As they round the first turn in the NFL season, the Cincinnati Bengals are 3-1, tied with Baltimore for the lead in the AFC North. No matter what you think about the quality (or lack thereof) of the opposition, the Bengals have done what they needed to do to set themselves up for a second consecutive postseason run. What might be most surprising is that the Bengals have accomplished this in spite of the fact that, four games in, the moves made in the offseason to improve the team have largely flopped.
When I wrote my quarterly report cards last year, I dug into several specific changes that I thought were the key decisions made by the front office in 2011. Not everyone liked my choices, so this season I'm going to back up the scope a bit and consider the three broad categories in which the front office plays a leading role every offseason: coaching, free agency and the draft. So through four games, how do the calls made by the Bengals brain trust look? I'll start with coaching.
The Bengals made a few tweaks to the coaching staff in the offseason. Paul Guenther was promoted to linebackers coach, Brayden Coombs was bumped up to full-time offensive assistant, former Pro Bowl safety Mark Carrier was hired to coach the secondary and, most notably, Hue Jackson rejoined the Cincinnati staff as a DB and special teams coach after being fired by Oakland. Finally, at the end of July, the Bengals reached an accord with head coach Marvin Lewis on a two-year contract extension.
After four games, the 2012 Bengals have looked similar to recent teams in terms of preparation and energy level. As always seems to be the case with Lewis-coached teams lately, the Bengals came out lethargic and unready on opening night, and got flattened by a Baltimore steamroller. The loss dropped them to 1-4 on opening day over the last five years, and 4-6 in week 1 under Lewis overall. They then bounced back in the second game (making them 3-2 in week 2 over the last five years and 6-4 overall under Marvin) and went on to win two more, though mistakes and miscues kept their opponents in those games longer than they should have been.
In terms of specific units, the play of the secondary has been average (17th in passing yards, 16th in passing TDs through four games), though it's difficult to judge coaching when half the unit is on the sideline hurt. Special teams have shown more razzle-dazzle this season, faking both a punt and a field goal over the first four contests. The linebackers haven't been anything to write home about, though again injury has played a role and Vontaze Burfict (10 tackles, 1 sack, 1 pass defensed) is flashing, which is definitely a credit to the staff.
On the playcalling front, the coaching staff has been more open to trickeration than in the past, resulting in some big plays like Mohamed Sanu's wildcat TD bomb to A.J. Green. This surely reflects OC Jay Gruden's influence on the offense, but the newly extended Lewis deserves kudos for giving Gruden leeway to take chances. If those plays go wrong, it's the head coach who typically gets the heat.
The coaches should also be saluted for the development of several young players, such as Kevin Zeitler and Clint Boling, who were thrust into starting roles and rose to the occasion. Were it not for the team's maddening habit of starting off slow and its struggles to put teams away late, the coaches would rate a solid A in my book. As it is, I give them a B for the first quarter.
In part II, I'll look at free agency and draft and give my firnal first quarter grade.