Somewhere hidden within the game of football lurks a sleeping beast: the mistake. The most ancient of football sages once accurately observed that football is a game of mistakes and the team that overcomes the most will win the game. It sounds simple and rudimentary, but like Aesop's fables, the moral never changes.
The Bengals fell victim to an earthquake of mistakes near the San Andreas fault line on Sunday, and panic didn't set in until it was too late.
For most of the game, everything went as planned.
Cincinnati ran out to a two touchdown lead and then went conservative in their play-calling. Running the ball, using clock and avoiding risky shots down-field make sense with the lead against an opponent like the Raiders. The Bengals were satisfied with sporadic rushing yards from Bernard Scott and Brian Leonard; Carson Palmer was on his way to throwing under 20 passing attempts---exactly how the Bengals wanted the day to unfold. Events that don't normally happen, however, sprang out at the most inopportune time and Cincinnati was unable to overcome “the mistake.”
If it's blame for which you thirst, then allow me to move the microscope over to our very own franchise-player, kicker Shayne Graham. While Graham's statistics have been hampered by some bizarre special-teams play from his teammates this season, he continues to struggle at living up to his contract. His miss from 37 yards in the third quarter is less acceptable than the fumbles later in the game. Fumbles, by nature, are freak occurrences, but missed field goals, barring a poor snap or hold, are just bad plays.
The Bengals are now a grind-house team that runs the ball, controls the clock, plays good defense and wins with field goals. I'm willing to cut Shuga Shayne some slack on the attempts from 50-yards or more, but anything inside the 40 is a must for a man getting paid the average of the top-5 wealthiest kickers.
Graham had a solid game in Pittsburgh, and he was a major reason that Cincinnati came out of there with a win, but he needs to be the consistent component to an otherwise unpredictable place-kicking unit if the Bengals are to win more of these close games. I know it's a lot of pressure and that it damn sure ain't easy, but it has to happen; it simply must.
Graham however is safe for now, because Cincinnati has its own default scape-goat for times like these. It's been scientifically proven that after any loss, Bengal fans whip themselves into a frenzy and rally a witch-hunt to wherever Bob Bratkowski is hiding; he is always to blame in the Queen City. Often times, especially this season, the scorn has been unfair, and the Oakland game is no different.
Bratkowski has been instructed to play-call under a new philosophy and he has done just that. No longer does this team wait for the few opportunities to go deep on offense. Carson's role has shifted from play-maker to game-manager, and oddly enough, makes more plays as a result. The offensive line looks comfortable devouring defensive front-sevens in the running game and Cincinnati is collecting running-backs like bobble-head dolls. We play power football now and everyone might as well get used to it.
In Oakland, the play-calling followed the new rubric of the offense. Even a first-down hand off to Jeremi Johnson inside the red-zone during the fourth quarter, with the lead, is the right thing to do these days. Sure, the day had its moments of curious strategy---none more so than the fade to Leonard on third & four on the Raider 48-yard line with 2:25 to go---but the theory was sound and would have worked were it not for the Whammy of mistakes late in the game.
Three times this season, the Bengals have followed a tough divisional win with an underwhelming performance against inferior competition (at Cleveland, Houston, and at Oakland). It appears that adrenaline dump is the biggest weakness for this team so far.
The NFL is designed for its teams to fail. It wants to cast away contenders as soon as possible. The further a team gets within such a gruesome maze, the more prevalent their mistakes become. There are difficult opponents along the way, but the most dangerous enemy for the Bengals is likely themselves. Marvin Lewis and his staff have already solved a lot of problems this season; learning the lesson of the Oakland game could put them over the top when it matters the most -- in February.
Mojokong---”Big money, big money. No whammies, no whammies.”