After a disappointing 7-9 campaign which saw them miss the Playoffs for the second conseuctive season, the Cinicnnati Bengals appear set to battle the notion that their window has closed, as Marvin Lewis and Co. attempt to rebuild on the fly. The Bengals qulaified for the Postseason five years in a row, but have collapsed over the past couple of terms, due in large part to the erosion of a roster that was once flush with talent. Heading into 2018, Lewis, now in his sixteenth season in the Queen City, will try to set things right for a Franchise that is miraculously STILL in search of it’s first Playoff Victory during his lengthy tenure. This has become a team that is in dire need of an injection of youth, which is preciesly what happened in last April’s NFL Draft, in which Cincinnati made a whopping eleven selctions, with designs on improving their overall depth in a number of areas. And it’s with that said, that we’ll take a look at three key storylines that will ultimately determine whether or not the Bengals can indeed claw their way out of this hole that they’ve been mired in for two years, or if this will finally be the end for Lewis (and perhaps even Dalton) in the ‘Nati.
Like a Stone
The second-longest tenured Head Coach in the NFL, Marvin Lewis continues to defy logic and reason in Cincinnati, where in fifteen years on the job, he has gone 125-112-3 (.521), while guiding the Franchise to seven appearances in the Playoffs. For all intents and purposes, given the disappointing run that the Bengals experienced before he was hired (58-137 from 1991 to 2002), a layman may even suggest they erect a statue outside of Paul Brown Stadium in his honor. Under his inlfuence, he’s made the most out of what is one of the smallest Scouting Departments in the NFL, with Lewis oftentimes operating as the team’s defacto General Manager. Furthermore, a number of his assistants have become Head Coaches in other places, including Jay Gruden in Washington, Hue Jackson in Cleveland, and most recently Vance Joseph in Denver. However, it feels like we’re setting you up, then that’s because we are, for as successful as Lewis has been (at least by Bengals standards), he’s yet to win a Playoff Game… in fifteen years. That’s zero wins in seven tries. In a larger Media Market (like say, New York or Los Angeles), we highly doubt that he would have made it halfway through that dubious record, let alone managing to survive last year’s uneven camapign in which he fired his Offensive Coordintor after just two games. With that said, Lewis endures, like a stone, though if the Bengals struggle through yet another muddled season, then perhaps his days in orange and black will finally be numbered.
Rebuilding on the Fly
Arguably the biggest reason for this team’s slide from their sterling 12-4 showing back in 2015, has been the gradual erosion of talent and depth, particularly on the offensive side of the football, which was in dire need of replenishment heading into the Offseason. Even after the early transition from Offensive Coordinator Ken Zampese to Quarterbacks Coach Bill Lazor, it’s not as if this unit ever caught fire, for Cincinnati ranked dead-last in the league in Total Offense, averaginga miserable 280.5 Total Yards, matching it’s lowest ranking in Franchise History (2008). Simply put, this group was a mess, showing little verticality in the passing game (5.7 NY/A, 21st Overall), and no push in the running game (85.4 Y/G, 31st Overall), with many of their struggles attributed to a porous Offensive Line. This Position Group has seen the most turnover, with the arrival of former Bills’ Left Tackle Cordy Glenn and the addition of First Round Pick Billy Price at Center. These two teaming with returning Guard Clint Boling should creat a solid left side of the Line to run behind. The hope is that these guys can give Andy Dalton the time to make plays downfield, where perennial Pro Bowl Receiver A.J. Green (75 REC, 1,078 YDS, 8 TD in 2017) remains a lethal catcher of the football. A healthy dose of John Ross, last year’s First Round Pick who missed most of the campaign with a multitude of ailments, should help to round things out, while a healthy season out of Tight End Tyler Eifert could vault this attack back into the league’s upper tier. Finally, expect Sophomore Tailback Joe Mixon (178 CAR, 626 YDS, 4 TD in 2017) to make an impact out of the Backfield, where he should benefit from being another year of experience and quite frankly being in far better shape.
While Marvin Lewis has taken the brunt of the criticism in Cincinnati over the duration of this latest era of Postseason inepetitude, we believe that his Quarterback, Andy Dalton hasn’t received enough of it. In his seven seasons as the starter in the Queen City, the red-headed gunslinger has at times proven himself to be a quality Quarterback, while at others to be barely serviceable. Dalton, along with the Bengals as a whole for that matter, peaked back in 2015, when he established career-highs in a number of categories includingyards per Completion Percentage (66.1%), Yards per Attempt (8.4) and Net Yards per Attempt (7.71), and Quarterback Rating (70.0), with that last statistic ranking far greater than his next-best (55.1). Conversely, he really bottomed out in 2017, connecting on just 59.9% of his Attyards per empts for an average of 207.5 Yards per Game on 5.73 Net Yards per Attempt, with a Quarterback Rating of 42.0, the worst of his career. Simply put, this guy is as good as the weapons and protection he has around him, which as we’ve noted earlier, isn’t what it used to be. Protection is a real key in this case, for back in 2015 Dalton was sacked just twenty times, or in other words, on 4.9% of his Dropbacks, only to see those figures spike in recent years to forty-one (6.8%) in 2016 and thirty-nine (7.3%) last season. Cincinnati has overhauled their Offensive Line, and should start to the 30-Year Old revert back to his playmaking ways, particularly given the emphasis they look like they’ll be placing on the Run. Only three teams in the NFL attempted fewer rushes than the Bengals (23.6 A/G), and at 3.6 Yards per Carry, as many were less-effective, leading to a dismal Third Down Percentage of 33.7% (29th Overall), with featured Dalton in a wealth of difficult, longer situations.
2018 Outlook: 6-10
As we’ve meentioned on multiple occasions in this Preview, the Bengals are rebuilding, be it with short-term improvement in mind, or perhaps an even longer plan. And honestly, it’s our opinion that they shoulder seriously consider the latter, for how many years will they appear to have hit the proverbial wall under Marvin Lewis? In 2017 they were riddled by injuries on both sides of the football, and were boring, unimaginative, and stagnant on Offense, even after they changed Playcallers. If it wasn’t clear that they needed an injection of youth and talent after the 2016 Campaign, it’s only been heightened after last year’s. While it was very surprising that Lewis managed a stay of execution this time around, we have a hard time seeing him surviving a similar showing in 2018, which for all intents and purposes could be very similar to it’s predecessor. Cincinnati’s schedule looks brutal, with the AFC North improving greatly over the Offseason; Pittsburgh is still the class of the division, while Baltimore has beefed up considerably, and even Cleveland appears to have taken steps forward. It’s going to be hard for the Bengals to return to the Playoffs this year, let alone break even, which could (and should) spell wholesale changes in 2019.