Distractions remain an issue for drama-driven Bengals

Marvin Lewis is back as coach. Carson Palmer wants to be traded. Chad Ochocinco wants to become Chad Johnson again. Does it ever end with the Bengals? A season after so many things seemed pointed in the right direction, Cincinnati is back to being what it's been for so long: A question with few answers.

Lewis clearly wants to tighten up the ship and move on without so many distractions -- i.e. Ochocinco, Terrell Owens -- but he might not have much of a choice. After a 4-12, last-place finish in the AFC North, optimism has once again been tabled, especially with so many potential changes at key positions.

Let's examine:

1. Will Palmer really be traded?

No. Believe that. Even if a team were to offer Cincinnati a first-round pick, which wouldn't happen, the Bengals feel that they've invested too much in Palmer to let him go someplace else, particularly since there is no backup plan. That said, the Bengals better safeguard themselves by acquiring at least one quarterback and an heir apparent -- if he's not the same guy.

Palmer was very shaky last season and he realistically could have already played his best ball. If he has another season like the last, in which he threw for a lot of yards but also made a ton of mistakes, the Bengals will have to move on.

2. How much sway will Lewis have?

When Lewis and owner Mike Brown negotiated a new deal after the coach's contract expired after the season, there was a perception that Lewis would only come back under his terms and get more say in the shaping of his staff, the needed upgrades in the personnel department and the construction of an indoor facility.

So far, there hasn't been much change, hence, there's no indication that things are any different than they've been. There is little that has transpired to show that the skeleton personnel staff will be enhanced. Lewis could have more say in the draft and free agency, but with Brown controlling the purse strings and a salary cap returning (at some point), the augmentation through free agency could be limited -- as usual.

As for that indoor practice facility, sources indicate that could be constructed. When? Well, that remains to be seen.

3. Have we seen the last of T.Ochocinco?

It looks that way. Lewis is actually through with Ochocinco and his attention-seeking ways. He's tried to ignore him, but Ochocinco keeps banging the drum louder, typically through Twitter, to heighten his brand, which to Lewis means drawing attention to himself. As for Owens, he's been far more low key and is coming off a good season, but he looks like he'll be playing elsewhere as well.

The Bengals have a group of young targets (Jordan Shipley, Jerome Simpson and Jermaine Gresham) who they need to take center stage and that won't happen if T.Ochocinco is in the house.

On that note, Bengals coaches have privately said that part of the reason why Palmer looked so bad at times is because Ochocinco and Owens routinely broke off routes, leaving Palmer throwing the ball to areas (or opposing defenders).

4. Can Cincy run the ball?

That formula for success depends on what it does at running back. Veteran Cedric Benson is a free agent and the Bengals could be inclined to let him walk. Cincinnati likely will draft at least one bell-cow-type running back and hope that Bernard Scott finally develops and stays healthy.

Once they get that part worked out, someone needs to realize that the offensive line can be punishing when allowed to run block. This group is not built to throw as much as it did last season, but it can maul. Here's something to make Bengals fans possibly cringe: If there is a lockout/work stoppage because of the unsettled labor dispute, players won't be allowed at team facilities, thus, guys like undisciplined former first-round draft pick Andre Smith would be left unsupervised to get in shape.

We've seen how that's worked out the past two seasons.

5. Can the defense regain its dominance?

The Bengals lost a ton of players to injury and they were not set to withstand the losses. Plus, cornerbacks Leon Hall and Johnathan Joseph didn't play like they did a year before.

If Cincinnati gets healthy, especially up front, defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer should be able to get them back in order. The Bengals need to get a pass rusher and fortify the safety position. They also could finally move Rey Maualuga to middle linebacker, something they've wanted to do but felt he wasn't quite ready for during his first two seasons.

Follow Steve Wyche on Twitter @wyche89.

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