There are a couple of things that left a particularly sour taste in my mouth with the Bengals second straight Wild Card game loss in Houston. Yes, this time the score was closer, but the game really wasn't as well played as it was last year.
The brunt of the blame has to go on the combined shoulders of Jay Gruden and Andy Dalton. Let's face it: Dalton was mostly horrible in this game. He had two completions to Gresham for 7 yards and didn't throw to AJ Green until the 3rd Quarter. The O managed only 2 FGs. Dalton had a chance to put us in front with under 4 minutes to play (despite the terrible game), and he simply fudged up the potential go ahead score by overthrowing an open Green in the endzone. Heck, the Law Firm ran 11 times for 63 yards, but we wanted to be a "pass first" team? That doesn't sound so smart to me.
This takes us to the rumors of Philly wanting to interview Gruden for their HC vacancy. Are you kidding me? I'd bet right now that Jeff Lurie has had "something suddenly come up" on that interview day .... maybe he has to wash his hair or something. Hiring Gruden to run a team after watching that sickening management job of the Bengals' O in this game would certainly be a counterintuitive move. But hey, I'll finance the plane ticket to Philly if need be!
As well as the Bengal D did to hold the game within striking range, there were a couple of guys who were particularly culpable for the Texans' ability to move the ball. Rey Maualuga was simply outclassed, and this game showed why he seriously can't be our MIKE LB anymore. Arian Foster cutback so many times that the cleats on his shoes must be rubbed to the nub. Foster did this and left Maualuga nowhere to be found with frequency. Foster beat Rey on the run and in the receiving game. When Rey wasn't losing his battle with Foster, he was also failing to shut down the short middle for business against Matt Schaub, who went to his TEs for 13 catches and 140 yards. Add Foster's 8 catches to those totals, and you have Schaub wearing down the short middle and the flats in nickel and dime fashion. Not to be ignored, Nate Clements managed to look really bad as a CB trying to play Safety and cover TEs. It didn't look as if Clements had enough speed or quickness to stay on the Texans' TEs. I think Clements' career is over (call it "Kelly Jennings Syndrome").
Well, this is it for the 2012-13 season, and it is really disheartening that for all the ups-and-downs we saw this year that the team really hasn't gained any ground in the last 52 weeks on the final scoreboard. I just don't know whether Mike Brown has what it takes to ever win that first playoff game since his daddy died and left him the keys to the Cadillac. Moving to discussion of the off-season, and I think it's probably a better thing that we dropped out of the tournament this week to a sinking Houston team rather than to have edged out an undeserved victory, packed our bags for a certain beatdown in Denver and dropped our draft spot several more spots in the process. However, you don't make that loss-for-draft-space trade every year. Guys get old and injured, leave via UFA, or simply lose their edge. The Bengals were gelling as a franchise in late 2012 and then lost steam even when they were beating the Steelers and Ravens to end the regular season. We can point to the Mohammed Sanu injury as a key factor, it seems. But we are now on the clock, and it's time to make hay. Our themes today involve where we ended this season and where we're headed:
PRIOR 5 OVERRIDING THEMES
1. Coaching Staff: End of the year, and you get to read my bias. Marv Lewis is a career 79-80-1 after 10 regular seasons with an additional 0-4 record in the playoffs. As Marv says, "It is what it is." He is a poor game day decision maker and has not been able to illustrate himself as a winner. He has, however, been able to turn around the worst franchise in pro sports to become average. He is a good personnel manager and is a respected person in the organization and community even if not an X's and O's guy. He is a perfect fit for GM in a role to put Mike Brown further out to pasture. Mike Zimmer probably saved the season here.... again. He took a pretty gnarly looking D in the early going and forged the #6 D from that clay. He resurrected the games of Terence Newman, Chris Crocker, Vontaze Burfict, Michael Johnson and Wallace Gilberry in the process. He is an X's and O's guy but is not an organizational communicator and leader in the broader sense. He is a meat-and-potatoes guy. He might be a good head coach in an organization in which he's promoted, but probably would fail if asked to perform a turnaround in a new organization. Jay Gruden is not Jon Gruden. Little Bro' can occasionally flash but does not have his players attention consistently as does his defensive counterpart. Gruden has failed to take his franchise QB hopeful to the next level over 2012 despite a winning season and decent QB statistics. People are talking to Jay Gruden about being a head coach elsewhere, but he's clearly not ready and will fail in that role if it is offered and accepted. Gruden's failings are in play selection, making quick adjustments and coaching up his QB over time. I think these are real indictments on a coach who as a player manned the QB position and was able to do these things himself. In other words, he can do them but can't convey them to others. And what then is a "good" coach's role? Darrin Simmons has shown great improvement in his Special Teams in each season over the past several years. He has molded players into consistent roles and now has them "doing their job" rather than free-lancing and opening the lanes for opposing big plays. In the big picture we have great performance from Zimmer and Simmons, stagnation from Lewis and unacceptable performance from Gruden. That's my report card.
2. Front Office: Draft season is coming, and it's time again to look at Mike Brown and his small group of minions. The franchise has drafted well and has stayed away from the big name UFAs that have killed many franchises recently. While Brown's crew has continued to make the occasional faux pas at the marketing level, refuses to add modern facilities and forgets to leave out extra Gatorade for the millionaire players, things look a little better here lately. The game day experience still is closer to high school than pro if you want to travel around the league and see how they're doing things elsewhere, but Cincinnati fans have found a happy medium. The team is still struggling to sell out seats in a bad economy and a community in which fans still feel burnt over what Mike Brown has and hasn't accomplished in his 22 years with daddy's car keys. What we know is this: if Mike Brown had been born Mike Johnson, then he'd probably be a retired WalMart floor manager living in a trailer park with his dog and goldfish. With daddy's keys, however, he gets to annoy us all regularly as a smart guy with dumb, dated ideas.
