With all of the injuries that this team has suffered in the past months, one would say that the unit that the injuries have impacted the most is defense. While that's somewhat understandable, considering the starters that have fallen this year on defense, that's also not the entire story. Injuries mean that backup and third-stringers must step up and have their playing time exponentially increased. And where do you think those players come from?
Yet, the team's terribly embarrassing special teams play on Thursday night isn't something new. In fact, it's been deteriorating since the first week of the season when Brandon Tate returned a 97-yard kickoff for a touchdown to open the second half, giving the New England Patriots a 31-3 lead. Entering Thursday night's game, the Bengals punt return unit is statistically the worst punt return team in the league. The team's 21.5 yard/return average on kickoffs is ranked 21st. Mike Nugent's 78.9% conversion rate on field goals is actually the worst conversion percentage by the team's primary place kicker since Neil Rackers only converted 60.7% of his field goals in 2001.
So when you take a terribly embarrassing special teams unit, and reduce the playing time of the best special teams players because of a depleted defense, just imagine The Scarecrow dumping his fear-induced psychological drugs into your lungs and you'll summarize the breath-holding observations from Bengals fans.
Special Teams was definitely the catalyst of the team's nose-dive against the New York Jets Thursday night. Yet, it didn't play that much worse than normal. It's just a poorly put-together unit by the Bengals' special teams coach Darrin Simmons, who should be updating his resume when the season ends. Note to Darrin: Don't include this season on the resume and they'll never know!
Against the New York Jets, Quan Cosby returned four punts. He gained combined six yards. Cosby is just an example of a season-long frustration on punt return. Case in point? Cosby's longest return this season is 12 yards. In 2009, Cosby averaged 11.9 yards per return. Yet, we can't simply fault Cosby here. Thursday's game was a perfect example of the team's completely disastrous play on special teams, with Cosby always having to deal with at least one defender by the time his first step is even dropped to make a move. And often, against the Jets, both of the Jets' wings were already past their blockers, targeting Cosby at full speed.
Aaron Pettrey missed an easy 27-yard field goal that would have tied the game with over six minutes left in the third quarter. The attempted field goal went wide left. After Pettrey's converted 28-yard field goal with over 12 minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, the New York Jets' Brad Smith returned the ensuing kickoff 89 yards for a touchdown to give the Jets some insurance -- not that they'd actually need it.
And then there's Andre Caldwell, who is lucky to be with the Bengals because any other team would have waived him away by now with his propensity to screw up on special teams (see, fumble against the Raiders on kickoff return). With 5:09 left in the third quarter, the Jets punt the football while only leading the game by three points. Cincinnati is largely playing better than we expected, and the fact that they're only down by three points generated a lot of hope within this Bengals fan that the team could pull this off. Weatherford's punt (supposedly) glances Caldwell's facemask making it a live ball. The Jets jumped on the muffed punt and two plays later, scored on a 13-yard Santonio Holmes touchdown, giving them a ten-point lead.
Now it's completely debatable if the punt even touched Caldwell's facemask. In slow motion, the football doesn't appear to change trajectory nor is the football's rotation changed.
But the thing that could support that the football touched Caldwell's facemask, is his reaction to it. After the football fell to the ground, well after (supposedly) touching him, Caldwell broke for the football in a dead sprint.
This isn't the reaction of a guy that doesn't think the football touched him on punt return.
It was around the time that other Jets players were baring down on the football that Caldwell broke off pursuit, easily giving the Jets the football. Way to fight for it. So did Andre Caldwell go ballistic on the sidelines trying to convince Marvin Lewis that it was a bad call and that he should challenge it?
That brings up another obvious question. Why didn't Marvin Lewis challenge it? During his post-game press conference, Lewis said that "Three guys told me upstairs he touched the ball. I rely on the people who watched the replay." This is the case with most teams, unless it's painfully obvious and typically in front of the coach. So it's hard to blame Lewis for not challenging the call, only because his trusted generals in the booth upstairs said not to.
On the other hand, it wasn't obvious that Caldwell touched it. Even though the booth said he touched it and even though Caldwell's reaction appeared like he did touch it, the game was largely decided on the Jets touchdown two plays later. No replay showed conclusively that the football touched Caldwell. It's very possible that the officials could view the replay with different glasses and the Bengals get a break. However, instead of getting the football back with five minutes left in the third quarter with only a three-point deficit, the Bengals return the following kickoff only 18 yards and the go three-and-out on the ensuing drive with a 10-point deficit.