The Bengals are limping into the bye week under a cloud of turmoil and carrying an ugly 2-3 record. Most observers (including myself) saw the team at 3-2 or perhaps even 4-1 at the break, which looked to be necessary with battles against Pittsburgh (twice), New Orleans, Indianapolis, Atlanta, the Jets, and Baltimore still on the schedule.
So let us take a look back at the first 5 games of the season. A cold hard look in the mirror is the first step to any recovery, and I think we can all agree last Sunday was the equivalent of hitting bottom.
Week 1: New England comes out like a team that was prepared, knew the game plan, and respected the Bengals. Cincinnati looked like a team so lost in their own hype that it was 17-0 before they realized the preseason was over. The team would eventually make it respectable by using the no-huddle attack and settling down on defense, but an ugly pick six by Carson Palmer, and a kick-off return for a touchdown by Pats WR Ben Tate was the difference in a 14-point humbling in Foxborough. Record: 0-1 and a collective WTF? from Cincy fans. But hey, New England is a perennial powerhouse and multiple Super Bowl winner with a Hall of Fame quarterback. Mulligan.
Week 2: The Bengals played like the 2009 version, seemingly too conservative on offense—favoring the relative safety and security of a predictable offense and field position chess play over any gambles against Baltimore’s fierce “D.” Meanwhile, the 2009 Bengal defense showed up (along with some of the 2005 version) to force four turnovers. No touchdowns, but a 15-10 decision over a division rival and Super Bowl favorite is reason for a return to optimism. Record: 1-1. Feeling a lot better.
Week 3: Despite ugly weather conditions and more boring offense, the Bengals win going away, 20-7. Rookie Jimmy Clausen looks like he should against a supposedly elite defense, although he has his moments. The defense forces another slew of turnovers that aid the struggling “O.” Record: 2-1, fans are satisfied but concern begins to mount in Bengaldom over a listless offense, too many penalties, no pass rush, and uncharacteristic defensive breakdowns particularly on third down. Questions about an offensive “identity” begin to be asked.
Week 4: Bengals sleepwalk into a trap and fall to the Browns, 23-20. Terrell Owens has a high-light reel kind of day, and Palmer breaks 300 yards, but costly penalties and untimely defensive breakdowns doom them. For the first time since week one, the defense wasn’t able to generate multiple turnovers, which meant fewer drives for the offense, and less opportunity to get bailed out of sticky situations. The defense, considered the strong unit, was unable to force a punt in the last five minutes of the game and Cleveland runs out the clock. Record: 2-2, Bengal fans are disappointed, especially after learning that Baltimore beats Pittsburgh. Opportunities lost. Now the team looks to be 3-2 at the break. Fans feel better about the passing attack, but it doesn’t lead to a better result.
Week 5: Inexplicable, unexplainable and inexcusable. No other way to put it. The Bengals fall to an inferior opponent, at home, and in a game they controlled into the final minutes. Penalties again are a killer, along with another Palmer pick six. The team shows no heart, no killer instinct, and a lack of overall give-a-crap. Connor Barth nails a 31-yard chip shot to complete the embarrassment with one tick left. Record: 2-3. Panic, mixed with shock and anger ensue. The defense wilts at the end, unable to save the team from self-inflicted wounds by the offense. Questionable coaching infuriates fans, and after running the ball almost exclusively in the two wins, the team has all but abandoned it—even though it’s starting to be successful. T.O. makes his first negative commentary, despite two great receiving games. It seems a full collapse is now underway. 5-11 here we come.
Head coach Marvin Lewis’ message in the aftermath was correct. His team needs to look in the mirror.
There are no excuses.
You can’t blame Mike Brown for once. Ownership ponied up for talent.
You can’t blame the scouting department. The last two years have produced solid drafts. Even their one ‘failure’—free agent WR Antonio Bryant, was quickly and decisively corrected with the signing of T.O.
You can’t blame external forces or scheduling issues.
The Coaching staff has been left largely unchanged for the last three years, allowing them to fully implement their systems and develop cohesion for the players. The roster is laden with talent at every position, with capable and solid depth nearly everywhere.
The fact is that Marvin Lewis, his coaches, and the players they coach are the only ones to blame for an embarrassing 2-3 record at the break. And they are the only ones who can fix it.
They can start by eliminating ridiculous and mindless penalties. They can block better and tackle better. They can run routes at the right depths, throw on time, and catch the ball. They can do a much better job at game management and play calling. All these things are correctable if they are willing.
With games against Atlanta, Miami, and Pittsburgh on deck, the Bengals could easily be 2-6 at the turn. With the talent they have, they could also be 5-3. Only Marvin and his charges can determine what the course will be.
It all starts with a hard look in the mirror.
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