As Marvin Lewis approached the lectern to deliver his muted post-game comments, it was clear to me that he had the look of a defeated man. Not just defeated on the field of play, but defeated in spirit. His usually defiant, aggressive press conference demeanor was replaced with that of a man speaking at a funeral. His voice crackled as he tried to explain the unexplainable and as the weight of what had just happened to his team, his career, and Bengaldom in general hovered over him like a black cloud. The same could be said of the players as the locker room was a still as a tomb after the game. Bobbie Williams tried to give the company line –‘We ain’t quitting’ with watery eyes. Andrew Whitworth, the other leader of the offensive line, could only muster enough strength to observe that he’d never been through anything like this before. Blankly staring off into the back of the locker room, Whit could look the interviewer in the eye, as if the shame of what had just transpired would not allow him to.
Conversely, T.O. said they were “terrible,” took off his sunglasses (indoors) and stared his interviewer down to emphasize the point. At his presser, Carson Palmer looked like a shell-shocked soldier at Walter Reed Hospital, teetering back and forth in his chair and muttering incoherently about the horrors at the front.
Sunday’s loss to Buffalo marked another in a long line of low points for the Bengals franchise, but it could very well be the absolute lowest. Surrendering a 21-point lead, losing by 18 at home to an inferior opponent in front of the first non-sellout in years was still worse than losing to the hapless Browns to open PBS back in 2000. It was the worst display of futility and incompetence I’ve witnessed in 25 years of watching this team.
That’s saying a lot. Then again, this team finds new and unusual ways to be horrible all the time. It’s perhaps the one thing they are consistently good at. Maybe the football gods just hate stripes.
This year is so similar to so many others I’ve seen over that 25 year span, but what makes this one especially puke-inducing is the fact that this was supposed to be a good team. Coming off a division championship, with a bona-fide superstar added and a successful draft, this team was supposed to not only go to the playoffs, but seriously contend for a Super Bowl. They re-signed big-time contributors like Cedric Benson and Tank Johnson. They threw millions at upgrading the wide receiver position with Antonio Bryant, Terrell Owens, and Jordan Shipley, they added depth at even the most mildly thin positions and still took fliers on guys trying to rehab their careers like Adam Jones and Matt Jones. Sorry kids, but I don’t blame Mike Brown for the team that was assembled this year. Perhaps you can still pin all franchise failures at his feet and call him a black cat walking under a ladder on Friday the 13th, but his personnel management in 2010 was sound. The roster he built was, and is; good enough to not only compete, but win a Super Bowl.
But if we are to assume that there are no supernatural causes for this team’s ongoing futility, then what, pray tell, can we derive as the causes of this year’s misery? The Bengals stink, and there’s no amount of Febreze Dhani Jones can spray to fix that. But why? Here are a few Oliver Stone theories on why this team has faltered:.
- Marvin Lewis’ Contract: Lewis and Brown could not come to an agreement on a contract extension for the reigning NFL Coach of the Year during the offseason, essentially putting Lewis into a contract year as a coach. While Brown extolled Lewis’ virtues and professed a desire to sign him long term, Lewis was less enthusiastic. Both men outwardly expressed a desire to get a deal done, but nothing materialized beyond rumors Lewis was vying for more power. Meanwhile, Mike Zimmer became the highest paid assistant coach in Bengals history and a fall-back option was created for Brown. While no one will admit it, the up-in-the-air nature of Lewis’ contract could very well have had an impact on his decision-making as coach, Brown’s work as GM, and it could very well have been a troublingly unsettled issue for many of the players and assistant coaches. At a minimum, it was an unneeded distraction. It set up an environment for Lewis to go for broke on his career. Win as expected with a stacked team, and he would have Brown by the BB’s; a hot coaching commodity with the clout to demand power and millions. This sets up a contentious situation before the first kick-off in the upper management of the organization, and that has to filter down. Going eyeball-to-eyeball with Brown is a risky move for Lewis, and he should have known that in most off-field battle of wills, Brown never loses.
- The Antonio Bryant Gaffe: This mistake would have a snowball effect that the team is still sorting through. They hosted both Bryant and Terrell Owens in the offseason, eventually throwing a truckload of money at the younger Bryant. Despite coming off an injury, and despite being poked, prodded and examined by the Bengals medical staff, Bryant’s knee was not healed and he never played a down in stripes. This colossally expensive and inexplicable mistake added to Cincinnati’s reputation for bungling, set the passing game back, and caused the need to sign T.O. after all, who as luck would have it (or not), was still on the market. Which brings us to…
- Terrell Owens: The team brings him in to replace Bryant, which, on the surface at least, is the right move. Sure, the guy has played well for the Bengals and is on pace for a career year, but from the moment he got off the plane in Kentucky, the three-ring circus that is T.O. has been a distraction to the team, the city, and to Chad Ochocinco. The worst part is that his arrival created even more buzz around the team and applied more pressure and expectations. Worst of all, T.O.’s arrival sowed the seeds of questions regarding the offense the team would run.
- Schizo–Offense: The Bengals won a division championship despite a putrid passing offense, and frankly, a so-so running game. They won by playing solid defense and scoring just enough points to win. Brown and company knew that being better at throwing the ball was essential, and they were right about that, but once T.O. came on board, the question of whether the team would remain a run-first, grind-it-out offense became vogue. Why be boring when you can be explosive? Why eat the clock when you could score touchdowns? The identity crisis and multiple-personality disorder suffered by the team’s offense has a lot to do with their downfall in 2010. They never decided what kind of team they were going to be on offense. They are still trying to figure it out. Run the ball with Ced? No huddle? Three-wides? These days it depends on the drive, and it’s never the right approach at the right time.
- Team Maturity and Heart: This team cannot handle sideshows like T.O. It can’t handle players with interests beyond football like commercials and cable TV programs. And it certainly cannot shoulder the weight of high expectations. The Bengals have talent, but no common sense. Sunday they lost to a team with considerably less talent, but enough sense to play the game and compete on every snap. They don’t have heart or killer instinct. They don’t play with aggression and don’t seek to force their will on an opponent. This, unlike the other factors, is a constant in Cincinnati. It has always been this way, even in the good years. Until the Bengals approach the game like the Patriots or the Steelers, they will continue to be, at best, an also-ran in NFL annals.
So where do they go from here? Beyond getting dismantled tomorrow night on national television, they’ll likely need to blow-up and rebuild. Its time to start contemplating the offseason and after watching the first ten games of 2010, the nuclear option is the only one at this point.
Do the football gods hate stripes? Yes, Virginia, it seems they do.
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