands on him and he was not allowed to be the true leader of the offense. With Terrell Owens and Chad Ochocinco gone, Palmer can now work with the future skill stars of the offense in speedy Jerome Simpson, a solid slot receiver in Jordan Shipley (a bigger Wes Welker) and Jermaine Gresham (the best rookie tight end this side of Rob Gronkowski).

4. Bring in Josh McDaniels as your offensive coordinator. This serves a number of purposes. You need a new ‘voice’ and ‘direction’ from Bob Bratkowski for the offense. Josh McDaniels has clearly established himself as one of the best young coaches in the NFL who has worked with Bill Belichick and Tom Brady for several successful years. He has the cache to rework Carson Palmer‘s approach, vision, thinking, etc. Palmer’s biggest problem this season – without question – was forcing the ball into small spaces in coverage. His vision seemed to completely disappear or become VERY narrow. Examples… Tampa Bay, at Pittsburgh, at Baltimore, at Indy, etc. McDaniels would point this out and would be the PERFECT fit for the need the Bengals have. Also, Cedric Benson has proved himself a stud running back in the last two years. He’s 28 with lots left in the tank. Keep him and Bernard Scott.

5. Draft to needs, not best player. Get yourself an impact player with the 4th pick. Early consensus is DB Patrick Peterson of LSU. The Bengals have never been a team to move down and with prime position this season, there’s no reason to start now. With a rookie salary cap looming as part of a new CBA, signing a top-5 pick won’t be nearly the detriment to the Brown family as it has in the past. The Bengals are loaded with young talent. This is a great chance to add to it. Get a guy like Florida’s Mike Pouncey (brother of Pittsburgh Maurkice) as center and then steal a QB in fourth or fifth round. I am VERY HIGH on Greg McElroy. Traditional NFL-system pocket passer, very solid front-foot mechanics and has played in winning system at Bama. He is very, very bright and considered a strong character-type. I see him as a Ken Anderson-type only at a huge program.

6. Bridge QB. Get a good back-up to Palmer to bridge the present to the future. If you don’t bring back Palmer, you need someone to step in and win now. They did that with Jon Kitna in 2003 and it worked out very well early on for Palmer, long before the Bengals became a reality show and before Kimo VonOelhoffen hit his knee in Jan. 2005 and his elbow was banged in Dallas in 2008. Whether or not you bring Palmer back, you need a legit starting QB with experience and no disrespect to Carson’s brother Jordan and his website won’t cut it. There are several options out there Alex Smith could be one. They had one in Ryan Fitzpatrick. Only one start in the books but Matt Flynn could be one. Actually, Jon Kitna could be brought back again. That wouldn’t be all bad.

7. Need to raise the on-field leadership of the D. They are clearly a very, very talented and deep group. They have a great coordinator in Mike Zimmer under contract who’s not going anywhere. However, they need what Romeo Crennel had with the Patriots in their back-to-back Super Bowl title years of 2003-04. Richard Seymour, Tedy Bruschi, Mike Vrabel and Rodney Harrison. They were much more than talented players. They were leaders on the field who directed and corrected. That’s what the Bengals could really, really use to reach the next level. That’s exactly what the Steelers have in Troy Palomalu and the Ravens have in Ray Lewis, Terrell Suggs and Haloti Ngata.

8. Draft or sign rookie free agent as an energy player. My personal favorite here is Matt Szczur of Villanova. Full disclosure – I am a Villanova ’88 grad but anyone who has watched Szczur on the Main Line of Philadelphia knows this kid can do it all. He’s the best NFL prospect to come out of Villanova since Brian Westbrook and Nova has produced NFL players like Ray Ventrone who played a key special teams role on the perfect regular season of the Patriots in 2007. His brother Ross (Villanova ’10) is on the Pats’ practice squad. Szczur is quick, tough and a bone marrow donor to a girl within the past year so that answers that character question. He has been drafted by the Cubs in MLB which speaks to his pure athleticism. Hearing he really wants to play in the NFL and he would be a perfect fit for a team like the Bengals. The Patriots have done a phenomenal job with this as they have 21 undrafted players on their roster. They’re 14-2. That worked out pretty good.

9. Get back to being a football team, not a reality show. With T-O and Ocho likely on their way out, this should be a pretty easy task. While it’s great that everyone was talking about the Bengals in the last two seasons because of HBO’s “Hard Knocks” in 2009 and Ocho’s and TO’s reality shows, it eventually became a focus. This was completely out of Lewis’ hands. The team committed WAYYY too many penalties that pointed to a lack of discipline and focus. They were among the league leaders in false starts and illegal formations – completely avoidable mistakes if you’re a focused team.

10. Preparation is everything. Too many times over the past five years – even in division winning seasons – the Bengals have suffered from not being ready for a multitude of game situations. They need more players committed to learning all of these scenarios, two-minute drills, etc. Again, while Lewis takes responsibility for this area, he needs more players who are committed to it.

The Bengals have the foundation of a winning franchise but they need to work on the infrastructure. By following the above general game plan, they have the chance of building a winner for years to come.

Mike Petraglia

Read More: Bill Belichick, Carson Palmer, Cincinnati Bengals, Katie Brown