In the words of Michael Corleone (first) and Silvio Dante (later), "Just when I thought I was out...they pulled me back in."
Although it isn't as dramatic as Mafioso crime, it has been that puzzling and lacking in understanding. That, of course, is the Cincinnati Bengals play so far in 2013. Emotionally, we're trying to figure out what kind of ship we're on, and right now it's just not clear. In some respects it's the Mike Zimmer Jolly Roger with a series now of relatively stifling defensive performances regardless of the personnel on the field. In other respect's it's Jay Gruden's Good Ship Lollipop with performances that aren't much better than kid stuff with an occasional sweet treat (just for the tease).
First and foremost, I'll take the win. How 'bout you?!! Trying to figure out what it all means and where we're going, however, is a bigger mystery. Let's first review the 5 over riding themes going into today's game and then move on to digest the game's events and discuss what it all means after Game 5 of the 2013 NFL regular season.
Going into today our prior discussions had the 5 over riding themes as:
1) Andy Dalton - This is definitely subject one, and might be 1-3. After a lot of discussion it is my opinion that Dalton is mired in the zone of mid-level QBs forever to remain there. I'll explain what I mean below. Can we win a championship with this limitation? About once every 5-10 years a non-elite QB wins the big one. If we hold Dalton as our QB, we'll have to hope for this lower yield approach.
2) Jay Gruden - If Dalton ain't all that, then Gruden ain't all that either. These two are linked. This is the guy that Gruden hand-picked to run his O, coach him up, and to give the keys to the car. A Dalton failure, partial or complete, is a Gruden failure whether it be considered in scouting, development, or play selection.
3) Defensive Depth - We discussed worries about the loss of Geathers, thinness at LB, lack of experience at Safety, and injuries at CB. Yet, these guys keep packing their lunches.
4) Return and Coverage Teams - Let's remove the entire "Special Teams" moniker and call this one what it is. They just haven't gotten back to where they were in 2012 bringing value to almost every game with smothering return coverage and net positive field position from the differential on our returns vs. those of opponents.
5) Who Are We? - Marv and Gruden have both commented on this. We still don't have a complete identity as a team although our D seems to be etching one.
Now a look at the Patriots game. Were you not entertained? Impressed? Somewhere in between? I got a feeling that we were in waters that have not been traveled before by Bengals (i.e., shutting down Tom Brady), yet there was familiarity in that we had just gone down this path two weeks prior with another elite, Aaron Rodgers. It's key to remember that a team will struggle to bring its A-Game every week. Once in a while there will be a Brian Hoyer who skips between the cracks. Despite our defensive talent, the overall margin at the team level against the rest of the league is razor thin. But, we have the signs of clutch performance that signal a winning team. And, of course, we're really just talking about D here because our offense is a mess.
Now, are the Patriots a good defensive team? According to NFL.com, New England was 16th overall on D in the NFL going into today's game with a 14th rank vs. the pass and 24th rank vs. the run, while we were 24th on O (19th in passing, 20th in running). So we really can't be surprised that we didn't dominate the Patriot's average D. With Wilfork out, we ran the ball quiet effectively, played very conservatively, and made a few downfield throws that were difference makers. We also had the big turnover in the Red Zone (Dalton's first in his career in that area of the field) that killed our first half production. Aqib Talib was the latest in a line of decent CBs who limited A.J. Green from any explosive plays. What can we conclude about our offense today? I think it's safe to say that there is an emerging appearance that the coaching staff has lost trust in Andy Dalton. Why else would we give the Patriots the ball back at the end of both halves? We thought our odds were better to have our D stop Tom Brady than they were in expecting Andy Dalton to get us one first down in the passing game, right? Even if you thought that was okay in the first half, how can you justify repeating the same approach (3 consecutive runs with BJGE up the gut with NE calling time-outs after each play) when it failed the first time?
On the other side of the ball, New England was rated 18th (24th in passing, 14th in running), while we were 7th on D (11th vs. the pass, 11th vs. the run). Even though we were missing two starters, their lack of Gronkowski and Ridley offset that somewhat. Our DBs played another great game and our DL did a nice job shutting down the run, containing the pocket, and getting pressure on Brady. Our D set the tone and did not let New England control the clock.
What was weird about this game? Weren't the Patriots supposed to be undefeated? They sure didn't look like that sort of team to me. Their D made enough plays to keep them in it, but their O was pretty impotent. The big take-home message for me on this game was that our D won the game for us (again) with some help at the end from Mother Nature.
