Commentary: The Cincinnati Bengals Aren't a Well Prepared Team

So the Bengals finally looked like a real football team, with uniforms and everything, last night. Awesome to witness, but before the game I had already penned the following post, which may seem cruel now in the wake of such a nice team victory:

I was out of town over the weekend, so I wasn't able to see the game Sunday when the Bengals were slapped around by the Jets, and thank goodness for that. But after witnessing the bloodbath in Detroit last week, when Cincinnati looked largely like a flag football team in their preseason opener against the Lions, someone asked me whether I though the Bengals of the Marvin Lewis Era were one of the most consistently unprepared teams in the league. My knee-jerk response was, "of course," with my only real evidence being, "well, just look at ‘em."

Always an important topic, we've been hearing about preparation in the NFL quite a bit more this year. As the lockout pushed through the spring and into the summer months, a number of football pundits raised concerns that the lack of a proper offseason and a potentially truncated training camp would lead to a great deal of unreadiness among players and coaches once the league and the once-upon-a-time players union did finally bury the hatchet and settle on a new Collective Bargaining Agreement. Back in April, Bengals guard Andrew Whitworth voiced his belief that the downtime of the lockout would breed laziness and lack of conditioning amongst many of the players. Then, a month later, former Ravens coach Brian Billick elaborated on that anxiety, suggesting that not only will some players be physically unprepared for the season, but the lockout would be a stumbling block to the mental preparation of the rookies who wouldn't have adequate time to acclimate to their new teams.

Some also speculated that there would be certain organizations more affected by the lockout than others. Since contact between players and coaches was limited, training programs frozen, free agency suspended, and rookies in limbo, organizations in flux would be more susceptible to internal chaos than others. Of course, the Bengals—a team transitioning into a new offensive scheme, and starting over with a new quarterback and a young group of skill position players—were one of those organizations pointed out as most in danger of careening though the 2011 season. Whether this abbreviated camp has or will have any more of a deleterious effect on the team than a normal offseason will only ever be speculation (sure it would be nice if Andy Dalton were to have had more time working with the team these last few months, but who can say exactly what kind of difference it would make), but concerns about the team's general level of preparedness is nothing new here.

Preparedness, of course, is a fundamental aspect of football. Without a cohesive plan of attack, players fall all over each other and end up looking like…well, the Bengals. Every season it seems like Bengaldom is chattering about how sluggish and unready the team appears to be from game to game -- the defense getting blasted apart in the opening possessions; the offense taking until the fourth quarter to get any kind of traction; the coaches seemingly unable to get plays in on time or manage the game clock effectively. Marvin Lewis, who came to the Bengals with a reputation as a player's coach, meticulous about practice and vehement about individual responsibility, has rarely appeared to have this team functioning on all cylinders. Again, the simplest gauge of this it to just look at 'em, but I've been trying to think of a way to quantify that assessment. I suppose there are many ways to do that, but I've chosen to do it the easiest way, by compiling some win-loss stats.

Since we're currently wading through the preseason, let's start there. In the Lewis era, the Bengals have had only two winning preseason records (in 2006 they were 4-0, and in 2010 they were 3-2). Counting the two games this preseason, overall the team is now (including yesterday's game against the Panthers) 18-18 since Lewis was hired in 2003. To reduce the sample size (and make it fairer to call them Marvin Lewis's teams, after he's had some drafts to work with) we'll focus on the last five seasons (2006-10). Over that time, the Bengals are 12-9 in the preseason, comparing favorably to their division rivals Pittsburgh (12-8) and Baltimore (11-9), and better than powerhouses New England (9-11) and Indianapolis (4-17). The Bengals are 2-3 in their first preseason game, and 5-0 in their final ones across that span.

But the argument against making extrapolations from preseason games is, of course, that they are preseason games, opportunities for lesser players to secure a roster spot and starters to simply get their work in. So, let's move on to something else, the team's performance in opening day games. To again limit the comparison points, here are the records of the AFC North teams in their opening day games for the last five seasons, along with the teams they played and their overall records for that season:

Steelers (5-0)

2006 W Miami (6-10)

2007 W @Cleveland (10-6)

2008 W Houston (8-8)

2009 W Tennessee (8-8)

2010 W Atlanta (13-3)

Ravens (4-1)

2006 W Tampa Bay (4-12)

2007 L @ Cincinnati (7-9)

2008 W Cincinnati (4-11-1)

2009 W Kansas City (4-12)

2010 W New York Jets (11-5)

Bengals (2-3)

2006 W @Kansas City (9-7)

2007 W Baltimore (5-11)

2008 L @Baltimore (11-5)

2009 L Denver (8-8)

2010 L @New England (14-2)

Cleveland (0-5)

2006 L New Orleans (10-6)

2007 L Pittsburgh (10-6)

2008 L Dallas (9-7)

2009 L Minnesota (12-4)

2010 L @Tampa Bay (10-6)

The obvious lesson here is that good teams start strong, although in this case a good team like the Ravens was helped by a relatively weak schedule, highlighted by two wins over the Bengals (also, that's some tough scheduling luck for the Brownies). It's worth noting, though, that the Bengals were 3-2 in home openers.

But that's just a representation of one game. Teams are still feeling themselves out in that first one, so let's look at a more telling indicator of a team's preparedness, its record after a bye week. Since 2003, the Bengals are 2-5-1 after a bye week. Ouch. And below are the records over the last five years for the teams in the AFC North after the bye week:

Browns (3-2)

2006 L Denver (9-7)

2007 W @ St. Louis (3-13)

2008 W New York Giants (12-4)

2009 L Baltimore (9-7)

2010 W New England (14-2)

Ravens (4-1)

2006 W @ New Orleans (10-6)

2007 L @ Pittsburgh (10-6)

2008 W Cleveland (4-12)

2009 W Denver (8-8)

2010 W Miami (7-9)

Bengals (1-3-1)

2006 L @ Tampa (4-12)

2007 L @ Kansas City (4-12)

2008 Tie Philadelphia (9-6-1)

2009 W Baltimore (9-7)

2010 L @ Atlanta (13-3)

Steelers (3-2)

2006 L @ San Diego (14-2)

2007 L @ Denver (7-9)

2008 W Cincinnati (4-11-1)

2009 W @ Denver (8-8)

2010 W Cleveland (5-11)

Again, the Browns get saddled with a pretty tough schedule, so that's a mitigating factor for them. But the Bengals, by my rough estimation, had the second easiest schedule to Pittsburgh, who once again took advantage of Cincinnati. Now let's compare that to the rest of the league over the last five years to see where the Bengals rank:

5-0

Colts   

Eagles

Patriots

 

 

4-1

Cowboys    Bears

Vikings    Titans

Giants    Packers

Panthers    Buccaneers

3-2

Rams   Broncos

Chargers  Jets

Lions    Dolphins

Bills

2-3

Seahawks   Saints

Jaguars   Redskins

 

 

 

1-3-1

Bengals

 

1-4

49ers   Chiefs

Texans    Cardinals

0-5

Raiders

 

As you can see, the Bengals are among the bottom six in the league after the bye. They just don't seem to be able to make much use of that extra prep time, and they haven't been a good enough team to afford doing that.

The Bengals aren't a winning organization, and it's easy to see why: they don't start off terribly well in their games, they don't start off terribly well in their openers, and they're fairly terrible in taking advantage of the bye week. Those things have hurt them in the past, but now with the team being in such a dynamic period of flux that seeming pattern of unreadiness is something the coaching staff is going to have to figure out if it doesn't want to stunt the growth of its young players and usher in another lost decade. Marvin Lewis may just have to get himself a bigger shovel.

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