The Wild Card That Wasn't.
Disappointed? Of course. Surprised? Only a little.
When you look back on the year as a whole, what happened on Saturday makes perfect sense. The Bengals entered this year with tepid expectations. There were some talented pieces in place for sure, but there were still holes abound and a first-round playoff exit seemed to be the max potential this group could muster.
In a season where the defense did all of the heavy lifting to actually get them into the postseason, the Wild-Card game unfolded into one where the offense need only the bare minimum of output to advance. They had a chance to put a dreadful performance behind them and sneak out with a win, but a lofty toss to an open A.J. Green in the endzone with under three minutes remaining drifted 12 inches out of reach and doomed the hopes of a Bengals Super Bowl run. With the game lost, and the blame squarely on the offense, some mental unpacking is in order to fully gain closure on the year.
Understandably, a lot of backlash has come upon the red crown of Andy Dalton's head for such a lousy showing in his second chance at some franchise glory. He was positively rotten against the Texans, freaking out nearly every time he dropped back to throw. The confidence of the passing game looked shot after Jermaine Gresham dropped the first toss by Dalton. A nightmare ensued where the team's best player became invisible and the offensive brain-trust invested their future upon the abilities of unproven complimentary receivers that flamed out under the pressure. Sure, Dalton is the man that makes the throws, but there is a chain-of-command in place with every offense, and when things break down as thoroughly as they did over the weekend, the whole chain needs examined.
First off are the guys up front. Offensive line coach, Paul Alexander, was dealt two huge blows in the preseason when Trevelle Wharton and Kyle Cook went down with significant injuries. Replacements Clint Boling and Trevor Robinson filled in admirably and really appeared to be a cohesive unit after the bye week. Then Cook came back and regained his starting spot and the line was never as effective again. I'm a believer in the center position. When it is stable, the offense flows rather seamlessly, when it isn't, its production suffers. I was against bringing Cook back into the starting spot. I know the old maxim about not losing a starting spot to injury, and I realize the expertise the Cook brings when making calls at the line, but the production speaks for itself. With Robinson making the snaps, Dalton got in a groove, BenJarvus Green-Ellis became suddenly relevant, and the wins started stacking up. Then against Dallas, they eased Cook back in to the rotation, ultimately making him a starter again, and the offensive output became increasingly less. The tailspin continued until it culminated into one of the worst offensive showings in playoff history. I'm not blaming Cook entirely, but the switch at center allowed for a disconnection along the offensive line that was never adequately repaired.
The line didn't protect well at all against the Texans, baffled and helpless to counter the stunts by the Houston pass rush. This breakdown added to the already alarmingly pronounced anxiety Dalton has demonstrated in the pocket this season-stunningly opposite of what he showed in his rookie year-and kept that elusive rhythm we hear so much about from ever fully developing. What they were doing well, though, was creating running lanes for Green-Ellis, but strangely enough, Jay Gruden turned his back on this style of attack.
Gruden has allowed this offense to overachieve for two straight seasons with his sensible scheme and play-calling sequence, but his ideas got the best of him in this past game. I felt he got too cute. I heard Brian Billick say that defenses can take away any threat they want to, but they do so at a cost. Cover one player too much and you run the risk of leaving someone else open. This is what Gruden saw. Houston decided it wasn't going to get beat by A.J. Green in the first half, so they shaded him and took him away. This, in theory, meant the other receivers had more room to operate, especially Gresham. The Texans were down to their fourth-string inside linebackers and Gruden probably assumed they couldn't cover. He may have been right, too, but Gresham's pervasive lack of focus haunted him again and he was unable to convert on his targets at all in the first half.
So, with Green eliminated and Gresham too zoned out, it was either up to Marvin Jones, Andrew Hawkins and Ryan Whalen, or go back to the running game. When Green-Ellis got his chances, he tore off yardage, and those backup middle linebackers showed their vulnerability. The line looked ready to maul and even John Conner was getting his hat on the right guys. Gruden, though, convinced the Bengals weren't a running team, persisted to try and throw it, especially on second down. This trend proved disastrous as incompletions and sacks got the offense "off-schedule" and set up desperation third-down conversion attempts.
Prior to the game, I advocated that the Bengals should have spread out their formations and throw to as many different receivers as possible coming out of the gate. I wanted to see them pressure the questionable back end of the Texans defense early to set the tone and score early. Once that became painfully obvious that it wasn't working and that the run was, pounding Green-Ellis more on second down became the logical move. Logic, however, never worked its way into the equation and The Law Firm ended with a 5.7 yards-per-carry average on only 11 attempts. Had the Bengals chose to grind it out a bit more, the time-of-possession battle would have been closer, the defense would be less worn out, the offensive line could get in rhythm and a field goal or two would have had an effect on the closing minutes of the game. Bumbled screen attempts, bad passing reads and an insistence to keep trying to move the ball through the air, killed any semblance of a balanced attack. I think Jay Gruden is quality coordinator with a lot of good football ideas, but he got away from the basics and I think it lost the game.
Dalton himself will hear the grumblings about his inabilities, but there isn't much he or the organization can do to radically change the quarterback position. We fans (and media) assume that every franchise relentlessly search for the next "franchise quarterback". We had the Golden Boy with the Golden Arm in Carson Palmer, the exact prototype that scouts drool over. He was big, sort of mobile, had a cannon arm and was intelligent. It didn't work out. Then they drafted Dalton, physically meh, and not coming from a collegiate power house, the front office were satisfied with their guy even if the pundits and draft wizards weren't. He exceeded all expectations by taking a bad Bengals team to the playoffs his rookie year, and then followed it up by doing the same the next year with a marginally improved group. After losing both times in the first round, though, folks are up in arms about what he can't do.
Dalton will never have a great arm; he isn't that kind of guy. You're not getting Jeff George when you draft Andy Dalton. Instead you have the quintessential "game-manager" filled with interesting intangibles that only exist from the neck up. The team likes him because he is emotionally unflappable. Not too high, not too low. Even Steven. His first year, he flashed an uncanny pocket presence, but since the middle of that year, the ability has strangely subsided and now looks to have vanished altogether. I don't know how one improves on such a thing-Zen Buddhism perhaps-but unless he can figure out how to get back to playing loose, this offense may never be up to snuff.
What we should remind ourselves, though, is how hard it is finding a better replacement. Those calling for his head now, would have to kick themselves if they got their wish only to end up seeing Kyle Orton or someone of similar ilk taking the ball under center. The "franchise guys" don't grow on trees, and if you think you've found one, you may just end up with Carson Palmer or Drew Bledsoe. There are no guarantees. I don't think Andy Dalton is a premier player at his position, but I don't think it's realistic to ask the organization to always have one of those waiting in the wings of their roster. There have been other examples of mediocre quarterbacks making it and even winning the Super Bowl. To say Dalton can never take the Bengals that far seems fatalistic.
In essence, these Bengals made it as far as they should have. No underdog won in the playoff round. The postseason is a harsh reminder of a team's true identity. The Bengals' identity is made up of a tremendous defense that plays with passion and pride and an offense still learning itself and the league. To say the Bengals should have made it further by now has some truth to it, but if they return to the playoffs next year and arrive at the AFC Championship game, will it matter then? Sometimes babies fall when they're learning to walk, but that isn't to say they will never walk at all.
Mojokong-disappointed but not disheartened.