Football

Bengals can't match Denver's dysfunction

CINCINNATI — The quarterback is hurt. The star receiver is grousing that he didn't get a bigger contract or a trade. The head coach is trying to prevent everything from falling apart in the season's opening month.

The Cincinnati Bengals? No, not this time. Instead, it's their opponent.

The Denver Broncos will be the most dysfunctional football team in town when they open the season Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium, which has been a breeding ground for bad teams.

"The past is the past," Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer said.

Not necessarily. The Bengals can't seem to put their past into the past tense, while Denver is still acclimating to this brave new world where things go wacky.

The Broncos finished 8-8 last season with a high-powered offense and one of the league's worst defenses. A late-season collapse and failure to make the playoffs cost Mike Shanahan his job. Josh McDaniels was hired off New England's staff to replace him. Then, the strangeness really got started.

Pro Bowl quarterback Jay Cutler clashed with McDaniels after the new coach pursued QB Matt Cassel. Cutler forced a trade by refusing to take the owner's phone calls. Cutler was shipped to Chicago for quarterback Kyle Orton and draft picks. His teammates were stunned.

"When Cutler got traded — you don't see franchise quarterbacks going into their fourth year getting traded," cornerback Champ Bailey said. "But, I mean, it's possible. Everyone's expendable in this league. I hope no one thinks they aren't."

Top receiver Brandon Marshall demanded more money or a trade after his Pro Bowl season. When he got neither, he groused and was suspended during training camp. Making matters worse, Orton dislocated the index finger on his passing hand during a pre-season game — against the Bears, of course.

That Denver dysfunction? No stranger to Cincinnati.

"I think it definitely can be a distraction," Palmer said. "When you have one guy that's pulling in a little bit different direction, it can be a distraction. Really, the quarterback and the other leaders of the team just need to bring everybody together and play with the guys they've got, play with the guys that want to be there. Kind of move on. It definitely is tough."

The team that's better able to do so Sunday is the one that will get that fresh start. Heading in, the Bengals appear to be a little better off that way.

Palmer sprained his left ankle during the first pre-season game and missed the last three, but fully participated in practice last week and pronounced himself ready.

The bigger question: Can a rebuilt offensive line protect him this time? Palmer got turned into the NFL's version of a pinata last season because the line got overwhelmed. If it happens again, the Bengals are headed backward again.

"You want to keep people off the quarterback," left tackle Andrew Whitworth said. "He's going to get hit at points, but we want to take every chance we can to keep all those extra hits off of him."

There's no complaining this year — not yet, anyway. Ochocinco accepted the inevitability of staying in Cincinnati under his current contract and reported for camp in good shape and in good spirits.

The Broncos aren't so sure of themselves. They don't know how effective Orton will be on Sunday — he practiced with a glove on his passing hand during the week and was encouraged. Who knows what will happen if his hand gets hit?

Another question is how effective Marshall will be after missing that time during training camp for an attitude adjustment.

"He is working back in and getting really familiar with what we're asking him to do," McDaniels said. "We will see how it goes."

The Broncos were active in free agency and brought in six new defensive starters. They also switched to a 3-4 alignment, which is still a work in progress.

"That's been a dramatic change for most of us," Bailey said. "It was a little challenging. We still have a lot of growing and learning to do."

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