And so another Cincinnati Bengals regular season is in the books. Is it just me, or does it seem like September was just yesterday? But time flies when you're having fun, and this year has been one of those all-to-rare good times in Bengaldom.
And some of the credit for that must be given to the most reviled man in Bengaldom, owner Mike Brown. Brown shed all the usual descriptors -- incompetent, cheap, uncaring, inflexible -- in 2011 by making or signing off on a series of key decisions that, with one notable exception, turned out to be one home run after another.
Over the course of the season, I have tracked how those decisions have been working out. The first quarter report card, which gave Brown a B-, can be found here and the second quarter report, in which his grade rose to an A-, is here. Unfortunately, other commitments caught up with me and I didn't have an opportunity to write up a third quarter report, but suffice it to say that the string of losses over that time would have knocked Brown's grade back down.
So, with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, let's look at Mike's year.
Decision No. 1: The Head Coach. Brown's decision to re-sign Marvin Lewis after a 4-12 season was controversial, to say the least. But Lewis rewarded Brown's confidence with a second winning season in three years, a feat not see around these parts since 1988-90. Moving forward, Lewis now has a chance to do something no coach has done since Forrest Gregg in 1981-82: lead the team to consecutive winning seasons.
There is still cause for concern. Despite coaching a team with a rookie QB and rookie No. 1 wideout to a winning record and a (backdoor) playoff berth, the Bengals fell down in their two biggest games of the year, the losses to Houston and to Baltimore in week 17. Those who believe Lewis is a good coach, but not the man who can take the team to the top now have more ammo in the wake of this season. Still, all things considered, the decision to bring back Marvin Lewis get an A.
Decision No. 2: The Offensive Coordinator. The number of Bengals fans who were unhappy to see Bob Bratkowski depart was (roughly speaking) zero. However, they were plenty of doubters when it came to his replacement, Jay Gruden, due to Gruden's inexperience in the big leagues and his last name, which raised the specter of the David Shula debacle. Over the course of the 2011 season, Jay put all doubts to rest and his shepherding of rookies Andy Dalton and A.J. Green.
The Bengals' offense finished the season ranked 20th in yards and 18th in points, a slight improvement over 2010's 20th ranking in both categories. Given the lockout, a completely new offensive system and all the changes in personnel, even that slight improvement has to be considered a major accomplishment. The call to change coordinators and the selection of Jay Gruden nets Mike an A.
Decision No. 3: The Wide Receiver. The Bengals have A.J. Green, Pro Bowler, and a couple late-round draft picks in 2012 and 2013. The New England Patriots have two fewer picks and some overpaid guy named Chad Ochocinco buried at the back of their wide receiver depth chart. If there were a grade higher than A+, it would go here.
Decision No. 4: The Cornerback. Like the old saying goes, you cant win 'em all, and the decision not to aggressively pursue signing Johnathan Joseph came back to bite the team hard. I'm sure some will argue that Joseph was intent on leaving and nothing the Bengals could have offered would have stopped him, and perhaps that's true, but the bottom line is that the Bengals had long been reluctant to extend Joseph due to his injury issues and preferred reaching a long-term deal with Leon Hall.
Ironically, this year it was Hall who got knocked out with a season-ending injury and Joseph who played in every game for his new team, the Houston Texans. Combined with injuries to Joseph's replacement Nate Clements and Adam Jones, and the failure of the Morgan Trent experiment, the Bengals' secondary was decimated. In 2010, Cincinnati had arguably the best young CB tandem in the league. In 2011, they struggled just to get guys on the field.
Brown's grade here is a D.
Decision No. 5: The Quarterback. Andy Dalton's performance in his rookie year in Cincinnati has been nothing short of amazing. The team's disgruntled former QB, Carson Palmer, was traded to Oakland for at least one and possibly two first-round picks in 2012 and 2013. Give Mike Brown an A+ for this one, too.
Extra credit. Jim Lippencott retired. A 2-for-1 BOGO to sell out the final game. Lowering season ticket prices on more than 14,000 seats.
Wait, we are still talking about Mike Brown, right? Unbelievable. For the season, someone give this man an A.
Now, let's see if the front office can keep up the good decision-making in 2012.