How strange all this has been. After the Bengals lost their twelfth game in the finale in Baltimore last season, we all feared another prolonged drought of winning football in Cincinnati. Yet only four regular-season games later, we're feeling much better about things. The weird part though, is that this team should not be this competitive. When the star quarterback and star receivers and star corner all pack up and move on, there is supposed to be some fallout, but this team is better than the 2010 version despite its inexperience and youth. How could this be?
Naturally, we can point to what's different from then. Last week on TV, I saw Matt Ryan sitting on the bench and talking with his quarterbacks coach. Seeing that coach felt like seeing a floating apparition of a distant grandparent in a creepy attic. It was Bob Bratkowski himself; he might as well have been wearing chains and a bed sheet.
Removing such a failed philosopher from the field was the smartest decision The Tyrant has made in years. I'm still convinced that he didn't wanna do it, but had to save his own head. Brat was tossed to the bloodthirsty mob and a ray of sunshine poked through the black clouds above. It was a start to better days ahead.
His replacement, Jay Gruden, has brought a sense of simplicity to this offense. Some may view such an approach as too basic and easily thwarted, but I've always thought that football is a simple game often made needlessly complicated by strategy-crazy coaches. Besides, when building anything new, a basic framework must be put in place before any stylish décor can be applied. The west-coast skeleton of play-calling Gruden has displayed thus far makes a lot of sense while employing his young personnel. Some fans are already frustrated with the limited variety of plays called, but I'm confident that more wrinkles will become exposed along the way. The best offenses adjust from one phase to the next over the course of the season. The inability to do just that was perhaps the fatal flaw in Bratkowski's tenure here. As Gruden learns more about his players, I think he will expand the playbook and keep defenses one step behind along the way. At least that's the hope.
Then there is the new quarterback, Andy "Woody" Dalton. It seemed people were eager to point out the negatives with this kid. His arm's weak, he's not that big, he's got orange hair, but a lot of that has quieted after an impressive start to his pro career. While he still makes the natural mistakes the learning curve demands, he also shows the occasional glimpse of greatness.
Last week against Buffalo he found himself down by seven in the fourth quarter around midfield. On a pass play, he was flushed from the pocket, rolled out to his right, and hurled a wild pass down field that looked destined to sail into the sidelines for an incompletion. But then, out of nowhere, Jermaine Gresham appeared out of nowhere and pulled the pass in along the sideline, dragging both feet in bounds behind him. A few plays later, Woody shuffled into the endzone untouched on a quarterback draw for the game-tying touchdown. The Bengals came from behind to win that game and handed the Bills their first loss of the season. Dalton's early legacy evened out after a bad game in Week 3. Skeptics remain impressed, for now.
The other budding young supernova is AJ Green. Green's talent and potential is high-grade stuff and its effect when consumed is intoxicating and euphoric. Watching this guy haul in deep passes and sideline snags gives me the goosebumps. He still hasn't put it all together to truly take over the league, but it's coming, don't worry. Throw in Gresham's strength, hands and bar-brawling toughness and you have a premium passing attack to build around for seemingly ages (more on that later).
Changes defensively have made all the difference as well. The change that has had the biggest effect isn't a new free agent or draft pick but rather simply moving a player over a little on the field. Putting Rey Maualuga at middle linebacker jerked this defense to life like putting defibrillator paddles on a struggling heart. Dhani Jones used to wait on tackles; Rey goes and gets them. Sure he sometimes plugs the wrong running lane and he gets a little overly commando on his tackling technique, but he's making offenses—especially running backs—account for where he is at all times. On Monday morning sitting in their ice bath, running backs feel Rey Maualuga.
Let's not forget the new outside backers, Thomas Howard and Manny Lawson. Both have been pleasant surprises at their position and Howard's down field pass coverage has been most impressive. With the linebackers playing so well together, one has to wonder where Keith Rivers will fit in once he returns from injury. Perhaps Rivers will become more of a spot player that sees twenty snaps a game. Of course, such a violent position lends itself to injury and having Rivers as depth certainly can't hurt, but anointing him a starter again as soon as he's activated may not be the wisest of moves.
The secondary has not been the weak link as feared either. While Nate Clements isn't necessarily of all-pro caliber, he plays with a nice chip on his shoulder and isn't allowing huge plays against him all the time. Reggie Nelson has hit full stride under the Zimmer D, even becoming the hard-hitting safety Zim covets. I remember when Nelson was knocked for his tackling, now he's the one doing the knocking. This underrated performer has shown up on numerous situations this season with some grindstone type of play. Even Chris Crocker is keeping his age and slowness to a minimal. Leon Hall is an unchanging professional. You know what you're getting from Leon, and that's consistent quality play.
