It's been a roller coaster year for the front office's offseason calls. Despite decidedly modest contributions from the free agent and draft class, the Cincinnati Bengals zoomed out to a 3-1 start, only to slam to earth in a series of massive fireballs in October. By the time November rolled around, the Bengals were 3-5 and left for dead by everyone, including yours truly.
Well, all I can say is that we should replace "Who Dey!" with the battle cry of "Brains! Brains Brainzzzz!" because the walking dead Bengals just chewed their way through the New York Giants, Kansas City Chiefs, Oakland
Palmers Raiders and San Diego Chargers by a combined 113-42. And a big part of the reason for that tsunami of success lies in calls made by the front office earlier this year.
Free agency. Up until the third quarter, the Bengals free agent class hasn't given fans much cause to cheer. Among the big signees, Travelle Wharton didn't make it out of preseason and Jason Allen has one of the best jobs on the planet, collecting $4 million to sit on a bench every Sunday. Then there's BenJarvus Green-Ellis, former New England Patriots short-yardage back whose performance through the first half of the season had fans scouring draft sites for first- and early second-round RB candidates.
I guess someone might have mentioned to him that we all thought he sucked, because he decided to to start shoveling tanker-loads of crow down our throats by busting off three straight 100-yard games, the first Bengals back to accomplish that since
Burger Chef Corey Dillon. In this he has certainly been helped by prodigious blocking on the part of the 0-line, particularly one Andre Smith, but credit must also be given to Green-Ellis for busting tackles and running past first contact against the Chargers. That's something he has struggled with all year. Whether that was a fluke or a trend, we'll see.
The free agent class still has to be considered disappointing overall, though in addition to Green-Ellis note should be taken of Terence Newman's continued contributions and a Reggie Nelson sighting at the end of the Chargers game. Third quarter FA grade: B.
The draft. Like the free agent class, the draft class delivered a radical change in the third quarter: the emergence of wide receiver Mohamed Sanu. Finally given an opportunity, Sanu immediately laid claim to the vacant No. 2 wide receiver slot that had previously been the team's own itty-bitty factory of sadness. Since the loss of T.J. Houshmandzadeh in 2009, the Bengals have poured an appalling amount of free agent dollars and draft picks into the position with results that can only be described as "craptastic." But the kid from Rutgers strode onto the field and took possession of third down and the red zone like he'd been there for 10 years. And the Bengals offense exploded. It was as if someone had gone rooting around in the storage rooms at PBS and found an old bottle of vintage 1988 Juggernaut. For three games the team rained destruction on their foes.
Then Sanu broke his foot in practice, and tens of thousands of young children around Cincinnati were told to "earmuff it" while their parents screamed vile imprecations into the heavens. And the Bengals went to San Diego and won, but looked a lot like their pre-Sanu selves doing so.
First-round pick Dre Kirkpatrick also finally got on the field, though mostly on special teams. Kevin Zeitler continued to play well, and the duo of Devon Still and Brandon Thompson continue to sit in the wake of Pat Sims' return. UDFA Vontaze Burfict's performance has been drifting down from his early debut, but his fellow undrafted pickup Trevor Robinson has been solid as the surprise starting center. But in the end the front office has to be judged mostly on how the top of the draft class fares, since in "build through the draft" Cincinnati selections must contribute quickly. Based on Sanu alone, even if he is gone due to injury, I have to give them an A for Q3.
Coaching. In the second quarter report, I excoriated Marvin Lewis for timid playcalling, not putting his best players on the field and blaming Andy Dalton and Rey Maualuga for failing to be big...jerks. So in the third quarter I must commend him for rediscovering his cajones, getting contributors like Sanu onto the field and spending less time yammering about jerks and more time coaching up his players.
After the October crash, Lewis may have done one of the best coaching jobs in recent memory. His demeanor on the sideline seems changed, more active and involved, and reports have even said his locker room talks have been less gloomy. His staff has done a solid job as well, simplifying the offense and disciplining the defense, both of which reached new heights in November.
The challenge now is to maintain the momentum. The loss of Sanu was a brutal blow and Cedric Peerman's injury only compounds the woes. With four games remaining against tough NFC East and AFC North foes, Lewis' job is daunting. But we will consider that in a few weeks. For now, he's risen from the second quarter's F to a solid A. And for the third quarter, the front office merits an A.