By Len Pasquarelli
The Sports Xchange
In Cincinnati, they still do some inexplicable things, like rolling the dice on troubled Arizona State inside linebacker Vontaze Burfict (for those who have evaluated the onetime highly regarded prospect, the surname hardly rhymes with "perfect," right?), as a free agent minutes after the conclusion of the draft on Saturday night.
But at least the Bengals didn't squander a draft choice on Burfict, whose problems off the field in 2011 might have equaled his lack of productivity on it, a gaffe for which Cincinnati officials might have been culpable in past years.
That was a move forward for the Bengals, who advanced to the playoffs last season, despite starting a rookie quarterback.
Likewise, the draft appears to have to been another positive step for the franchise justifiably ridiculed as the "Bungles" for so many years.
Actually, make it solid lotteries in succession for the club, which, entering Year 10 of coach Marvin Lewis' sideline stewardship, seems to have finally caught on to this draft thing.
Yeah, the club will still probably catch more grief for signing Burfict as an undrafted prospect than will, say, the Steelers, who invested a second-round choice on a guy -- Ohio State offensive tackle Mike Adams -- who tested positive for marijuana at the combine sessions and then lied to Pittsburgh officials about it.
Given the respective track records of the two franchises in the draft, Pittsburgh general manager Kevin Colbert doubtless deserves the benefit of the doubt. The Bengals, by comparison, have earned all those raised eyebrows and declarations of skepticism.
Yet, doing business in a division that includes two of the NFL's premier draft masters, Colbert and Baltimore counterpart Ozzie Newsome, the Bengals appear to have reduced the gap the past few years. And the recent three-day NFL meat market provided the latest evidence that the Cincinnati personnel department can indeed compete against its proven AFC North draft colleagues.
Since we don't own big hair or a Ph.D. in football-ology, or, more important, a crystal ball, we'll refrain from assigning any kind of a grade to the 10-prospect draft haul that Cincinnati assembled over the weekend. And, given the poor luck the Bengals endured for many years with injuries and suspensions to high-round selections, an asterisk probably should be attached to any evaluation of the franchise's draft class. But starting on Thursday night and continuing through Saturday evening, the Bengals actually appeared to know what they were doing in the war room.
Yeah, even some folks in Cincinnati might suggest, having read that assessment, we've been stricken by some manner of delirium. It's hard to argue, though, the potential of the Cincinnati draft class. Or the synergy of the men who made the picks, a kind of mind-meld forged the last couple years.
The Bengals collected possible starters on their first five choices. The sixth pick, tight end Orson Charles might be kept out of the lineup by another good player from a recent draft, 2010 first-rounder Jermaine Gresham, but should still play a lot.
Even into the fifth round Cincinnati added serviceable players, such as California wide receiver Marvin Jones. Team owner/general manager Mike Brown scratched his itch for Big Ten players, particularly those from nearby Ohio State, in the sixth round with the selection of Buckeyes' tailback "Boom" Herron. But even that was a sensible, and defendable, choice.
There's been plenty of speculation about what has changed in the Cincinnati war room the past two years -- conjecture that Brown has acquiesced more than in past springs, that the boss has ceded more control to Lewis, that the coordinators and assistant coaches have increased input into the selections -- but people who have watched the Bengals' decision-making process insist not much as changed.
Even Lewis, who not so subtly has lobbied for more clout for years, conceded that the improved results have been delivered more by familiarity and comfort level than from the manner in which the Bengals conduct their draft business.
"We feel," Lewis said, "like we know what works."
In fairness, the Bengals have been as impacted by injuries and indiscretions the past several years as anyone in the league. Tailback Chris Perry, the first-round choice in 2004, was incessantly injured and started nine games in five years. The 2005 first-rounder, defensive end/linebacker David Pollack, sustained a career-ending neck injury early in his second season.
His former University of Georgia teammate, middle linebacker Odell Thurman, was a candidate for defensive rookie of the year honors in '05, but was suspended twice by the NFL for drug and alcohol abuse, and never played a game after his promising debut campaign. Second-round tailback Kenny Irons (2007) never appeared in a regular-season game because of a knee injury sustained his rookie preseason.
Those setbacks notwithstanding, in the five drafts 2007-2011, the Bengals have exercised 45 choices, and 23 are still on the current roster. Over the previous three drafts, 2009-2011, 19 of the team's 28 selections are still around. Of course, the numbers are probably a bit disingenuous. First, most bad teams tend to keep around the bulk of their draft classes.
Second, it's an old league trick, some say perfected by late longtime NFL personnel man Mike Holovak, to keep drafted players around as a source of justifying one's significance in a team's chain of command.
Regardless of the reason, though, the Bengals seem better in the draft room.
Over the past few years, we've lauded Brown for a lot of things -- his opposition to the previous CBA (a stance justified when other owners voted to opt out of the one-sided deal), the notion of not spending cash over cap, a fierce loyalty to employees at a time when many of his peers were attempting to save a dime by cutting benefits -- even as he was being bashed by others. It's been a little like being the voice of one speaking out in the wilderness.
The last two drafts, though, seem to have supplied an oasis of sorts. They may prove, in the long run, to be nothing more than a mirage. Or they could be the foundation for Cincinnati to be the "Bungles" no more.