Our friend Joe Reedy at the Enquirer, asked a good question in his article yesterday. Are the Bengals built to improve in the coming years, or are we about to observe another implosion that typically follows a successful season? His thesis is inconclusive and doesn’t really take a stand on the question proposed. In his defense, the future is hard to predict, but today we will attempt to finish what he started and do our best swami impersonation to better define what to expect this season.
Both Marvin and his top coordinators are signed through until 2014. This alone makes it seem like everyone in Paul Brown Stadium is betting the house on the next two seasons.
Last year I declared Black Jesus has returned after regaining control of personnel decisions from Mike Brown. As we have pointed out repeatedly in prior posts, drafting and trades have dramatically improved since Marvin came to town in 2003. However, free agency is a continued concern with the Odd-Lots strategy that still permeates in the front office.
With his two year extension, both coordinators signed to long-term deals (and realistically they probably won’t leave for head coaching spots), and the player personnel improved on paper; now the spotlight is on Marvin to do the one thing he has yet to do well a consistent basis: coach.
Coming into this preseason, the Bengals were 2-7 in the first preseason game of the season. The typical theme in every game: lots of mental mistakes and no spark. This preseason has been noticeably different. The defense front seven looks stout and the offense has the potential to be very productive if the personnel matches up well to the opposing defense. Most importantly, this is the first time in decades, I have ever witnessed on a weekly basis players flying to the football. It appears the decades of lackadaisical effort may finally be behind us.
There is one nagging thing with Marvin’s teams that just bothers me. In his ten year tenure they have yet to pummel an over matched team, nor have they ever won the chess match against a formidable opponent, except maybe once: the 2003 Kansas City game. Except for that game, it seems like if they have ever pulled an upset, it has been because the opponent was the victim of random circumstance. The upset in Lambeu a couple of years ago was a result of Green Bay losing its starting left tackle and Odom getting a seasons worth of sacks in one game. The upset against the Jets when they were led by Brett Favre, was because a fan ran on the field and stole the ball out of Favre’s hands ending his game winning drive.
This season Marvin needs to prove that he can do what he set out to do in 2003: win the games that matter. The nine wins they gathered last year were all against losing teams. The eight loses, against teams with winning records. However, it could be argued the same applied to the Patriots and Giants last season. The difference being those teams gelled at the end of the season and were able to make a run. The Patriots were totally lucky in the playoffs in that they miraculously faced Tim Tebow (God’s gift to a 3-4 defensive coordinator), and the second game the Ravens couldn’t kick a field goal or hold on to the ball.
There will be certain games this year where the Bengals are clearly outmatched (the week one contest is a perfect example). In these types of games Marvin’s record of mismanaging the clock, incorrectly challenging official calls, and setting the tone of the game all need to be proven that they were merely a result of having a poorly matched team. I don’t expect them to win tonight, but I still want to see a fire under Marvin and the players as well as a good display of sound judgment.
There will also be games where they will have the advantage. Until we see that Marvin and his staff can keep a boot on the throat of an opponent when they are down (like Jets did yesterday or Urban Meyer displayed against Miami), the fans have the right to not have confidence in Marvin’s ability to lead this team to a championship.
Better Marketing Does Not Produce Wins
The present form of the team has some key players with a lot of talent that are approaching their prime in a few years: Dalton, Green, Gresham, Atkins, Dunlap, and Hall. Most teams would love to have that talent. However, this list means nothing if they are not able to step on the field on a regular basis. Half of that list (Gresham, Dunlap, and Hall) enter this season already not 100% by recovering from leg injuries.
Last season, the difference between the Giants and the Bengals was that one team got healthy at the end of the season and the other was decimated in key spots. Near the end of the season, Dunlap was in and out of the lineup, Maualuga was mentally recovering from his leg injury, and Hall was lost for the season. Those loses made it easier to expose the weakness in the secondary. The defense was routinely outmatched going against teams with a strong passing attack or a dominant offensive line. In defending the passing game, disrupting the QB is typically the best defense. Losing the team’s best CB and pass rusher makes it very difficult to accomplish this.
In Reedy’s article he briefly mentions the comparison between this 2012 team that will take the field tonight and the 2006. What he failed to include is that injuries are what helped derailed the 2006 season. Heading into the 2006 season, Marvin had the most talented team on paper. By week three he had lost his starting center and OLB for the season. By the end of the season, 3/5 of the OL was on the sideline or IR, and at one point the entire LB crew was missing. Even through all the adversity, they still managed to almost make the playoffs. Keep in mind that was with “5 yard hitch” Bratkowski calling the offensive plays and Chuck “10 yard cushion” Breshnahan calling the defense. It literally would have defied the laws of physics and psychology to get that team to the playoffs.
We have yet to kick off the season, and Marvin is already without his starting LG and dependable center. The 1st round CB has yet to see the practice field for a week, Gresham isn’t close to being 100% and Dunlap is out, again. If this team is ever going to make the step to the next level in the next two season, the players that are the focus of the team’s marketing strategy have to be capable of stepping on the field and producing.
Basically, if the rest of the season progresses the way it has started, I don’t foresee a good direction. Yes, this team has the most young talent that he has ever been assembled on a Bengals team in decades. However, as mentioned above your talent is only as good as it is physically able to perform, and the coaches have to be able to put players into positions to win games.
Last year was an aberration. The Bengals were one of the few teams to come into the season well conditioned because of their revised workout program during the lockout. It was very noticeable at the start of the season. The Bengals were typically out performed in the first half and then physically manhandled their opponent in the second half. There will be a more level playing field in terms of conditioning this year, so that second half advantage will not exist.
If Dunlap’s leg issues continues and the Paul Brown curse sets in once again hitting the team in key spots late in the season, then this team will be lucky to make it 7-9. However, if: 1) they can get and stay healthy; 2) Marvin proves he is, in fact, a top NFL strategist; 3) the OL can protect Dalton and open holes for the Law Firm becoming one of the most dominant units in the league again; and 4) the defense can play to their potential on a weekly basis like they have shown at times, then good times are ahead in 2013 and 2014.
For 2012, this team is just too young, too beat up at the starting gate, and too inexperienced to be able to be a serious contender. Although the talent is there, fans need to anticipate growing pains along the OL with 3/5 of the line being retooled (even heading into the first game against one of the most dominant DL’s in the league). Typically it takes half a season for an OL to gel and work out any communication errors. As I mentioned before, Seattle last year best exemplifies this process. Compare Lynch’s stats for the start of the season to the end; you will clearly recognize when their OL gelled.
The patch work and inexperienced OL will throw off the offenses rhythm and ability to move the ball on a consistent basis. Gruden has a lot to overcompensate from the deficiencies in his OL, which may have a dramatic affect on his play calling. This puts a lot of pressure on the defense to over compensate for the offense’s struggles for at least the first half of the season. I don’t see how that is sustainable with a schedule that is one of the most difficult ones in the league. In summary, I predict we will experience a season that will appear as one step back. But if it the team can exit this season healthy, they may be ready for two steps forward heading into 2013.