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Hartman: A return to the playoffs? Bengals are headed in the right direction

I walked out of Paul Brown Stadium on Thursday feeling much more optimistic than I would have expected to in January

Maybe it’s just the time of year — no one has lost an NFL game since early February, and no one is going to lose one that matters for another 12 weeks or so — but it’s not hard to look at the 2018 Cincinnati Bengals and think good things could be in store. 

Are they Super Bowl contenders? 

Let’s not get carried away. 

›› RELATED: 5 things to know about last day of Bengals offseason program

However, a series of moves since the questionable decision to retain Marvin Lewis as head coach have made the playoffs look at least realistic. 

And if they get in, they could actually be dangerous this time. 

To review: 

New coordinator Teryl Austin could re-energize a bend-but-don’t-break defense, especially with the arrival of Jesse Bates, Preston Brown and Sam Hubbard along with the ascendance of William Jackson III, Carl Lawson and Nick Vigil. 

Perhaps new quarterbacks coach Alex Van Pelt can get Andy Dalton to the next level

A healthy John Ross, a more experienced Joe Mixon and maybe even the return of Tyler Eifert would give Dalton a lot more weapons, too. 

RELATED: Bengals want Mixon to be more complete back

That collective still won’t go far without much more help from the offensive line, but the addition of Cordy Glenn and Billy Price upgraded 40 percent of the line immediately, and the influence of new coach Frank Pollack might mean some of the holdovers (most notably Cedric Ogbuehi) figure out how to be contributors in this league. 

With all those toys at his disposal, Bill Lazor should be able to make a big difference with his re-vamped offense, too, right? 

Yeah, it’s June, but you don’t have to squint hard to see a team that had obvious limitations over the last two years now has fewer questions and more potential stars than it has since the 2015 season ended in misery. 

And hey, Marvin Lewis is certainly not all bad. 

He is the winningest coach in franchise history. 

He fixed a broken team after he arrived in 2003 and two more times after that. 

Not often does a coach get so many chances to remake a roster, but the Bengals are not your ordinary franchise, either. 

Lewis is sort of like Jim Tressel in that he is often misunderstood, and that is generally because of his way of dealing with the media. 

To quote the “Cool Hand Luke” line sampled by Guns N Roses: “This is the way he wants it. Well, he gets it!” 

Of course, Tressel won a national championship in his second year at Ohio State then crippled Michigan for going on two decades by cutting the Wolverines’ recruiting base out from underneath them, so he got a lot more rope from fans. 

If you keep the media at arm’s length, your image with the fans is likely to suffer sooner or later unless you win big. As Tressel learned when the NCAA came for him, no one on the local scene is coming to your defense when things go bad, either. 

But Lewis is fortunate that he is a good football coach whose players seem to like him and whose owner doesn’t seem to care much about the media or public perception either

Whether that is for better or worse is a better debate for another day. 

For now, the summer sun shines on Cincinnati, and all of the Bengals’ goals are in reach. 

Maybe — if the good Lord’s willin’ and the Ohio River don’t rise, ya know — the fun times will return to Paul Brown Stadium this fall. 

Until then, enjoy the dreams. 

Reality will come soon enough. 

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