Progress is one of the ugliest things you'll ever come across. It's also one of the most important.
We've gotten spoiled by Hollywood-style montage progress. You know what I'm talking about: the music kicks in, and a quick succession of scenes show us how the main character improves at a sport, a job, a relationship. They've been an absolute nobody up until then, but suddenly, over the course of just a few dialogue-free minutes, they become hyper-competent and unstoppable. It's meant to act as a storytelling shortcut, but it tends to give the impression that progress is clean and linear.
We constantly see examples of this kind of thinking in the NFL. Suddenly-successful teams that come out of nowhere, and everyone wants to mimic them, everyone wants to know why their own favorite team couldn't pull that off...and then, a year or two later, they've fallen apart, because their improvement was strictly superficial. Their success relied on a handful of coaches or players, and once they stop clicking, that's it. Sad to say, that's described us in the past.
Building anything is a messy, complicated process, and it usually takes forever. I don't care if it's a skyscraper, a piece of legislation, or a business. Even if you work hard, you'll inevitably make the wrong decisions at some point. Even if you make all the right decisions, you'll inevitably reach a stage where you don't feel like working hard. Distractions will set you back (I don't recall Rocky ever tearing an ACL when he was chasing those chickens around), and instead of being propelled by inspirational music, you'll be putting up with tons of arguments.
The good news is that the Cincinnati Bengals are over halfway there. We finally have a good defense, and we finally have a good running game. But it took us so long to get there that our previous strength--the passing game--fell apart in the meantime. It's easy (and justified) to be angry about that, but I'd rather focus on how the team is going to be built for the future. I believe that we're one offseason away from winning a playoff game, which makes the next few months incredibly important. Here's what I'm thinking about:
(edit: I see that jsl413 and I were thinking along the same lines on some of these issues; must be the zeitgeist.)
1. The Coach-Killer
There are players that have been stuck with this label, but there's a far more common culprit: the failure to build an effective o-line. Look at each year's crop of fired coaches, and you'll see that this is usually one of the common denominators. It seems like half the fans in the NFL want their team to draft an OT in the first or second round. When people talk about our 2005 team, they usually talk about Carson, or the receiving corps...but let's not forget that incredible o-line. And they were good at both pass-blocking and run-blocking. (With all due respect to Rudi, he wasn't knocking out thousand-yard seasons because he was an elite running back.) That's where offensive success begins.
So, whenever I hear people say that the o-line is fine, and that we don't need to draft a guard until the middle or later rounds...well, I get a little nervous. Look at our last few mid-round o-linemen: Stacy Andrews, Ghiapet, and Anthony Collins were each taken in the fourth round. Collins did well last year, Stacy was a project that flashed and then quickly went downhill, and Ghiapet deserves to have a hurricane or some other natural disaster named after him. Sure, sometimes you find a gem like Cook. But I'd rather be safe and grab someone in the first two or three rounds. I'm on the Iupati bandwagon, but I'm keeping my mind open to other elite guards.
Also, Andrew Whitworth is clearly one of the best draft picks in the Marvin era, and I'm thrilled that he's on our team. But I do wonder if he has the speed to be a true LT. Alexander has said that he's the guy, and I hope he can use technique to make up for his lack of speed. I'd like to see Collins made the primary LT backup; I think he'd fit better there than at RT, where we tried to use him in 2009. I really hope we're not looking for a LT next year.
2. The Fourth Fundamental
Religions have philosophical and theological debates that have stretched on for thousands of years. In football, there's less sectarian violence, but the passion and hatred are definitely real, especially when it comes to deciding which parts of a team are the most important. It's a cliché, but the trenches are still essential. And then you need an accurate quarterback that's capable of making good decisions, preferably one that has spider-sense-like pocket presence and can keep a play alive. That's the usual NFL holy trinity: o-line, d-line, and QB.
Given the overall evolution of the passing game (and please note the Super Bowl QBs), I think that the secondary has to be elevated to being the fourth fundamental. We've all seen teams with elite front sevens get shredded in must-win games (whether in the postseason or not), as their secondary couldn't hold up against one of the NFL's many good quarterbacks. There's no shortage of talent at the QB position, right now, so everyone is stocking up on DBs.
We Bengals fans can attest to the fact that having two good corners goes a long way in improving your entire defense. And a superstar safety can set the tone for a defense. We saw how Pittsburgh looked without everyone's favorite shampoo model, and god knows that Ed Reed has provided stability for the Ravens. Because of this, I think we need to make free safety a priority, and even though I like how Morgan Trent did, we shouldn't be adverse to taking a cornerback, as well.
3. Good Position
This one will be quick: thank god we're picking lower. We haven't picked this low since right after the 2005 season, and our first four picks were Joseph, Whitworth, Frostee, and Peko. Three of those four are very good players, and one has been productive when he's actually been on the field. It seems counterintuitive, but it's true: picking lower really is safer.
4. The Tight End Heresy
I wanted a flashy tight end for years, and I'm not talking about Jessica Alba, Jessica Biel, or the Jessica Alba-Biel hybrid that lives in my imagination. Each year, the draft came, and each year--until last year--we didn't get one. Due to Coffman's injury, we still don't have an answer to "Does Brat not know how to use a receiving TE, or is it just that he hasn't had one?"
