Football lurks like a giant behind the hillside, you can see a scruffy sprig of red hair poking up over the horizon. As I stand in an open grass field, alone with my dog, I sense another presence somewhere close by. It's football. Rising above the weird odors of my kitchen, I smell football. When watching baseball or Olympic basketball, football streaks across the screen, taunting me. It crops up like a scary hallucination that I can't shake and it's getting worse. Permanent midnight. It's so close it makes my skin crawl. If it had a tracking number, I would obsessively monitor it's progress. A fresh new batch of the stuff, grown ripe and delicious, brought right to your doorstep. A football Jones of the worst degree.
We writers of the stuff can do no more meaningful analysis. At this point, we are analyzing our analysis and if we don't get training camp under way soon, the whole football literary establishment will crawl into itself and forget altogether what it was we were supposed to cover in the first place. We might have to switch to covering politics or worse. It's agonizing.
Nonetheless, dear reader, you must be placated, satisfied of your ravenous hunger for more football news. You're an impossible toddler, banging upon your high chair and wailing for more. Take no offense of such an analogy, dear reader, I am banging right along side you as I spoon feed you gobs of misguided predictions and speculative conjecture. Worry not, there is much more to be heaped upon that spoon in due time. But for now, I am stretched thin, the tank run dry, my cupboards bare.
So if today's tangent sounds repeated, vague, or generally uninteresting allow me this one pass. I haven't called in sick all year, perhaps I need a break. Or perhaps not, who knows. Either way, here we go.
As I grow a little older and watch the seasons pile up, I lose faith in my ability to really know how football works. When I feel I get a handle it, I strut about the yard like a proud rooster firing off my expertise at any ear kind enough to lean my way. Then, whatever trend I have identified so confidently changes, and I am humbled yet again. Maybe that's why this year I feel a little gun-shy to make predictions, especially about the Bengals.
In truth, my confidence in our boys has waned throughout the offseason, despite an intelligent free-agent session and an extremely promising draft. The Bengals have done nearly everything right with their personnel in the past few seasons and the talk that the team is run in any second-rate fashion can no longer hold up to the facts, but still something has me rattled about them.
This feeling is wrapped in existential mumbo-jumbo and the eddies and currents of the universe—stuff no grown up wants to hear about—but it's hard to not to acknowledge that the Bengals are a generally weird team that often surprises people in both good and bad ways. They read like a suspense novel that is painfully interesting to follow. Bengal fans know what I mean.
Yet they are hardly a reliable source. The vast majority of them will give you their take on the team in a throaty roar of "Who Dey" and leave it at that. Slightly more cerebral takes often talk of Super Bowl chances within the first few sentences and how so-and-so is ready to break out in a big way. Then there are the Negative Nelly's, the Debbie Downers of the lot, usually a person from Cincinnati but not one to call himself a fan. A person whose heart was broken once long ago and now keeps a safe distance from reliving that pain. This person will pull out Bengals history books and show you, in bold lettering, the traditional futility of the organization. They will pounce on Mike Brown's stretches of ineptitude as general manager, Marvin Lewis' overall and postseason record, and the fans lack of attendance. Even after a good season, where more positive folk throw the success back into their frowned face, the downer fan will stick to "they still suck" and feel good that they remain historically accurate.
The reality, however, is that usually a Marvin Lewis team lands pretty close to the middle. That's why before things get underway in a week or so, I will make the daring claim that the Cincinnati Bengals in 2012 will finish 8-8 and just miss the playoffs.
I know that the defenders of a better outlook will point out what they see as deficiencies in the rest of the AFC North. For years, we have been collectively eager to write off Pittsburgh and Baltimore as too old and now ready to be challenged for divisional supremacy. It rarely ever happens. There has been a lot of shakeup on both teams this year and once again there are claims that a power shift is underway, but these other franchises are run with intelligence and efficiency. At this point, we have to figure that they know what they're doing and that it's not going to change. The Bengals must improve themselves rather than wait for the towers in Pittsburgh and Baltimore to crumble on their own and simply waltz through the ruination. Marvin Lewis knows this; he's worked in all three cities. Like the youngest brother, he's close to catching up, but how patient is he? How close is close?
I don't believe in sophomore slumps but I do think progression moves in wavelengths rather than a constant increase. Andy Dalton knocked the socks off of the NFL during the middle portion of the season. By the end though, the enthusiasm waned a bit as he wilted some in big games down the stretch. There is no reason to think he will get worse, or even that he won't be better, but there will be phases throughout the year where he will likely struggle as adjustments are made.
Then there is the defense. I worry about the second and third-level tackling. Once a running back gets past the formidable front line, can the linebackers and safeties come up and make the tackle? It sounds like I'm nitpicking, sure, but such a problem can get ugly fast during the course of the season.
Once helmets and shoulder pads come off the truck and onto the bodies of football players, we will have a much better idea of what we're working with. Everything written before that will seem silly and like a waste of time, but for now we have nothing else and still need to think about football all the time. It seems like I have taken the safe road this afternoon, but for me it has been difficult to admit my true feelings on the matter. All offseason I have sang the praises of the Bengals and announced them as playoff regulars, but as time goes by, doubt sets in. Perhaps the sheer joy of seeing football played in the preseason and training camp will restore my faith, but for now I feel confused and detached. As if I know very little about a subject I once considered myself an expert.
So if the Bengals end up 12-4 and an AFC power, please forget I ever wrote this piece, and if I turn out correct, please don't remind me either—it's a cowardly prediction anyway. If anything, just remember that football writers keep at it even when there is nothing out there worthwhile. We're addicts of the stuff and mid July is the hardest on us. The tail end of the dry season, the deep Jones.
Mojokong—if it doesn't matter, it's antimatter.