What can you say more than "they did it?" Or maybe "we did it" if you identify with the franchise at the holistic level. It was another step on the ladder to both beat the Ravens and the Steelers in back-to-back weeks, tie the Ravens for the division lead at season's end and make the playoffs in back-to-back years for the first time since 1981-82. So maybe it wasn't the cleansing, dominate-them-into-the ground type of experience that many would like. But maybe you don't get to choose the characteristics of life's victories and just need to savor them? I think that's the case with this franchise.
So we beat a Raven squad led by a QB named Tyrod Taylor in mostly boring fashion save for one of the most athletic plays ever seen on the field in Bengal history. I've watched this team since 1970 -- went to a few of those games when they started 1-6, finished 8-6 and lost to Baltimore in Round 1 of the playoffs 17-0. I've never seen a DE do what Carlos Dunlap did in the 4th Qtr Sunday, however. People compared that play to the one JJ Watt pulled off in the playoffs last year against Dalton. He intercepted a ball thrown about 2 feet over his head and meant to be targeted for a receiver well downfield and then ran like a TE to the endzone while swatting Taylor aside at the 5 like Taylor was a fly on a horse's tail. For an encore Dunlap then jumped 7-8 feet into the endzone seats in his version of a Lambeau Leap. Twice. I was pretty tired and slept through most of the game. It was mostly boring with the Ravens having almost everyone recognizable on the sideline after the first quarter. That made the win less enjoyable. But sometimes you don't get to script life's victories.
So those of you who tune in each week know that I'm about 50% X's and O's and about 50% philosophy when it comes to analysis. It's really necessary to capture both of these aspects in football because it is a game best played with inertia, momentum and emotion that compliment strategy. You don't win with a guy dropping 40 points or a 100 mile-an-hour stopper. You win with physical talent that is augmented by hearts and minds. Marv Lewis with his many failings has brought heart back into this franchise. Zimmer, to a larger degree, and Gruden, to a lesser degree, have brought minds into the equation. And this franchise has a level of physical talent that is a small step away from being able to go toe-to-toe with any team on any given day. Within we're going to discuss those elements as well as delve into the playoff outlook and a peek into 2013. For now savor a 2012 season in which we started with a 31 point loss on Monday night in Baltimore, moved to a really sloppy 7 point loss at PBS to the Steelers and rebounded with 4th Quarter comeback wins against both to finish the season. It wasn't as pretty as we'd have liked, but it is a start.
PRIOR 5 OVERRIDING THEMES
1. "Special" Teams: I'm going to put this out there: Darrin Simmons has arrived, folks. With a punter who is now among the best 3-4 in the league at field position management, a kicker who is accurate and can put the ball 5 yards or more deep into the endzone on every kickoff, a long snapper who hits the target every time, and at least a half dozen coverage guys who could play for any team in that role, these units are "special." Kevin Huber deserves a ton of credit. The guy has evidently worked very hard to move his great college game to the next level, and it is showing. Combined with a stingy D, Huber makes field position a strong weapon for this team. The addition of Josh Brown has me thinking that Mike Nugent is done here. I know that Brown had his mid-career struggle that most kickers have, but he looks pretty damn good to me with a better leg, equal accuracy and better health than Nugent. Coverage guys like Mays, Miles, Skuta, Peerman and Hawkins are also making a huge difference in winning the field position game. Every yard of field position closer to the opponents endzone when they start a new drive reduces the chance of them scoring by about 1% (that's a stat from John Madden). So these teamers paired with a tough D are a great formula to change outcomes in close games. The roster is now so tight that this year's draft will be more focused on finding guys who can significantly contribute on STs right away, and I expect that to be a heavy consideration on EVERY pick. I think there might be consideration for a speedster WR/KR, a blocking TE who can cover on STs, and a LB and S who can provide STs snaps while transitioning to future starters.
2. Coaching Staff: With 7 teams looking for coaches, will Mike Zimmer finally get the call? As much as we love Zimmer as a superstar DC, I think most franchises do not see him as HC materail. Why? The guy is just too blunt and may lack the organizational knowhow to be successful as a coach's coach. Argue as you may, this is sorta what we heard last year and is somewhat apparent in the fact that people are discussing guy's like Josh McDaniel and Mike McCoy in front of him. And this is good for us even if it upsets some of you. Gruden? Well he fell to earth this year, didn't he? Part of the problem is that the Bengals aren't totally sold on the traditional West Coast O as they lack the RB-as-receiver component while still wanting to use the deep threat moreso than that noted in the predecessor models. The problems, of course, are that Andy Dalton doesn't have the gun to make all the long throws (namely the deep out and the snap long ball deeper than 40 yards), so this is limiting the relative openness of this West Coast hybrid. And that limits the effectiveness of the O and the secondary perceived effectiveness of the mastermind Gruden. We'd love to see Marv go to GM (match made in heaven IMO), Zimmer to HC (match made in heaven for this franchise) and a Zimmer disciple to DC. Probably won't happen as long as Mike Brown's heart is beating. But overall we gotta be happy with the Lewis, Zimmer, Gruden and Simmons leadership quartet. Hope we can at least keep it intact.
