Right now, the Conventional Wisdom is that the 2011 Cincinnati Bengals are going to be a bad team. Every power ranking has them listed at or near the bottom. Vegas has set the over/under on Bengals wins for the season at a whopping 5.5 games. The fan base can be generously described as "glum" and appears largely resigned to another "rebuilding" (a.k.a. "miserable losing") season. However, there’s a reason to think that the Conventional Wisdom might be wrong.
A tip o’ the hat to go-bengals for exhuming this 2009 column from Bill Simmons. As Bill explains, the Ewing Theory was created by his friend Dave Cirilli as a way to explain why Patrick Ewing’s college and pro teams always seemed to play better when Ewing was out.
Dave introduced me to the Ewing Theory three years ago, and we've been tinkering with it like Voltaire and Thoreau ever since. Eventually, we decided that two crucial elements needed to be in place for any situation to qualify for "Ewing" status:
A star athlete receives an inordinate amount of media attention and fan interest, and yet his teams never win anything substantial with him (other than maybe some early-round playoff series).
That same athlete leaves his team (either by injury, trade, graduation, free agency or retirement) -- and both the media and fans immediately write off the team for the following season.
When those elements collide, you have the Ewing Theory.
Those elements didn’t just collide in Cincinnati this year, they slammed together so hard that they fused into a new element called Ewingium-239. Not one, not two, but three departed players qualify for Ewing Theory status: quarterback Carson Palmer and wide receivers Chad Ochocinco and Terrell Owens.
Palmer was the focus of fan and media adoration from the moment he was drafted. Ochocinco’s picture appears in Webster’s Dictionary next to the entry for "media whore" – and that entry reads "see Owens, Terrell."
Yet for all the love or hate they generated, none of these guys were winners. Carson and Chad managed two winning seasons and two playoff loses in eight years together in Cincinnati. Owens was on playoff teams in San Francisco, Philadelphia and Dallas, but only the Eagles in 2004 made it the Super Bowl, and TO was on the sideline with a busted leg all through the playoffs. When he came back for the Big Game, the Eagles promptly lost.
But indeed, despite the fact that all these star players never actually got the job done, their departures have fans and the media dismissing the Bengals’ chances this year. The Ewing Theory is definitely in play.
So might the 2011 Cincinnati Bengals prove experts and fans alike wrong? I can see it, if dimly, because at the core of the Ewing Theory is a sound hypothesis: that teams can rely too much on a star player or players.
That in a nutshell is what we saw last year, a Bengals team that imploded in large part because of the offensive fixation on the passing game, and in particular getting the ball to TO and Chad. Dumbfounded fans watched as the Bengals abandoned the run-first philosophy that powered the team to the playoffs in 2009 in favor of a gaffe-prone aerial circus that snatched defeat from the jaws of victory week after week.
And what have we heard even since? Exactly: that the Bengals are going to return to the power running game in 2011 and ride the Cedric Benson express into the postseason. Rookie QB Andy Dalton’s main job will be to manage the game and not make mistakes; a strong running game and a stout defense will be the foundation of success this year. At least, that’s the plan.
The one objection that can be raised to this is that 2009’s success wasn’t built solely on the run game and the defense. It was also built on Palmer’s ability to lead multiple last-minute scoring drives that won close games (remember the "Cardiac Cats?"). So even if Marvin Lewis & Co. manage to revive the Bengals of ’09, history suggests that there will be times that Dalton has to make some plays, too.
So far this preseason, Dalton’s performance has been decidedly mixed, though he has improved in each successive game. But can we hope that he’ll have a shot when faced with real NFL defenses in the regular season? Yes, we can – because the Cold, Hard Football Facts tell us he’ll be facing lots of lousy pass defenses.
The rookie quarterbacks represent the future of the franchise in Tennessee and Cincinnati, respectively.
If they do take the reins, our strength-of-schedule projections say they’ll have a pretty easy road by the low standards of rookie QBs: Locker and the Titans face the weakest group of pass defenses in football, with an 87.8 Defensive Passer Rating last year. It certainly helps when a full quarter of your schedule comes against Houston (100.5 DPR) and Jacksonville (98.5 DPR), the two worst defenses in football last year based upon Defensive Passer Rating.
Dalton and the Bengals enjoy the prospects of the second-easiest schedule. Their opponents posted an average 86.0 Defensive Passer Rating last year.
Of course, changes have occurred that will tip those numbers one way or the other. I have to think that Johnathan Joseph’s arrival in Houston will bolster the Texans’ pass D, for example. But teams can only fix so much in a single offseason, and they’ve had even less time to do so this year. Dalton will have his chances – it’s just a question of whether he grabs them, or not.