3. Offense: I won't bore you with a breakdown of every player. We all know that AJ Green is a stud and that the Law Firm is better than what we thought he'd be. Our Offense, like those of every NFL team, is dependent on QB play. We have Andy Dalton who plays tentatively and who may or may not be able to take his game to the next level. And then we have a high-paid baby sitter named Gradkowski. There is no threat of anyone else to come into the game and take over if Dalton is failing, and we need that here now. With the rest of the Offensive roster stocked with players (save maybe for one more productive RB), it's time to push ourselves at QB. I'm calling the team to draft a QB this year in the first 3 rounds and to issue a challenge to Andy Dalton that it's time to show your cards. On the O Line we have a lot of depth but need to figure out whether Andre Smith will be a part of this team moving forward. His play against top DEs this year was marginal, and J.J. Watt made him look pretty stupid at times in the Playoff game. Smith isn't as good as you'd expect from a #6 overall, but OTs are hot commodities in this league. The TE and WR spots have talent but lack experience and consistency. That spells "Coaching" to me, and we know that coaching on the Offensive side of the ball in Cincy currently leaves something to be desired. Bringing in a rookie at WR isn't the answer for 2013, and the WR UFA trials here haven't gone so well either (why on the latter? I think because we won't spend the outrageous dollar to get the best guy available while the second rung guys just aren't that special). So we gotta coach up what we have and keep developing a new guy each year as the Steelers have done so well. RB here is stagnant because we don't have a home run threat and haven't involved our backs as receivers well enough. I fully expect a RB selection in the first two rounds of the 2013 draft.
4. Defense: As the star of our show, the defense is an interesting group in that it has more immediate personnel needs than does the struggling O. We have a hoard of UFAs-to-be on this side of the ball including 4 guys at each of the three levels (DL, LB, DB). Quickly, these are Geathers, Gilberry, MJ93, Sims, Lawson, Maualuga, Skuta, Howard, Pacman, Newman, Clements & Crocker. Last year we had a large group of potential UFAs and made pretty good decisions; this year the stakes are even higher. Our DL is our show piece, and all four of the potential UFAs were contributors in 2012. And add to these concerns the fact that Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap also need to be re-signed soon. The key is to get the Fisher Price trio back and figure out whether Geathers or Gilberry are going to come in for value deals. Geathers has been way overpaid recently, so it will be interesting to see how that plays out. Pat Sims is a big guy who is injured a lot and flashes once in a while. My sense is that it is time to let him move on and invest in our two rookies (Still & Thompson) who got experience in the early season but sat out much of the later season with Sims back. If you are on board remotely with my thoughts at LB, you probably want Rey Maualuga shipped to Madagascar immediately to join the rest of the flawed zoo cartoon animals. However, if the money is right, I like Maualuga as a backup at MIKE (to Burfict) and maybe a starter at SAM. We need Skuta back as a key teamer and backup at all LB spots. We'll have to see the injury situation on Howard, but Lawson really has had the fork stuck in him before he arrived in 2011. At the last level of the D, we might like Newman and Pacman back but need to find better answers at Safety for Clements & Crocker. Crocker did an awesome job in 2012, but his time is up. I think I'm now running out of early draft picks, but we need to think about top guys to come in at a LB position and in a SS role. Maybe a vet free agent in one of these spots would suffice?
5. Special Teams: Everyone is up for UFA. Josh Brown looks better than Nugent to me (if that's not pretty obvious) even though Nugent would be an acceptable fall back. This has become a strength of the team and needs a lot of offseason attention with respect to roster decision making.
NEW THEMES TO CONSIDER
Does Andy Dalton get it? His comments after the most recent playoff loss suggest to me that he doesn't fully understand that he was the reason we lost that game.
Does Marvin Lewis get it? Wonder if he realizes how bad his game day decision making and stale press conferences are. I saw him running off the field in Houston after the loss with the red flag sticking out of the pants of his fat butt and thought, "At least he kept it in his pants today." I was talking about the challenge flag.
Does Jay Gruden get it? That was one of the worst offensive first half performances in NFL playoff history. Very very offensive.
Does Mike Brown get it? No, of course he doesn't. But the team has gotten better overall.
What did the team accomplish in 2012? They overcame adversity and found a way to win despite an opening night blowout loss to the Ravens and numerous injuries to key players like Travelle Wharton, Dre Kirkpatrick, Thomas Howard, Bernard Scott, Mohammed Sanu and more. But this won't be enough in 2013. Fans will be upset that the 22nd Mike Brown season ended without a playoff win, and that will be the expectation for 2013-14. And someday soon fans will want to be included in the discussion of Super Bowl hopefuls. Every team goes through adversity and injuries. Good franchises like Pittsburgh, Green Bay and Baltimore find ways to keep winning in those seasons. Maybe we can be a good franchise for a single season?
Thanks to those who tuned in regularly to read and participate in the discussion on this weekly thread. I had a good time collecting thoughts and following the team. I learned a lot from the insight of those who participated and appreciate that the tone of conversation was very cordial and collegial. Also, a big thanks goes to the Cincy Jungle guys like Josh Kirkendall and Joe Goodberry (as well as many others) who really make this a nice site to experience and learn more about the team and the NFL game.