3. Where Are We Headed: NFL 2013 Playoff Version If you listen to the self-professed gurus, we might beat Houston for the privilege of being demolished by the Patriots. I think we should be most worried about taking one step at a time. This week it's about making the most out of a second chance at the Texans in Houston one year after they took us down pretty easily in the same situation and setting. The Texans are struggling in all phases but have the parts to dominate in all as they did early in the season. For most, the matchup of the game will revolve around the Texans OL that features three Pro Bowlers and the Bengals DL that spearheaded a franchise-record 51 sacks this year and features All-Pro deserving, unstoppable, game-plan altering DT Geno Atkins. Zimmer and the Bengals D will be all about taking away the Texans running game and forcing the game into the hands of Matt Schaub. The Texans will try to establish dominance with Arian Foster while being successful in the short passing game to receivers like Andre Johnson and Owen Daniels. The Bengals right now have shown consistent dominance by the DL at the LOS, so this one will be a tough chore for Houston. On the other side of the game, however, the Bengals OL has struggled recently without being able to establish the run. This may simply be a matter of matchup difficulties in the interior OL against Pittsburgh and the lack of availablity of The Law Firm against Baltimore. However, don't overlook the fact that you generally don't win playoff games without your QB showing up. Dalton didn't show up last year against Houston and has been sparsely seen in the past two weeks despite making some great plays at the end of that Steeler win. The next step in the Bungle-to-Bengal rejuvenation involves winning a playoff game, and I'm putting that squarely on Andy Dalton's shoulders. One win will make him better than Carson Palmer ever was in my mind. Carson can keep his $80 million-in-the-bank mindset, and we'll keep Dalton... if we win. A loss means that people will start to wonder whether Dalton is the long term answer. You think that's harsh? Just look at Mark Sanchez. He was all that and a bag o' chips two years ago, but today he's the Whipping Boy of Gotham. It's all about the win, and Dalton needs to master that one pretty quickly if he's gonna be a long term franchise QB.
4. Where Are We Headed: 2013 Season Version The whole story depends on how the playoff story ends. No wins will satisy few. One win will satisfy many. Two wins would satisfy most. Anything above that (i.e., a trip to the Super Bowl) would probably astonish everyone. Most of us realize that his DC and his defense are already dominant and have the pieces to ascend in a division in which the bullies are aging. Now we're working on retaining talent, finding the last few pieces and developing depth on D. On O we haven't quite figured out the equation although most of the talent is there. Comparing and contrasting Zimmer and Gruden does illustrate where Gruden fails. He hasn't yet mastered how to optimize Dalton's relative abilities, how to match the play set to the players, how to fully capitalize on AJ Green's dominance, how to develop Gresham and how to better use his RBs as multi-phase weapons. He's coming along on incorporating two WRs as a threat on any given play even if that has been a slow process. So the 2013 season will start with managing the roster, getting some vets re-signed, findng 1-2 key UFAs, getting Dalton coached up and managing the draft. The net results to make us higher probability Super Bowl contenders would have to be (in no special order): Getting Dalton more consistent and efficient; finding a speed RB; making the #2 WR slot a consistent weapon; getting consistently good play from Gresham; optimizing a LB mix that makes more plays involving short gains, big hits and takeaways; finding a Safety to succeed Crocker; getting a healthy mix of CBs from our current group.
5. Current Strengths: Carlos Dunlap ilustrated last week how well developed we are on the DL. It's relatively clear that Atkins is the guy who is making it all happen up front. MJ93 has picked his game up. Pat Sims does look good in his DT snaps. Peko is consistent. The DBs are playing well enough to cover the shorter game that opponents must emphasive when going against our bulls up front. Nobody can consistently stop AJ Green. Our OL is young, has great depth and will continue to improve. Our special teams play is all together one of the best in the league.
NEW THEMES TO CONSIDER
* Will the Bengals ever have the total commitment necessary to be serious contenders for a championship?
* Right now: Yes or No? Is Andy Dalton the guy who will mature into a QB who can push an NFL team to a title?
* This off-season: Should the team keep Maualuga at MIKE and Burfict at WILL? If not, what will better optimize the LB lineup?
* Should Chris Crocker be considered as a probable starter at SS for 2013?
* Who is the starter in 2013 at #2 WR: Sanu or Marvin Jones?
* New RB: Draft pick, UFA acquisition or both?
* Keep 'em or Dump'em?: Brian Leonard, Bernard Scott, Bruce Gradkowski, Travelle Wharton, Andre Smith, Brandon Tate, Robert Geathers, Pat Sims, Wallace Gilberry, Jamal Anderson, Dontay Moch, Rey Maualuga, Manny Lawson, Thomas Howard, Dan Skuta, Jason Allen, Adam Jones, Terence Newman, Nate Clements, Chris Crocker, Jeromy Miles, Taylor Mays. Not all of these guys' contracts are up, but should some high dollar guys scheduled for return by brought back?
* Can and will Mike Brown be willing to keep this team together?