What you saw on Sunday was the real Bengals, not the impostors that have played like movie extras this season. It remains to be seen whether it was coincidence or not that the offense resumed its power-running success of last season as soon as Terrell Owens was forced out, but it sure seemed that suddenly Bob Bratkowski abandoned his beloved "vertical" attack for the old, boring Cedric Benson show and, lo and behold, won the game.
The more basic the parameters of the offense, the better plays are executed. For almost two drives in the first half, the Bengals played perfectly, better than I've seen from them since mid-2009.
The first drive was started by a bouncy Benson run for eight yards. On the next play, Cleveland encroached, allowing a first down. Next was a nice play-action -- for Carson Palmer's standards, at least -- and he threw an accurate sideline throw to Jerome Simpson on a box route to the outside: nice catch, two feet down, move the chains. During this play, I felt that the physical similarities of Simpson and Chad Ochocinco were unmistakable in the way they move and even run.
After another couple of Benson runs and three nice short completions -- one to Jordan Shipley, two to Andre Caldwell -- the offense became themselves again on one particular pitch play to Benson which I want you to envision like a Japanime cartoon when I describe it. First, Benson catches the pitch and right away sees fullback Chris Pressley get low on his block and take his guy out but also become an obstacle in Ced's running lane. No problem; Benson leaps him and carries on. Next he finds Nate Livings in front of him looking for a block. Benson moves in behind the giant, luring his defender closer, then slings Livings into the guy he wants blocked and moves ahead. As he approaches the defense's next level, he sees that Kyle Cook has snowplowed some space a good ten yards past the line of scrimmage and is still shoving a defensive tackle well past the first down marker. A linebacker desperately hurls himself around Benson's ankles, but Ced runs through it like paper mache'. Finally, a small defensive back latches himself onto Benson's nameplate and is carried along for two or three more yards. It was a simple gain of 12, but the Bengals looked hard again and it made me proud.
The drive continued flawlessly with a nice bootleg roll-out pass to Jermaine Gresham followed by more spectacular blocking that allowed Benson to surf his way through an enormous running lane untouched for an 18-yard touchdown.
Here was a team that wins divisions. Here is a team that competes. Why did it take so long?
It has to be TO, to some degree. I think Owens is great and he has far exceeded my expectations of him, but all he needed to be was a better Laveranues Coles, not a Pro-Bowler. I know how ridiculous that sounds -- not wanting Pro-Bowlers -- but TO, as the offensive focal point, became something of an obsession and led to real problems for the team as a whole.
The mantra in the offseason was to improve the passing game in order to balance the offense. Benson cautioned against too much balance because he knew what works for the Bengals: the power run game. They ignored him and all others repeating his laments and desperately tried to become a deep-pass offense. Forced throw after forced throw was flung in TO's direction only to come up incomplete or worse. Running downs became too obvious, the stretch play too slow to develop, and Bernard Scott was fed crumbs for carries. Benson slugged his way to a paltry 3.6 yards-per-carry and six fumbles and the line never appeared as cohesive as any part of last year. Even TO himself began to openly question the play-calling, even though he was getting the ball more than any other receiver by far. When a player who has made a career of demanding the ball is saying it's too much, then it's too much.
Nonetheless, the Bengals brain-trust persisted and the results speak for themselves. Unimpressive in nearly every offensive category and hemorrhaging costly turnovers, the team's stubborn refusal to go back to a run-first philosophy is mostly to blame for the season's debacle.
Now TO has torn his maniscus and suddenly we have Jordan Shipley playing the part of Laveranues Coles, Jermaine Gresham playing J.P. Foschi, Jerome Simpson as Chad Ochocinco and Andre Caldwell as himself. Plus, of course, more Benson, and, my favorite, more Bernard Scott. With this group, the Bengals called simple crosses and quick outs and nice screens and all the things that make sense in football. More than any other group, the line looked both inspired and completely in rhythm. It was a blast to watch; I love that kind of football. It was the road-grading, steam-rolling machine of 2009—not a completely dominant team, but brutish and tough to beat.
Last year we demanded more, but altering the foundation of the team to accomplish that demand was a misstep. Instead, they should have made the strengths stronger and not worry so much about balance. Even with TO, the Bengals had the best ball-control passing-game personnel you could ask for, but they tried to dress up the duck as something else rather than just admitting it was a duck all along. Sadly, it takes 15 weeks and a blown-out TO knee to fall back on a plan-B that works better than their plan-A. Only with the Bengals is that even possible.
The good news is that we have two more games to see if any of this is true. If they come back and not run it most of the time and throw more dumb interceptions forcing it deep into coverage, then I take back all the nice things I said about these men, but for now, I feel much better about things. This was more than a win, it was a coming home.
Of course, I can't go without a mention of the defense. For the first time in a long time, I noticed the Bengals stop the opposition on a meaningful third-and-short play that forced a field goal. Very nice. Also, Carlos Dunlap is fun to keep an eye on. He possesses legitimate individual moves, is a big, strong lad with a wide frame and speed, has given opposing offenses something to key on, and is looking like the pass-rushing prospect the team so desperately needs. Johnathan Joseph will be missed if he signs a mammoth contract elsewhere. If the guy could stay healthy, he could be a top-three corner in the NFL, but as it is, he's probably somewhere in the seven or eight range. That may sound marginal to you and I, but those kinds of slots represent millions of dollars. And finally, the linebackers looked very active and even kind of fast on Sunday, and, for as mush as I have beaten them up this season, deserve some credit.
I think that the defense can only benefit from long, time-eating drives like the ones the Bengals enjoyed against Cleveland, and perhaps even more beneficial than just resting, is the confidence of winning like a power team. These exact same men played a lot of inspired football last season; it only takes a familiar feeling to invoke that same inspiration.
So while I cannot let up on the villainy that exists atop the organization, nor the idiocy that blindly leads the offense into battle, and not even the field general who seldom dazzles but dazzles all the same, I will admit that for about three hours, I was once again proud to be a Bengals fan.
Mojokong—life is pleasure.