Coming into the season, it seemed like it would only be a short few weeks before the Bengals were eliminated from playoff contention and Marvin Lewis would be on the hot seat. The faces of the franchise, Carson Palmer and Chad Ochocinco, were gone and the team was surely entering a long rebuilding phase that Lewis would not survive.
While everyone else was writing his obituary, Lewis did not panic. There were no desperate flights to Palmer’s home to lure him out of retirement (I’m looking at you, Brad Childress). Saying goodbye to Ochocinco was more of a relief than a burden. Lewis let Mike Brown handle the Palmer ordeal, and Brown held pat until the Bengals got a King’s Ransom from the Oakland Raiders.
I laughed at the idea that Lewis was actually comfortable with Andy Dalton as his starting quarterback. First-round picks have mixed success starting from day one, but second-round picks?
I ran through a list in my head and could not think of one who played well early on: Tarvaris Jackson, Chad Henne and John Beck all bombed. Even Drew Brees took four years to start showing serious progress.
Dalton and Lewis proved the doubters wrong. Lewis gets the credit for letting Dalton know he was his guy. Lewis did not flirt with any veteran free agents and did not try to trade for Kyle Orton. The commitment to Dalton gave him something no rookie quarterback can be successful without: confidence.
Lewis also made sure Dalton was going into battle with plenty of friends. Cedric Benson gets a lot of credit for the season he is having and the overall success of the offense. The best way to break in a rookie quarterback is with a strong running game. Ben Roethlisberger, Joe Flacco and Matt Ryan all made the playoffs in their rookie seasons following that game plan.
It was Lewis who stayed patient with all of Benson’s off-field struggles. He has rewarded his loyal coach with a solid season as the focal point of the offense.‘The Red Rifle’ has been every bit as good as Roethsliberger and the rest of the great rookie quarterbacks with 12 touchdowns and a solid quarterback rating of 85 even. His primary target is his own draft classmate, A.J. Green.
Green has accounted for nearly half of Dalton’s passing yards and has five touchdowns. Green and Dalton are making Bengals fans forget the glory days of Palmer to Johnson/Ochocinco.
The great teams are built through the draft, and Lewis has set the team up for an impressive present and with the additional Raiders picks, an even better future.
Lewis has coached through his offense, but it is his defense that is turning heads. Defense has long been Lewis’ calling card, but that side of the ball had as many doubts as the offense.
After a strong showing in 2009 when the Bengals won the AFC North, the D slipped drastically in 2010. They lost their top cornerback Johnathan Joseph, and there was little reason to believe Lewis’ defense would be any better in 2011.
Instead, they have shut down opposing offenses as the second-best unit in football. Now they face a new test in Ben Roethlisberger. Roethlisberger is playing the best football of his career and has a slew of weapons to exploit any defense. The rest of his teammates will have renewed focus and determination after a last-minute loss to the Baltimore Ravens that still stings.
This is the Bengals’ first chance to take out one of the bullies in the AFC North, so we will find out how legitimate this young team truly is. Win or lose, Lewis has established an impressive new core and the future looks very bright in Cincinnati.
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