The Cincinnati Bengals are, shall we say, not the most storied of franchises. Though they’ve been responsible for their fair share of innovations (notably the refinement of the No-Huddle Offense under Sam Wyche, and both the West Coast Offense under Bill Walsh, and its defensive riposte, the Zone Blitz under Dick LeBeau), this never historically translated to long periods of sustained success. It took 14 seasons for the Bengals to win their first playoff game, in 1981. That led to their first Super Bowl appearance; their second, in 1988, would be their last to date.
But here’s a thing – from formation in 1968 to 2004, they made the playoffs 7 times in 37 years. But from 2005 – Marvin Lewis’ third season in charge – to date? 7 playoff appearances in 12 years, including 5 consecutively from 2011-2015. That’s a fairly incredible turnaround, and much like Sean Payton in Louisiana, explains Lewis’ long tenure in Southern Ohio. But last year’s 6-9-1 record felt like a bit of a watershed moment; a team running out of ideas, only heading one way. But how things feel and how things are, are often different. Let’s look at Cincinnati’s prospects.
The Fairly Recent Past
I mentioned the Bengals’ remarkable record under Lewis, and they enjoyed their best season in 2015, going 12-4. Andy Dalton enjoyed the best season of his career, completing 66.1% of passes, with a 25:7 TD:INT record, and a 106.7 passer rating. Alas, he was injured in Week 13 against the Steelers. Backup AJ McCarron was decent in relief, but no better as the Bengals lost to the Steelers in the playoffs. But there was a lot of hope that season. Otherwise injury-prone tight end Tyler Eifert recorded 615 receiving yards and 13 touchdowns. Jeremy Hill and Gio Bernard combined for over 1,500 rushing yards, will Hill’s 11 touchdowns showing redzone prowess. The defense was good, too. Reggie Nelson co-led the league in interceptions.
The Very Recent Past
So, 2016 wasn’t the Bengals worst season under Lewis. That honour goes to 2010, a 4-12 season leading to Carson Palmer refusing to play for Cincinnati any more, and both Ochocinco and Terrell Owens leaving. On first glance, 2016 doesn’t look that terrible. The ever-excellent, if occasionally impermeable, Football Outsiders certainly has faith that the Bengals were better than 6-9-1 in 2016. It rates Cincinnati as having the 11th-best offense and 18th-best defense. It gives their Weighted Defense-Adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA) as 15th.
A quick word on DVOA first. This is how Football Outsiders can seem impermeable. The theory, however, is simple: not all plays are created equal. Being good at the right time is more valuable when judging how good a team are than in garbage time. Being good against good teams (the ‘defense-adjusted part’) is more helpful than against bad. This seems a more level-headed way to judge how well a team has played than final score. Though, of course, winning a Super Bowl despite analytics telling you you’re only so-so doesn’t diminish a Super Bowl. But with regard to the Bengals, we can say they were slightly above average in terms of performance last year.
Nonetheless, simple stats also paint a useful – and damning – picture. Both Hill and Bernard failed to hit 4 yards/carry. Tyler Eifert only caught 394 yards and 5 touchdowns’ worth of passing, as injury struck again. Dalton’s completion percentage dipped below 65%, his yards/attempt stuck at 7.5 and he threw just 18 touchdowns in 16 games. AJ Green struggled with injury and failed to hit 1,000 yards. No-one got 10 sacks. No-one got more than 3 interceptions. This is how apparent above-average play doesn’t translate into results.
So, analytics tells us not to worry too much about the Bengals, feel tells us to. I’ll freely admit to normally coming down on the side of analytics, but I’m just not so sure this time. Or, it’s more complicated than that. And it comes down to that roster. In the pre-2016 offseason, Cincinnati lost receivers Marvin Jones and Mo Sanu, tackle Andre Smith, safety Reggie Nelson and slot cornerback Leon Hall. In came Karlos Dansby and Brandon LaFell, but that’s still a weaker roster.
This year? Let’s just say there’s trouble a-brewin’ in Southern Ohio. Two of the three best Bengals in 2016 left: tackle Andrew Whitworth and guard Kevin Zeitler. And coming in, Kevin Minter and the returning Andre Smith. And the re-signing of three 30+ players. That’s not necessarily a problem. But going back to Football Outsiders, Cincinnati have the third-highest “snap-weighted age”. That’s basically, the average age of players on the field per snap. The defense is the oldest, too.
With Andrew Whitworth’s departure, Cincinatti lost an elite left tackle (Reinhold Matay/ USA TODAY Sports)
There is a wrinkle to that – Cincinnati do tend to sit their rookies a bit longer than other teams. This means the future is theoretically more prepared for than it looks, but actual NFL performance of barely-played younger players is deeply unpredictable. Marvin Lewis has traditionally valued building through the draft over free agency, but the risk there is young players aren’t ready when needed.
Here is what I think: the Cincinnati Bengals roster looks weaker than last year. I’m especially worried at offensive tackle, where ProFootballFocus rank the O-Line 31st in the league coming into this year. The line on Jake Fisher and Cedric Ogbuehi: “[they] have looked lost anytime they’ve seen the field.” Ouch. They’re young players and could kick on, but if they don’t, I wouldn’t want to be Andy Dalton.
Elsewhere on the O-Line, with Zeitler gone that’s a Pro Bowl-calibre guard lost from a line already struggling to run block. And this makes things awkward for their first two draft picks. Name two types of player that rely on a strong offensive line to thrive: go! 1) Deep threat receiver; 2) between-the-tackles running back. So that’s John Ross and the controversial Joe Mixon thrown under the bus straight off.
I’ve got to be honest, I really dislike the John Ross pick. I didn’t rate him highly pre-draft, but could see that he wasn’t one-dimensional and had value in the right scheme. Thing is, he’s still at his best – especially early on – as a deep threat. Cincinnati already have AJ Green, who could even be the best deep threat in the league! So what, they’re going to clear out deep every play with no serviceable offensive tackles to block for long enough to go deep? Great plan.
John Ross. Did you know his 40 time was quite fast? (Getty Images)
To be fair to the Bengals, the third-and-fourth-round picks of Jordan Willis and Carl Lawson could be good for the otherwise anaemic pass rush. It’ll put some nice rotation opposite Carlos Dunlap and potentially take attention away from the excellent Geno Atkins.
So You’re Saying the Cincinnati Bengals Are Done For In 2017 Then?
Yeah, I guess I am. I mean, the controversial Joe Mixon might be an O-Line-transcending running back. Ogbuehi and Fisher might look like completely different players in their third year. But that’s a big thing to assume. Rookies might eschew the usual Marvin Lewis slow path and make instant impact on the pass rush. Their best linebackers and tight ends might be healthy all season, instead of their usual injury-punctuated seasons.
But these are all comfortably less than 50% chances. And it’s going to need several of them to happen for the Bengals not to decline. And if they don’t, the roster will look that most un-Marvin Lewis of things: unbalanced. An unbalanced roster losing two of its best players is going to decline. A team that was disappointing and felt disappointed last season, that doesn’t address concerns enough, is going to decline. Let’s say it: the Cincinnati Bengals are going to be bad in 2017.