Well, that was fun. The 2012 Cincinnati Bengals turned in another solid regular season with a 10-6 finish, led by Marvin Lewis. And, again, the Bengals entered the playoffs only to get ousted right away in an embarrassing fashion. Our own Josh Kirkendall so eloquently called Saturday's Wild Card game against the Texans "one of the most deceptive blowouts of all-time". I can't find a way to argue with that observation and it's a disappointing feeling.
First, the positives from Saturday. The game was much closer than the first go-round last year, and even though the Bengals were statistically dominated in nearly every category, they still had a miraculous chance to take a late lead. The defense had a "bend, but don't break" philosophy, holding five promising Houston offensive drives to only one touchdown and four field goals. Unlike last year's matchup, this game kept it interesting late.
Offensively, the Bengals inconsistency remained consistent and Saturday's performance was bordering on unwatchable. People are concerned that Andy Dalton isn't "the guy" and I can't really blame them after the past handful of games he's played, dating back to early December against the Chargers. To be fair, the Bengals still haven't found a way to get Dalton a consistent running game and another wide receiver who truly threatens an opposing defense enough to take some of the attention off of A.J. Green. Still, there are times that he looks like a schoolyard quarterback, trying to run around and create plays. The truth is, that's not who Andy Dalton is. He's a quick throw, rhythmic quarterback that thrives on streakiness. So, why not play to those strengths?
Offensive coordinator Jay Gruden decided not to give the ball to his two best offensive players early on--namely Green and BenJarvus Green-Ellis. Instead, Gruden decided to rely on their uber-inconsistent tight end, Jermaine Gresham. Unfortunately, Gresham decided that he didn't want to help his young quarterback on Saturday, dropping three or four passes--depending on how generous you are. The offensive staff decided that they want to use Gresham in a primary role, rather than a complementary one (which is forte), and needless to say it didn't work out for them.
Additionally, the Bengals were never far down enough on the scoreboard to predicate the ditching of the run game and Green-Ellis, yet they did just that. The Law Firm had a handful of nice runs on Saturday and netted over five yards per carry, yet they only gave him 11 carries. Huh? I guess Gruden and Co. decided that Gresham was a more viable option to exploit the Texans' decimation at linebacker than Green-Ellis. Who was it that the Bengals rode late in the year to a 7-1 finish? Gresham, right? Oh yeah.
Then came the worst part--the tired rhetoric and the excuses. "We have to do better". "We really let Bengals fans down today". The best one? "Obviously not the outcome you want". Thanks, Marvin. How many times have we heard these? When can we move the needle off of the scratched vinyl record and hear a different song? At some point you have to stop with the excuses and just go win a playoff game.
Lewis has had four chances in the postseason and hasn't succeeded. Many people say that a team takes on the persona of their coach and/or quarterback. The Bengals looked tentative on Saturday and played "tight'. Unfortunately for Bengals fans, the postseason lights still seem too big for the boys in stripes. Find a correlation there if you want. The truth is that yes, they're young, but they still pulled off some big wins this year and were especially successful on the road. Why couldn't they continue that momentum against an apparently reeling Texans squad?
With 12 teams making the NFL playoffs every year, you figure that that puts the top 37.5% squads in the postseason. Maybe that's where the Bengals are at right now--ahead of roughly 62% of the other NFL teams, but can't climb over the other top teams. They certainly haven't proven otherwise.
Now, Bengals Nation is left with more questions than answers. Who should they extend/re-sign this offseason? Should they draft offensive weapons with high picks, namely at running back and wide receiver this year? Is Andy Dalton capable of taking them to the next level and deep into the postseason? Is the coaching staff, as it's currently assembled, the right group to win a Super Bowl? Is that even the goal from ownership?
With a lot to answer and a ton of money to spend, this offseason will tell Bengals fans a lot about the future of this franchise. Hey, "there's always next year", right? Change the record.