The defensive line is young and exciting as well. Carlos Dunlap and Geno Atkins are steadily improving into the stars they can become. Michael Johnson appears more disciplined and is finally utilizing his extreme athletic ability to its fullest. Domata Peko gets low on running downs and is back to smiling a lot these days. The biggest difference on this year's line though, is the return of Jonathan Fanene. While not putting up huge numbers or getting loads of sacks, Fanene's high motor shines through on game days. He's one tough hombre that takes his work seriously and has the physical characteristics of a Hell's Angel. Mix in the wily Frostee Rucker playing healthy and hard, and suddenly this no-name defense looks tough again. Zimmer's henchman are back and forcing punts to the fullest.
Not everything has changed though. Still up in his lair, The Tyrant leers over his empty stadium and stuffs Burger King into his rich pie hole. He whips his secretaries and feeds living squirrels to his many doberman pinchers that sleep around his throne made of gold and human bone. He remains a blithering miser only intent on satisfying himself rather than the community that is stuck with his sorry ass.
One would think that a coach would want to keep a safe distance from a such a moral train wreck but Marvin Lewis signed up for more. The reasons aren't known to any of us. Maybe Marv likes the challenge of winning in the North Korea of the NFL. Maybe he enjoys the job security that comes with coaching the Bengals; you can lose and actually keep your job in Cincinnati. Or maybe, just maybe, Mike Brown isn't as bad as I make him out to be, but I doubt it.
The reason doesn't matter. Marvin is still here even if all the other listed components aren't, and, although I was dubious at first, I think that's a good thing. He's done this for a while. He knows how the league works, and you can see his logic come through on many personnel decisions. His in-game decisions have been fairly criticized, frustrating the hell out of us in the process, but what he lacks as a game-manager, he makes up for as an actual player-developer. If you think about Marvin Lewis working in a more reasonable organization it wouldn't be that far-fetched to picture him at least making it to the Super Bowl by now.
I also get the sense that Marvin is more confident these days. He slipped up to the media after Week 3 when he told reporters that they would be 2-2 after playing the Bills, but I thought that whole thing was overblown. However, in other press conferences, Marvin has the tone of a person who isn't worried about his team anymore. He knows they will make some mistakes and he's okay with certain kinds of them, but he seems relaxed about the direction these youngsters are moving toward. I feel that, with all the changes made, he gets to start over with this team, only this time he's wiser and more experienced; why not be confident? The players are buying into his system because he knows exactly how it's supposed to look and operate and everybody feels better surrounded by certainty.
The NFL doesn't have time to wait on players to slowly develop anymore. It becomes a younger league every season and teams need the most out of every player activated on Sundays. Last year, Green Bay overcame a tidal wave of key injuries to still win the damn Super Bowl. A young team can become a legitimate contender in two years these days with good player development, solid preparation and a smart scheme. A well-informed, hard-working team can beat an athletic undisciplined one more often than not in today's league. In fact, this team reminds me a lot of the 2003 team—Marvin's first—with Woody Dalton doing his best Jon Kitna impression. That team was supposed to be awful, but they really hit their stride in mid-season and actually sniffed around for a playoff spot before flaming out in the last two games. That was the season that propelled the franchise back to legitimacy, and was the most fun I've ever had as a Bengal fan. This team is younger than that one was, has better prospects across the board and doesn't care about being noticed by the national media. This year could be fun too.
The other reason the Bengals are more competitive than expected is because they have shown that they can be an effective passing team. The league is all about passing right now and the teams who aren't up to snuff are struggling the most. Dalton hasn't been lighting up per se, but slinging it around in crazy comeback attempts has given everybody in stripes confidence and the opposition concern. So far, Benson and the run game have been good, but if the passing game falters and the Bengals are forced to rely almost exclusively on the run, panic will set in and the season will crumble. No worries though, I think the youngsters in the passing game will only get better and avoid planting any seeds of doubt for some time. That, in turn, will help the running game blossom even more, and an offensive utopia will be born. How's that for optimism?
So there you have it. The first quarter of 2011 has been a pleasant surprise that has fueled the Bengal fan base with a dose of much-needed hope and entertainment. While the stench of Mr. Brown is still heavy and gross, the other stuff is cool and we can just focus on that instead. There are sour-heads out there that will say a 2-2 record sucks against such blasé competition, but I ignore them too. The Bengals are supposed to be among the bad teams as well, but so far they aren't. If this thing can stick around the .500 pace, this season will be memorable indeed.
Mojokong—giving you the answers.