CINCINNATI (AP) -Gaudy orange T-shirts summarize the Cincinnati Bengals' predicament in three letters.
When players showed up for offseason workouts, they were handed neon shirts with ``NOW'' emblazoned across the back in bold, white letters. That one word says it all - no need to add the ``or never.''
The Bengals (7-9) know instinctively what's at stake.
``It's not rocket science,'' receiver Chad Johnson said, in an interview. ``You understand why this is the year. You don't need to go into it in detail. This is the year to make it happen. If it doesn't happen, I think changes are going to be made. I'm not sure what direction, but I see it coming.''
After losing ground the last two seasons, the Bengals are at another one of those familiar junctures that pop up every so often for a franchise that can't seem to get it right for very long. Just when it looked like they were on the verge of being an annual contender, they've slipped back into the pack of teams that can't quite seem to get there.
Another near-miss would signal that it's time to try with some different players.
``You try to gauge talent, and it's tough to go in that direction because talent doesn't always win,'' quarterback Carson Palmer said. ``It comes down to cohesiveness of a unit, how well guys work together, how much they want it and how hard they work. There are a lot more factors that go into creating a championship team than just talent.''
This franchise knows it better than most.
The Bengals didn't have a winning record from 1991 until 2005, when Palmer led them to the playoffs in Marvin Lewis' third season as coach. The torn knee ligaments that Palmer suffered in a playoff loss to Pittsburgh set the team back in 2006, contributing to an 8-8 finish.
There was no excusing what happened last season.
Johnson berated Palmer on the field after an interception, sulked in the locker room and started lobbying for a trade. Linebacker Odell Thurman was suspended for the entire season, and receiver Chris Henry for the first eight games because of their misconduct. Injuries wiped out the linebackers and left a big hole in an already suspect defense.
As the problems piled up, fans worried that the franchise was headed back to the bad old days. Johnson's trade demands overshadowed the offseason, ending only after the Bengals turned down a chance to ship him to Washington before the draft.
Sure was ugly. A few things have to happen for the Bengals to get past it and get back into contention.
First, Johnson has to keep quiet and put up big numbers, something that could be more difficult because of a sprained left shoulder suffered during the second preseason game. He seemed to be in good spirits during training camp, ready to move on from his failed attempt to get out.
Pro Bowl receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh and running back Rudi Johnson missed most of the training camp workouts with hamstring injuries, a bad sign for an offense looking to run the ball more and get back its balance.
In a stunning move, owner Mike Brown gave Henry a two-year contract on Aug. 19, providing the receiver another chance to get his life in order. The Bengals released Henry in the offseason after his fifth arrest, and he'll miss the first four games of the season under an NFL suspension.
The owner's decision set the club up for more distractions if Henry can't stay out of trouble.
``Since my last suspension, I've been handling myself in the manner of a professional athlete,'' Henry said. ``It was an unfortunate situation which happened to me this last little incident, but like I said, since my last suspension I've been doing everything right.''
While the offense tries to get past the drama, the defense is trying to find an identity. The Bengals fired Chuck Bresnahan and hired Mike Zimmer as their third defensive coordinator under Lewis. Zimmer has installed more aggressive schemes, getting his cornerbacks to pressure receivers in one-on-one coverage.
Will it work? They'll find out in the first six weeks, when they play at the Giants (Eli Manning), at Dallas (Tony Romo) and at the Jets (Brett Favre). During the preseason, cornerbacks Leon Hall and Johnathan Joseph - former first-round draft picks - gave up big plays in man-on-man coverage. Teams will challenge them until they show they can hold up.
Zimmer hopes to spice up the defense with alignments that vary from time to time, making the Bengals unpredictable.
``Maybe we don't have the best 11 defensive players, but maybe collectively we have 22 that can make 11 in certain spots,'' Zimmer said.
If it doesn't all come together, it might be time to start taking it apart.
``The window is closing,'' Chad Johnson said. ``We've opened the blinds. This is our year. We've got to do it. We don't have a choice.''

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