This year, we appear to be in perfect position to draft one in the first round. And as much as I'd like us to do it, I'm starting to suspect that we shouldn't. I have a feeling that Brat just doesn't know how to use them. I hope to be proven wrong, but I haven't seen anything to make me think that he's suddenly going to use a TE in a modern way. Call me a heretic, but I think that we should draft a mid-round blocking TE. I'm picturing a Big Ten type: physical, able to do the fundamentals, and kinda-sorta athletic. Though he's from the SEC, I think Colin Peek could work out well for us. I just don't see any point in spending first-round money on a TE if we're going to use him in a 1950s way. There are other players we can pick from, at positions that Brat and Zimmer actually believe in using. It's like telling your grandmother to buy a Lamborghini, when you know that she won't be taking it over thirty miles an hour.
5. Don't Get Cocky
Though Roger Goodell is bending over backwards to make the NFL the No-Fun League, it still stands for Not For Long. And Zimmer recently commented that, just to keep up with the Joneses (Rooneys?), we'll need depth all across the defense. I absolutely agree with him. We've made a quantum leap, but, to quote Han Solo, don't get cocky. There are a lot of teams that improved a unit one year and then went back to Epic Fail the next.
I believe we need to draft a FS, DE and/or SLB, CB, and possibly DT. I think that defensive end may be one of our most underrated needs, and it wouldn't shock me if we took DE/SLB Brandon Graham in the first. Nor would it shock me if we took DT Brian Price (a rotation of Peko, Tank, Sims, and Price would be so, so awesome). For years, we tried to ignore our strength (then offense) and focus on our weakness, which led to our offense falling apart. I think we can and should address both at the same time. I sometimes wonder if one of the reasons Zimmer stayed is because we promised him either a first- or second-round pick to bolster the D.
6. Skill Position Failsafes
We signed Matt Jones, which is great. But the age of Chad and the geologically-slow development of Jerome Simpson means that we need to draft at least one WR. It's easy to get caught up in the "Do we draft a possession guy or a burner?" debate, but I honestly don't care either way. No, I have two completely different qualifications for any WR we take: he needs to be physical, because the AFC North is still the AFC North, and he needs to be polished, because god do we suck at developing receivers. Call it the Mike Sheppard Principle: the state we draft a receiver in will likely be the state that that receiver stays at. I don't know if we'll realistically be able to find someone that's both physical and polished, but I'll take one out of two. There are some physical deep threats, such as the gentleman from Georgia Tech, and I'm sure he'd help in the running game.
The other failsafe is a fourth running back. In my ideal world--hint, it involves Jessica Alba-Biel, the hidden Madoff treasure, and a well-defended private island--we'd use our running backs the way that, y'know, consistently-successful teams do. Spreading out the carries and wearing down defenses with a double/triple-headed threat. At the rate we're using Benson, I believe we need a fourth RB waiting in the wings, one that carries out the Larry Johnson role from last year. He won't always dress on gameday, but he'll be there just in case.
As an aside, I'd love to have someone in the mold of a Ray Rice, a Percy Harvin, or a Reggie Bush. Either a RB that can get good YAC or a WR that has the balance and shiftiness of a RB, one we could use for trick plays and end-arounds. But I don't think Brat would be creative enough to use him, so I'll take a mid- or late-round "bell cow" (one of my favorite Hobsonisms, right up there with "in the fold") type, one that can carry the load if we need him to.
7. Don't Count On It
Two frequent offseason catchphrases: "can only get better" and "a year under his belt." As fans, we optimistically assume that young players will improve, and they often do. But one of my main fears is that the coaches assume the same thing. Sims and Collins did well last year, and not so much this year. Ndukwe struggled, as well, after being a force early on. The last thing we want to do is get complacent and assume that no regression will take place. I hope the coaches are constantly evaluating their depth and drafting based on reality, not hope.
To be fair, it isn't always actual regression. Sometimes, the player simply stays the same, but we expect more out of them, because they aren't a rookie anymore. Or maybe they were overdrafted, and they just can't live up to the ridiculous spot we picked them at. A lot of things can sabotage players: injuries (whether it's to them or someone else; ask Caldwell how much more focus he got after Henry went down), coaches that don't know how to use them, etc.
The NFL is incredibly up-or-down. You can be the game-saving hero a few times (Caldwell, again) and then fumble and give up a game. We should all hope the players grow in a linear fashion, but, realistically, some will end up going backwards. The good news is that the opposite is true...some of the players that struggled this year will invariably end up bouncing back next year.
With the draft coming up, it's easy to look at our current situation and focus only on our needs...but let's not forget that we're knocking on the door of the promised land. Even undermanned and cursed by Shank, we came reasonably close to winning a playoff game. I truly believe that one good offseason could get us over the hump. We'll face a more difficult schedule next year, but I believe that, even with an average draft, we'll be a better team.
This is progress. It's not happening as quickly as we'd like, it's not completely free of certain problems that have been with us for a long time...but we are incredibly far from where we started. The games, as ever, will be decided on the field, but this part of the year is when teams put themselves in position to win. All we need are a few good decisions, and we'll be on our way.