Where Can the Cincinnati Bengals Improve Most in 2013?

Scott Kacsmar@CaptainComebackContributor IJune 20, 2013

BALTIMORE, MD - SEPTEMBER 10:  Quarterback Andy Dalton #14 of the Cincinnati Bengals talks with head coach Marvin Lewis on the field during pregame before taking on the Baltimore Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium on September 10, 2012 in Baltimore, Maryland.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
Rob Carr/Getty Images

Through their first 45 years of existence, the Cincinnati Bengals have made the playoffs 11 times. In 2013, they will attempt to make the postseason for the third straight year for the first time in team history.

The big question remains: When will the Bengals win a playoff game?

With no playoff wins since the 1990 season, the Bengals have the longest active drought. The 22-season playoff winless streak ranks as the fifth longest in the Super Bowl era.

Cincinnati only has five playoff wins total, which is just one more than their rival Baltimore Ravens registered in this calendar year.

Yet we enter a season for which the expectations are for the Bengals to rise to the top of the AFC North. Pittsburgh is still figuring things out, the Browns are the Browns and Baltimore has a lot of roster turnover to sort out.

This is a good opportunity for a roster that has been building talent through the draft to elevate its performance and take the next step.

It usually takes a great quarterback to turn things around. Andy Dalton enters a crucial third season, while coach Marvin Lewis almost inexplicably enters his 11th year in Cincinnati.

Maxing out at 10 wins and another quick playoff exit should no longer be sufficient. The Bengals have to change the status quo.

When Looking in the Mirror, Cincinnati Sees Houston and Detroit

Maybe it’s fitting the Bengals have lost in the AFC Wild Card the last two seasons to the Texans. When they look in the mirror, they can see themselves in Houston.

Throw in the Detroit Lions, and you have a NFL product that comes in three sizes: small (Lions), medium (Bengals) and large (Texans).

The Texans come in large since they have won playoff games and are 4-0 against Detroit and Cincinnati since 2011.

Yet these three teams share many of the same problems that prevent them from reaching the upper tiers:

  • They struggle to beat good teams. Part of this stems from a lack of great quarterback play and a suspect job from the head coach.
  • They use an archaic offensive philosophy of having one dominant wide receiver. This no longer works well in the NFL, regardless of how great A.J. Green, Calvin Johnson and Andre Johnson are.
  • Their best defender is a defensive lineman who still needs more help around him. Geno Atkins, Ndamukong Suh and J.J. Watt cannot do it alone.

Let’s start with the quarterbacks. For a team to win a Super Bowl, they must have a guy capable of stringing together good performances against playoff competition. To this point, Dalton, Matt Schaub and Matthew Stafford have not proven they can do this.

Against teams who did not make the playoffs or have a winning record, we see these quarterbacks play well with the talent around them and win most of the time. While we expect a decline across the board against the better competition, things really go downhill here. Schaub takes the most notable hit to his statistics while Stafford has that horrific 1-23 record against winning teams.

Dalton is 2-11 against playoff teams with one of the wins coming in a Week 17 game decided by reserves. A big part of that record comes from his 2011 rookie season when the Bengals were 0-7 in such games (0-8 counting playoff loss). That’s the worst record ever for a playoff team against playoff teams.

For some context, Andrew Luck had two wins against playoff teams after the fourth start of his career. He picked up a third, against Houston, to end his regular season. Even Tampa Bay’s Josh Freeman had two comeback wins, against the Packers (11-5) and Saints (13-3), in 2009 as a rookie.

Regardless, Dalton is 4-10 against teams with a winning record, including 0-3 against the Texans with two poor performances in the playoffs. His pick-six thrown at J.J. Watt in 2011 was crushing, while last season his defense helped him out with its own-pick six. Yet Dalton could only lead the offense to six points, missing Green in the end zone on a go-ahead touchdown with 2:51 to play.

The poor throw to Green on 3rd-and-11 completed a day where the Bengals were 0-for-9 on third downs. Dalton had the ball in his hands on eight of those plays. It concluded a season where he was horrific on third downs:

That is just for the regular season. Dalton’s 2012 conversion rate would further plummet to a pathetic 27.0 percent when including the playoff loss.

Situational offense must get better in Cincinnati. Dalton showed some promise in this department as a rookie, but last year he held the ball too long on such plays, as evident by his sack rate nearly quadrupling.

While he did not experience a sophomore slump, his overall stat improvement was more about playing four games against playoff teams instead of seven like in 2011. The Ravens and Steelers were not as tough on defense in 2012. Adjusted for the defense of each opponent, Dalton’s 2011 passing stats were actually a little better, but still the definition of average in both seasons. Dalton also did not deliver as well in clutch situations, like when he led four game-winning drives as a rookie.

Among active starters, note how these three similar quarterbacks rank very closely in their record at game-winning drive opportunities (minimum 10 games):

You have three players at different points in their careers, but there are a lot of the same issues their teams have to overcome.

To help them win against better teams, it is always a benefit to play with a great defense. Stafford waits for one, while Schaub has seen his record improve since 2011 when the team drafted Watt and hired Wade Phillips as defensive coordinator.

