It's official: The Cincinnati Bengals will be featured on this season of "Hard Knocks." Yes, Cincy already took part in the highly acclaimed HBO/NFL Films show back in 2009, but the team's roster has seen great turnover since then and now boasts an enticing core of young difference makers on both sides of the ball.
So, which Bengals player/storyline excites you the most when it comes to potential "Hard Knocks" coverage?
The most intriguing "Hard Knocks" storyline with the Cincinnati Bengals is unquestionably the continued development of quarterback Andy Dalton. Although the third-year pro has guided the Bengals to back-to-back playoff berths, the jury is still out as to whether or not he possesses the tools to make the team a legitimate title contender. He has been a terrific game manager in the regular season, but he hasn't displayed the ability to put the team on his shoulders in the playoffs. While regular-season success is certainly part of building an elite résumé, he must prove to the football world that he has the goods to get it done under pressure.
Heading into his third training camp, Dalton will have a chance to show us his progress on the practice field under the bright lights of the "Hard Knocks" cameras.
I'm intrigued to see the growth in second-year linebacker Vontaze Burfict. He came in with the deck stacked against him after a disappointing final season in college, yet he played very well as an undrafted rookie, ringing up 127 total tackles. Will the success curb his edge? Is he hungrier? A lot of times, guys with something to prove get intoxicated with "The Life" after a breakthrough season, thinking they've made it. I want to see how head coach Marvin Lewis and defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer work with Burfict, and how he responds to the attention.
Burfict has the potential to be a great story. Or just another guy who didn't fully capitalize on his opportunity.
Defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer excites me the most. He is an amazing assistant coach who deserves to be a head coach in the NFL. He has taken this Cincy defense to new heights. Zimmer is the reason why this group, which does not boast dominant talent, is a great defense.
I hope NFL executives see "Hard Knocks" and fall in love. They should. Zimmer is a smart, no-nonsense winner.
I'm interested in seeing Mohamed Sanu, who is coming off a foot problem that prematurely ended his 2012 season. Because there were so many stellar rookies last season, this guy tends to be forgotten by people -- maybe even by Cincy fans. It's interesting to note that he caught four touchdowns in his last three games with the team. Imagine the Bengals' offense with A.J. Green, Jermaine Gresham, rookies Gio Bernard and Tyler Eifert -- and a healthy Sanu. What's scarier is that the defense on this football team is the better side of the ball.
With that in mind, Cincinnati should compete for the AFC North title this year. Some feel "Hard Knocks" is a distraction, but there really isn't too much proof to support that notion. In fact, the Bengals had gone 19-28-1 in the three seasons prior to their 2009 appearance on the HBO series, making just one playoff appearance in the previous 18 years. The show was such a distraction that Cincinnati went out and won the AFC North that year.
Two themes jump out to me in Cincinnati. The first is a big-picture view of the Bengals -- where they have come from as a team and where they are going. In the past two seasons, Cincy has earned consecutive playoff berths. Even though both were one-and-done appearances, making the postseason two years in a row is quite an accomplishment for this franchise. I am sure one of their themes or mottos will focus on taking the next step. How will that be sold to them in training camp? What will be their approach to reaching that goal? Will this team display genuine hunger, or will it be a false desire to improve? Can HBO/NFL Films capture that?
The second theme is the development of Andy Dalton, specifically his ability to enhance his accuracy on deep passes. That is what has to improve to give Cincinnati a chance to win in the playoffs.
Those are the two themes I want to follow with the Bengals -- not only in training camp, but throughout the season.
I'm picturing James Harrison painting his face in eye black while wearing his old Steelers gear around camp, yelling about all things Pittsburgh for the entire run of the show. "I loved Pittsburgh! Now I want to bury them! Let's go watch '300' again." Not only that, but I wonder how many illegal hits he can get away with in training camp while still finding a way to blame everyone but himself for his style of play. Oh, he'll be a hoot.
But my main hope is that history repeats itself from 2009, and we get to watch the coaching staff sit through meetings as Marvin Lewis and Co. update owner/GM Mike Brown on the goings-on with the team. Nothing says "awkward" like talking football with a man who must help you as a GM ... and can fire you as an owner. You want your owner at a distance -- so you can feel comfortable -- not sitting next to you as you're trying to make decisions. "Did he just frown at what I said about our running backs? Is he thinking about replacing me?" I was a huge fan of "The Office" in its heyday, and now hopefully I'll get to see that single-camera, uncomfortable humor again. Just without Dwight and Creed.