The 2011 Bengals were overachievers. A rookie quarterback, rookie No. 1 wide receiver and a rookie offensive coordinator took an underdog to the playoffs. It didn't matter that they backed their way in, relying on other teams to lose. What mattered was the fact that they were there. They lost their first-round game against the Texans in Houston. Again, many didn't seem to care. The Bengals were young and talented and with a new quarterback and the talent that surrounded him, it felt as if a new era had finally arrived.
The 2012 Bengals could have been classified as overachievers as well. They made their way into the playoffs for the second consecutive year, which hadn't been done in 30 years, and this time they didn't back their way in. They clawed their way in, facing forward the entire time. The rookie quarterback from a year ago was asked to do more, as was the rookie wide receiver. They weren't Tom Brady and Randy Moss from the 2007 season, but what they were worked.
Now the rookies are no longer a rookies, they're veterans. They'll be asked to lead the Bengals to the playoffs once more in 2013 and this time they won't be overachieving, they'll be doing what is expected of them. If they're successful again in the upcoming seasons, many of the skeptics that remain will be silenced. If they're not, the momentum they've built over the last two years could hit a brick wall.
For a third season, Andy Dalton and A.J. Green will be taking their orders from third-year offensive coordinator Jay Gruden. This is the same offensive coordinator that dialed up the play in which Mohamed Sanu threw a touchdown pass to A.J. Green. He's also the same offensive coordinator whose offense scored one touchdown over the last three games.
The defense seems to be in good hands as they have, consistently year in and year out, played at a high level under the guidance of Mike Zimmer. The offense, though, worries me. At one point in time in the NFL, a team consisting of a ball-control offense with a top-ranked defense could win the Super Bowl. Those days are gone as these are the days of high-powered offenses. Just look at some of the past Super Bowl winners. Many of them had the league's top-ranked offenses and had terrible defenses. The best teams, though, have both.
The Ravens and the 49ers have great defenses and offenses that can score early and often. If the Bengals plan to be in their positions within the next couple years, as should be their plan, the offense will have to improve. For the last two seasons they have been ranked 20th and 22nd respectively. That has to change if the Bengals want to take the next step and win their first playoff game since the 1990 season.
Much has been made of Dalton's physical limitations lately, especially in the media. Many are not convinced he is the right quarterback to lead the Bengals to the Super Bowl. That school of thought isn't necessarily built on thin ice either. While Dalton struggled to move the ball late in the season, Colin Kaepernick, who was drafted one spot after Dalton at No. 36 in 2011, has led his team in the last half of the season and through the playoffs to face the Ravens in Super Bowl XLVII. Not only does he have a strong and accurate arm, but he can run too. He's an offensive coordinator's dream and a defensive coordinator's nightmare. That's not to say that he would have been a better fit in Cincinnati than Dalton is, but it's certainly worth mentioning.
Neither the Bengals offense nor Dalton can no longer be a work in progress in 2013. If they don't, the Bengals will be lucky to make the playoffs, especially considering they're going up against the likes of the Patriots, Packers, Vikings, Colts, Bears and Lions, not to mention the Steelers and Ravens twice. To compete with these teams, the Bengals need to become these teams offensively. That doesn't mean that Dalton needs to transform into Brady, but it does mean he can't force passes to Green in tripple coverage and it does mean that he needs to learn to step up into the pocket and not panic quite as quickly. Those things, of course, come with time, but now enough time has passed.
Gruden needs to improve as well. Amazingly he was interviewed more often than Zimmer for a head coach position once the Bengals season was over, but it wasn't amazing that he is back in Cincinnati. He is responsible for calling plays to keep his best players involved and yet the team's best offensive weapon wasn't used the entire first half of the team's playoff loss to the Texans. His inventiveness and originality dissipated as the year wore on, leaving a sub-par offense to go up against a Texans defense ranked at No. 7 in the first round of the playoffs on the road.
There are still a lot of Dalton and Gruden faithful, though. They likely outnumber the doubters, however, if Dalton seems to be running in place through the 2013 season, that balance will shift and shift hard. Many Bengals fans will forget about 2011 and 2012 and boo the Bengals as if it's the '90s again; after all, it is a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately league. If Dalton improves and plays well consistently, though, his bandwagon will be so full people will have to walk behind it.
Hopefully it's the latter.