How about Andy Dalton? He had a few really nice throws - there, I said it. The deep sideline throw to Marvin Jones at the end of the 3rd Quarter during the winning 93-yard drive was unexpected and awesome. He also showed some regression with a very bad decision leading to an early INT in the Red Zone and apparently some signs by Gruden and Lewis of a loss of confidence in him. These are mixed signals for a guy who put up acceptable but not overwhelming stats. On the positive side, Dalton has taken his efficiency up into the higher 60 percents, a goal that I felt was necessary for this offensive scheme to work here in the long run. Despite his really bad turnover, he kept his head in the game, didn't make anymore glaring mistakes, and made a few key plays that allowed us the margin of victory. On the negative side, Dalton really didn't win this game for us. He was there and participated, but the defense won this game. He still has many moments of uncertainty when he can't get recognize the defense, get through his progressions, and make a decision that keeps drives going and points generated. It could be worse - I'm sitting here right now watching poor Matt Schaub. And it could be better. But maybe we need to concede that getting an elite QB in the NFL along with enough position players to put you in contention is a place that this franchise is not willing to go right now? Being a team on the cusp of the playoffs seems good enough for many in the downtrodden Bengals culture, and I understand that.
A few other comments on particular units from today's game. The RBs, OL, and receivers all performed well. Looking at where our drives went bad, we simply made one key mistake each time (e.g., taking a sack, throwing an INT on a bad QB decision, getting into a bad down/distance ratio, using ultra conservative play selection). The sacks, in particular, seemed to really kill us today as three of the four killed drives. Simply noted, we aren't a down-the-field team enough to overcome sacks and penalties on O. We need to sustain drives by getting positive yardage on every play, and taking the nickles-and-dimes.
Today's top 5 conclusions:
1) We're still a Playoff Team - This could change really fast, but I think we'll fight the division or a Wild Card berth. I still don't know if we can win a 1st Round playoff game. I don't want to count wins and losses over the rest of our schedule - that's never accurate. I'll just say that we have beaten two really good teams, have been in every game, and have one of the best Defenses in the league ... maybe the best.
2) Whoever Criticized Zimmer after Cleveland Is Crazy - This guy is unbelievable.
3) We Don't Know Everything There is to Know about the Dalton/Gruden Dynamics - I'm thinking now in two modes. One is that Dalton lacks the confidence right now to go to the next level. I'm suspicious that one driver here lies in the humility of his personality. Another lies in his relative inflexibility - he wants to stick with what has worked before for him and doesn't realize that the Not-For-Long league means that you must reinvent yourself each week. I'm also not too sure that Dalton has taken enough of the lead in the relationships and preparation with his receiving group - I'm just not seeing the chemistry between Dalton and anyone consistently. The other mode is that Gruden hasn't done his part to push this thing where it needs to go. Why? I'm getting the picture that Gruden just doesn't have the details down well enough himself to teach them to his constituents.
4) We Look Better As a Run-First Team - That takes the pressure off Dalton and hands it to our OL.
5) Zimmer is Starting To Get the Feel of This D - You could see him dialing up the pressure today, and it was working even without MJ93 and Hall - two pretty key players.
Back to the Andy Dalton talk to round this out.
I did a lot of reading this week on current QB ratings and realized that the rankings convey a trend. QBs can be characterized by two major factors that I'll call "QB Athleticism" and "Field Management." The former relates to all the physical things a QB can do to create value such as distance throwing, touch passing, footwork, running, pocket presence etc. The latter relates to the mental things a QB does to create value such as knowing the playbook, knowing the opponents well, understanding game situations, developing leadership abilities etc. The top quartile of QBs (i.e., the "elite") is characterized by top scores on each factor, and the low quartile vice versa. For the in-between quartiles, which factor is the more important one: Athleticism or Field Management? The answer seems to be for NFL QBs that Athleticism is more important that Field Management skills for the middle of the pack. This is why we see that guys like Jay Cutler, Ryan Tanneyhill, Cam Newton, and Colin Kaepernick having generally more success (and occupying the second quartile of rankings) than guys like Ryan Fitzpatrick, Matt Flynn, and Alex Smith (who tend to occupy the third quartile). Andy Dalton fits this third quartile due to his physical limitations that cannot be corrected. One of the messages of this model is that a 3rd Quartile QB probably will never ascend to a 2nd or 1st quartile QB although a 2nd may ascend to the 1st (by developing Field Management skills) and a 1st may descend (by an erosion of physical talents by neglect, aging, or injury). The bottom line as this applies to Dalton is that we are seeing the emergence of his limits with respect to the franchise as he is being expected to assume a bigger role in higher visibility games. To be more realistic, we (and Gruden) should better comprehend Dalton's limits, plan the games around them, and chart the franchise development accordingly. Maybe that's what we started seeing today as the play calling took a much more conservative approach with respect to run/pass ratio and situational play calling. As noted above, every 5-10 years lightning can strike for teams with non-elite QBs winning a Super Bowl.