Still, there’s little stopping the elite offenses when they play the Texans. It’s not much different for the Bengals. Defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer has done a great job to turn around an increasingly talented unit, but the Bengals were still struggling early last season, specifically against th offenses like Washington and Denver.

Geno Atkins was an All-Pro for the first time in his career after registering 12.5 sacks from the defensive tackle position. He has been a stellar fourth-round pick (2010), but he still needs help from the rest of the defense.

After the Denver loss, the Bengals sat at 3-5. From that point on, the defense did impress with huge performances against the Giants and Steelers. Cincinnati finished 7-1, only losing by one point to the Cowboys after a Tony Romo comeback.

The Bengals allowed 12.8 points per game in the second half of the season. If they can play like this for most of 2013, Dalton could have the best scoring defense in football, giving him few excuses not to win a division title.

When you are the third-best quarterback in your own division, behind Super Bowl winners like Ben Roethlisberger and Joe Flacco, it is tough to take a team far.

Stafford faces a similar problem playing in a division with Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers. Schaub has this experience of being behind Peyton Manning’s dominance of the AFC South with Indianapolis, where they now have Luck coming into his own. Luck outplayed Schaub in the Week 17 finale when the Texans were playing for the AFC’s No. 1 seed.

When the game cannot be won with a 17-point output, it can get difficult when so much of the offense is geared toward one great receiver. That is what these three teams have done in the past.

Years ago this method worked great for Dallas with Michael Irvin, but those teams were stacked. They could run the ball at an elite level too. BenJarvus Green-Ellis is no Emmitt Smith.

Today’s Super Bowl winners always have multiple receiving threats, so if one is having an off day, the other can come through with a big performance. This has been true of every Super Bowl winner since the 2006 Colts.

For these teams, it’s been more about feeding that one receiver (full-team passing stats included from 2012):

It does not look so bad for Dalton in that his numbers are closer when throwing to other receivers, but part of that is he forced a few more throws to Green, resulting in interceptions, relative to what the Johnsons had.

Houston finally has addressed its reliance on Andre Johnson by drafting DeAndre Hopkins in the first round. Detroit has so far unsuccessfully tried to add some weapons around Calvin Johnson.

The Bengals were blessed to move on from Chad Johnson’s antics and draft a stud like Green with the No. 4 pick in 2011. He’s been as good as advertised, if not better, with 2,407 receiving yards and 18 touchdowns in two seasons.

Yet the Bengals have fallen into the trap of not developing another receiver, leaving a young quarterback to force the ball to Green. Sometimes that works, but Dalton’s not the best vertical passer in the game, so he could use more options guarded by lesser defenders.

This is why drafting tight end Tyler Eifert to pair with Jermaine Gresham is a very interesting decision. It may be just what Dalton needs. Matt Ryan welcomed the addition of Tony Gonzalez, followed by Julio Jones in 2011. For Dalton, another tight end that can move around may get him to release the ball quicker and convert more third downs.

Green is still going to get his, but this offense will never take off without another receiver coming into his own. Even a Peyton Manning-led offense did not reach a MVP level until Reggie Wayne had a breakout year in 2003 to go along with Marvin Harrison’s production.

Too often individual wide receiver greatness comes at the cost of offensive success. Quarterbacks, especially those with flaws, need multiple weapons more than one super player.

There have been plenty of dark seasons for the Bengals, Lions and Texans in the past. They have made progress in the last few years to earn a little respect, but there is still much work to be done to ascend to that next tier.

It never hurts to try copying what works for the rest of the league’s best teams.

Marvin Lewis: Shape Up or Ship Out

Can you believe Marvin Lewis is entering his 11th season as the head coach of the Bengals? Not since the reign of Dick Jauron has there been a coach with such little success able to hold onto a job for this long.

It’s not like coaches are not moving around at a record pace. Half of the league currently employs a head coach with less than three full seasons of experience.

After a decade, Lewis holds a 79-80-1 (.497) record in the regular season. According to Pro-Football-Reference, roughly 90 coaches have a better winning percentage (minimum 50 games) than Lewis.

Lewis compares most favorably to Wayne Fontes, who went 66-67 (.496) as Detroit’s head coach (1988-96). At least Fontes won his first playoff game, which is the only playoff win the Lions have since 1958.

Lewis is 0-4 in the playoffs, which is the main reason why it’s so amazing to see him still coaching in Cincinnati. As Chase Stuart of Football Perspective points out, only Lewis and Jim Mora have gone at least 10 years coaching a team without a playoff win.

Both Lewis and Mora also have made the playoffs in 40 percent of the seasons they coached. Roughly 41 coaches (minimum eight seasons) have done better.

Mora was fired by the 1996 Saints after a 2-6 start in his 11th season on the job. He retired with an 0-6 record in the playoffs. 

Will history repeat itself if the Bengals fall flat on their faces in September and October?

Starting 1-4 is not out of the question with a game in Chicago and home games against Pittsburgh, Green Bay and New England.

Most owners do not like to fire a coach during the season, but the Bengals are in a rare position in that they may have the right man for the job already on the staff.

Defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer has generated buzz as a head-coaching candidate. He has been in Cincinnati since 2008, which is when the team moved away from a pass-heavy offensive approach, behind Carson Palmer, to more of a defensive team.

Should Lewis disappoint again, it would be very Cincinnati-like to simply promote Zimmer to head coach. The Bengals have done it before with Bill Johnson, David Shula, Bruce Coslet and Dick LeBeau. The last three happened in succession during the 1992-02 season before the team hired Lewis in 2003.

Regardless of what happens, it numbs the mind that Lewis has lasted a decade in Cincinnati.

Departures and Arrivals: The 2013 Starters

The following chart of potential 2013 starters was created with the help of Ourlads:

Things remain fairly consistent on offense. Guard Travelle Wharton came over from Carolina last year, but spent the season on injured reserve. He will compete for a job this year, but he wasn’t missed with Clint Boling starting all 16 games at left guard. This is an offensive line built with plenty of premium resources.

The big addition is tight end Tyler Eifert out of Notre Dame. It was a surprise on draft night, as the Bengals already have Jermaine Gresham, but it should be very interesting to see how offensive coordinator Jay Gruden works Eifert into the offense.

New England’s offense changed after drafting Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez in 2010. The Bengals will be looking for a similar impact, even if Gresham and Eifert are not exactly as talented and complementary as that duo.

Eifert will likely be closer to Hernandez (hopefully that stays as a strictly on-field comparison) in that he will move around and often play in the slot.

This combo will give the Bengals a lot more options than what they have had the last two years with Green’s dominance. While it would still be preferable to have a true wide receiver ascend to the No. 2 spot, there’s a good chance Green, Gresham and Eifert account for a massive percentage of the Bengals’ receiving yards in 2013.

As for additional skill players, the team still has wide receiver Andrew Hawkins, who can star in the slot. Running back Giovani Bernard was drafted in the second round out of North Carolina and should earn some carries this year.

With the defense, not much has changed from last season either.

The same defensive line returns, though Carlos Dunlap has been working with the starters ahead of 2012 starter Robert Geathers.

Along with the All-Pro Geno Atkins, Michael Johnson (11.5 sacks in 2012) and Domata Peko, the Bengals’ top five defensive linemen are all home-grown draft picks. The Bengals also drafted defensive end Margus Hunt in the third round this year.

The big-name addition is former nemesis James Harrison at outside linebacker. He is 35 and has battled injuries the last few years in Pittsburgh, but Harrison still has some pass-rushing ability left in the tank. It’s just hard to imagine he still has the potential for double-digit sacks. It will be interesting to see Harrison in a 4-3 defense after starring in Dick LeBeau’s 3-4 zone-blitz scheme.

Cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick and safety Taylor Mays were on the team last year too, but it was Terence Newman and Chris Crocker starting in their place. Crocker is gone, but Newman is still there. Since Kirkpatrick was a first-round pick in 2012, you would expect he has a great chance to start opposite the very solid Leon Hall.

Kirkpatrick played just 43 snaps as a rookie, according to Pro Football Focus. Adam “Pacman” Jones played 608 snaps and is also still on the roster. The secondary is rather full right now, but that’s not a bad thing in today’s NFL.

Zimmer certainly has his share of packages to use this season, but it’s what the offense does with Eifert that remains the most interesting change to the starting lineup. It should also be the most important. 


Conclusion: Potential Turning-Point Season in Franchise History

The 2013 season could go down as a critical turning point in Bengals history.

It could be the year a long-time head coach finally had the right roster to win big. The young quarterback could blossom into a franchise quarterback to go along with one of the best defenses in the NFL.

It could also be the final straw for Lewis, who could lose his job after another disappointing result. If he does not win a career-high 12 games or have a competitive playoff run with at least one win, he should be fired. Should Dalton not improve, the hunt for the next quarterback will heat up.

The talent on this team is good enough to start winning bigger games.

Arguing the Bengals must get past teams like Houston may be a tough sell, because just winning those first-round playoff games with any consistency would be a major improvement for Cincinnati.

Cincinnati has only made it past the Wild Card Round in six seasons, and half of those came in an era where the wild card did not exist yet (1970-75).

It has been a long, frustrating wait for this team to return to contention, like when they reached a pair of Super Bowls in the 1980s, losing to San Francisco both times. The 49ers just made a return to glory after a rough eight years (2003-10). They did it with a new head coach and a quarterback drafted one spot after Dalton in 2011.

Look how easy it could have been had Cincinnati landed Jim Harbaugh and Colin Kaepernick in 2011 after Lewis went a fire-worthy 4-12 in 2010. There is so much potential now in San Francisco, with some of it being realized the last two seasons.

In Cincinnati, there are real expectations to do something great this season. Until we see them do it, it is hard to confidently predict they will. Perhaps having the talent and expectations will spark a different result, but this still feels like a fringe playoff team lacking a big-game quarterback and coach.

Scott Kacsmar writes for Cold, Hard Football Facts, NBC Sports, Colts Authority, and contributes data to Pro-Football-Reference.com and NFL Network. You can visit his blog for a complete writing archive, and can follow him on Twitter at @CaptainComeback.


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