After any professional sporting event, writers and bloggers across the nation collectively jot their thoughts, analysis and rants down in a postgame wrap-up piece. Those of us who cover the Cincinnati Bengals get both a sense of pleasure and boredom out of it. The pleasure stems from describing the dysfunctional nature of the Bengals franchise and analyzing their every move, whereas the boredom comes from the team's broken record-like results on the field. Josh Kirkendall's postgame video breakdown of the matchup summed up the range of emotions that we all had to be feeling.
Going into Sunday night's matchup, one would have thought that this game wasn't going to be close. For once, it seemed as if the Bengals had the Steelers right where they wanted them. Pittsburgh was without Troy Polamalu, Markice Pouncey, David DeCastro, Marcus Gilbert, Rashard Mendenhall, and Isaac Redman. Aside from Ben Roethlisberger and Mike Wallace, the Steelers' inactive list contained the lifeblood of the team. The Bengals should have smelled blood in the water and handled business on their home turf. The fact that they didn't shows just how far away they are from being true contenders.
Going into the game, my fear for the Bengals was that they were going to be facing a Steelers team who had their backs against the wall and had one and a half weeks to focus on and prepare for the Bengals. Even with the injuries they had accrued, Paul Brown Stadium was hosting a dangerous Pittsburgh team that was 2-3.
The Bengals should have been equally as dangerous, though. They had lost two straight and had seemingly been getting healthier, giving the impression that they would be giving it their all for this critical game before the bye. With the Ravens losing earlier in the day, the Bengals should have had even more urgency to get the job done.
They say a team takes on the personality of its coach(es). No team in the NFL exemplifies that more than Jim Harbaugh's San Francisco 49ers--tough, nasty grinders with a touch of insanity. The Bengals seemed to have morphed themselves to the personality of their head coach, Marvin Lewis. The trait that they've assumed the most is the "deer-in-the-headlights" look when big moments arrive.
So where does the team go from here? A little over a week ago, I asked the question on if it was time for the Bengals' rookies to step in and play. At 3-4, there seems to be no better time like the present. Dre Kirkpatrick, Mohamed Sanu, Marvin Jones and Orson Charles should see increasing roles after the bye week, though with Jones being injured and Lewis' penchant for making rookies earn their time, we don't foresee much of a change coming. It's a shame, really, as the once-promising draft class of 2012 has paid little overall dividends thus far.
Sunday's performance showcased two things that the Bengals are lacking: something that I like to call the "clutch gene", as well as any sense of accountability. The frustrating thing is that these things have been lacking since the early 1990s and it still hasn't been remedied. Though the ability to come through in the clutch is something that is an innate talent, it also comes from being totally prepared and mentally tough for when the big moment arrives. How often in the Marvin Lewis era can you say that this team has exemplified this in big games? I personally can count on one hand and have fingers left over.
Say what you want, but the Steelers didn't want to win that game. Roethlisberger turned the ball over twice and the team had numerous drops, which was costing them early on. With an opportunity to step on the throat of the Steelers before halftime with a 14-6 lead, Andy Dalton threw a weird-looking interception and the Steelers were in business. Here's the difference between a club like the Steelers and one like the Bengals: Cincinnati crawled into its shell and played tentative the rest of the night after only one major mistake. Pittsburgh overcame their own trip-ups, took the game away and ran with it.
Who are the leaders on this team? We've heard that Domata Peko and Andrew Whitworth are guys that the youngsters look up to, but how effective have they been? Who is the Ray Lewis of the squad? Who is the guy that rallies the troops and calls "players only meetings"? Andy Dalton has shown flashes of being that guy, but that seems to be more when things are going well. Not having this go-to player to lean on hurts the team. The worst part is that Lewis himself glosses over blame and passes it off as if fans and other observers don't know what we're talking about. No accountability. Having a true General Manager helps to add to the accountability.The Bengals don't one of those separate from the owner.
A lot of fans are now calling for Lewis' head. They're sick of his bonehead challenges, his excuses and the inability to get the team over the hump. I'm not calling for his head, but as he signed a two-year contract extension this offseason, expectations were raised. It's safe to say that continuing to go 0-for against the Ravens and Steelers isn't going to win anyone over the next two years. In short, he needs to do better and make quick changes to better the team.
It's not all on Lewis though. He's had the most success of any other coach in the Mike Brown era, however paltry that a fan might measure that success. For the sake of time and the risk of repeating the Brown-bashing ad nauseum, I won't go into all that still needs to be done to bring this franchise to the level of the rest of the NFL. The issues that we saw rear their ugly head on Sunday is but a symptom of the Brown family modus operandi that is pervasive throughout the organization. It's a trickle-down effect to Marvin Lewis, who has seemingly assumed a level of the highest authority in the organization for someone not having the last name of Brown or Blackburn.
It's a shot in the dark, but perhaps Lewis is inundated with other minutiae that hinders his complete effectiveness as a football coach. Some of us have worked at organizations that are understaffed and task it's employees with entirely too much to be a totally effective employee. Maybe we're giving Lewis too much benefit of the doubt. It's very possible that his message, recruitment strategies and coaching techniques have grown stale with his team. Perhaps the team that Lewis built doesn't quite have the character that we all assumed it did. Maybe it's all of the above.
Sunday night's loss to the Steelers was huge, but the season is still salvageable. It's going to take a creative formula with a number of different changes to turn this once-promising season back to playoff potential. Over the past few weeks, we kept uttering the phrase "this game will tell us a lot about the Bengals". While we have learned a lot in October, the gauntlet of November and December will tell us even more.