Our coworker and friend Anthony Cosenza touched on the topic Tuesday evening, writing that Marvin Lewin shouldn't have instructed that the offense sit on the ball and concede the first half. I'm going to counter the argument, from a devil's advocate point of view.
Now I'm not a Marvin Lewis apologist (even though this is the second time in consecutive weeks I've supported his decision), but let's examine the facts on the ground. The Bengals received the football after an Andy Lee punt at their own 15-yard line. There was a minute remaining in the first half and the Bengals had all three timeouts (speaking of Lewis, isn't that more of a shocker?). Theoretically the Bengals only needed 50 yards to reach Mike Nugent's range to attempt a 50-yarder.
Easy enough, right?
In the four possessions preceding their "concession drive" to end the half, the Bengals punted every time with their most effective drive gaining 12 yards. They picked up two first downs and 32 total yards on 12 plays (2.7 yards/play) during those four possessions, bookmarked between the team's opening field goal and the end of the half. And god forbid if they're faced with a third down.
With a minute remaining in the first half, the Bengals were tied after both teams exchanged first half field goals.
Let's flash forward later in the game when the team was down 10-6 with 3:59 remaining in the game. Pressure was mounting and the Bengals had to move the football. Yet there was plenty of time to score a touchdown, take the lead and if done properly, milk the clock to limit San Francisco's ensuing possession. Interception. San Francisco field goal. Alright. Now the Bengals are down 13-6 with 2:16 remaining in the game. Two nice receptions by Jermaine Gresham that posted 39 yards receiving and then... interception. End of the game.
Back to the situation. There's always a chance that quarterback Andy Dalton unleashes cruise missiles with surgical precision; something we will eventually expect of him, but not right now. Maybe a pass interference, missed tackle that results into a massive gain. Any of those scenarios exist. With three time outs, a minute could becomes an eternity.
That being said, any number of positive scenarios breeds counter-scenarios. What if Andy Dalton presses, tries to force throws into windows that do not exist? This is his third NFL game and there's a lot of pressure in the NFL to produce. Would it be impossible to believe that a rookie quarterback would make a mistake and throw an interception? What about the pass rush Dalton faced Sunday afternoon? A quarterback sack could lead to a fumble, definitely leading to a 49ers score. Hell, what if Dalton throws three incomplete passes and only uses 20 seconds on the clock?
Let's not forget that the San Francisco 49ers also had two of their timeouts remaining. Are you willing to bet that Vernon Davis wouldn't be a factor, even though he posted three 20-yard receptions in the game? A gift field goal to end the half. Not only that, but the 49ers confidence surges while the Bengals head into the locker room having just experienced that.
The extend of our knowledge with this team is 64 15-minute quarters during the regular season; so it's safe to say that in a situation like this, Marvin Lewis knows his team. Given the facts on the ground at the time, along with an intimate knowledge of his personnel, he knew enough not do more than what his young offense was willing to take on.
It's not the popular answer, trust me I know. And in all honesty, if this were an experienced offense with a veteran quarterback at the helm, we'd demand that the team make an effort even with no timeouts, much less a full compliment. But this team wants to win like any other. Using a one-minute drill at the end of the first half to pick up experience is also setting up a situation that if it fails. With an entire second half to play, and the game tied at three, the Bengals failures on Sunday mounts.
If you want to point towards reasons the Bengals lost on Sunday, aim for the offense's lack of third down conversions, Andy Dalton's 16.4 passer rating in the second half or the offense ending possessions with punt, punt, punt, field goal, interception and interception. If anything we learned on Sunday, it's not that Marvin Lewis was afraid to unleash his offense at the end of the first half. It's that they're just not able to do it yet.