The Cincinnati Bengals' franchise quarterback refused to return; their two Pro Bowl wide receivers were shipped off; and they had a rookie quarterback leading the offense, throwing to a rookie wide receiver, with nothing but the support of a no-name defense. For many, this was a recipe for disaster. If you asked ESPN, the question was if Cincinnati could win a single game. Nevertheless, the team was able to go 9-7 and make the playoffs much to the surprise of everyone.
Now, many experts are predicting that the Bengals are built to slowly challenge within the division for years to come. However, this team still hasn't fixed most of the problems they have had since Mike Brown took over this franchise.
Here is why the excitement needs to calm down.
The Bengals proved this season that they had the talent to play with anyone—but not the mental toughness. The entire season, the Bengals struggled to either play hard early or finish strong. The second quarter was awful for much of the season, and even when they finally fixed that issue, they would fall apart at the end of the game. The Bengals could not execute in all phases of the game for four straight quarters this season, allowing teams that had no business beating them to hang around. Many of their final scores made it seem that they were in control of the game, but that was because of a last-second touchdown or fumble return by the defense that made the outcome look more lopsided then it really was.
Now, a lot of these breakdowns had to do with injuries, especially later in the season after the lost of Leon Hall and Bobbie Williams. However, they that brings up my next point.
Now I am not trying to say that the Bengals do not have depth on their team, but they do not have championship depth.
What I mean by this is that their depth will allow them to get through the regular season fine, but the moment they get into the playoffs they are in trouble. The Bengals, more than anyone it seems, cannot seem to make it through a season without suffering a huge injury to multiple key positions.
The Bengals' pass defense was already shaky with Leon Hall in the lineup, but the moment he went down, they couldn't stop anyone back there. Pat Sims going down was a major hit to the run defense, as the team allowed over an 100 yards in almost every game in his absence.
On offense, Jordan Shipley and Bobbie Williams were major losses. With Jordan gone, Dalton lost a consistent route-runner alongside A.J. Green, which really hurt them later in the season. And with Williams gone, his backup made multiple mental errors that costs Cincinnati games.
This team is not built like Pittsburgh, who can lose key players and still be alright during the playoffs. The Bengals need all their starters to stay healthy and can't really afford to lose anyone on their defensive line. In order to win in the playoffs, the Bengals must either find a way to keep their players healthy or find backups who can actually step up in their wake.
The Bengals play in the Northern part of the United States, in an open stadium and the freezing cold. You would think they would become harder to beat in December and January, but in fact they are almost the exact opposite.
When December comes around, the Bengals have always been the team that starts to fall apart. Either their offense can no longer score, their defense can't stop the run or their kicker no longer can kick field goals (or all of the above)—it's the same thing year after year. The only exception is in an absolutely terrible season and they turn things on and go on a two- or three-game winning streak.
This is once again partially a product of injuries, but it shows a lack of mental toughness to continue throughout the whole season—and this continues into the playoffs. In their three playoff games under Marvin Lewis, they are 0-3 and for good reason. The Bengals have no strong voice in the locker room as well in the media—like a Ray Lewis or Tom Brady—or dare I say it, Tim Tebow. Because of it, the focus of the team just isn't there. Cincinnati needs to fix this immediately if they hope to become a threat in the playoffs anytime soon.
Mike Brown has been a thorn in the franchise side for years, but this year may be the most important year of his executive career. This season, he made moves to get a franchise quarterback and a No. 1 wide receiver, gave up a little of his pride to trade Carson Palmer for an amazing deal and even lowered ticket prices for the following year.
Marvin Lewis, on the other hand, was able to get a team everyone thought to be the next team to go 0-16, and took one of the youngest rosters in the NFL into the playoffs.
The issue with these situations is what they didn't do. Brown let Johnathan Joseph leave in free agency. He allowed his pride to get away with the trading Palmer and refused to shell out the cash to practice in the University of Cincinnati indoor practice facility for their playoff game against Houston. Brown also reportedly wanted Ryan Mallett instead of Andy Dalton (however, it is unknown who was truly right in that situation since Ryan Mallett hasn't started yet). Lewis has shown that he is still very conservative and made some questionable decisions in game this season.
The challenge here, mostly for Brown, is if this team can show they have the maturity to make the necessary changes to upgrade the team. Brown refused to shell out a lot of cash on big name free agents last season, and this season it happened to work out. However, If he wants the Bengals to become a consistent threat in NFL, he is going to have to open that checkbook and get some proven veterans in this locker room to take that next step.
Lewis, on the other hand, has more wiggle room, but still needs to learn to take more chances and go for it on fourth-and-1 in order to make the Bengals less predictable. Which actually leads us to my final point.
After 2005 horrible ending, the Bengals were predicted to take over the division. Will next season end the same way?
Bengals fans have seen this story before. Twice actually. The Bengals suffer a wild-card exit, but leave with an emphasis on how they will use the experience they gained next year. The "experts" will pick them to win the division, even the Super Bowl, and Mike Brown will go after risky and cheap players to fill key weaknesses on the team.
The result? A disappointing season where the team seems completely out of sync. It's happened twice, and I have yet to see anything to tell me that it won't happen again. With Brown the popular vote for executive of the year (never thought we would hear those words), the key will be if he believes whether or not his old ways work, or realizes what he needs to do to take that step. This includes not only fixing the key weaknesses (corner back, running back) but also upgrading positions to make the team stronger (wide receiver, kickoff/punt returner).
The players have to learn how to play as favorites and under the pressure, fix their fundamentals (sound tackling, good route running, etc.) and someone needs to step up and be the teams leader. The Bengals are not without leaders in the locker room, but they don't have the locker room leadership that other teams possess. They must also learn to play with some consistency.
The coaching staff must learn how to get their players to play well at all three phases; and while they improve from past seasons in this regard, they must keep this team from seeming so predictable and take more risks.
The Bengals had a great season by expectations, but I'm not willing to celebrate until this team proves that they have truly changed.