Pressure can change everything.
Standing at the free throw line, down by one with no time remaining. Sweat plinko-chips down your face. A ravenous crowd grows even more rambunctious (unless you're the home team but that doesn't work with sports poetry). Routine settles the nerves, applies muscle memory. Gripping the basketball, you let it drop on the hard-wood, catch it during the ascent, and prepare for the game-winning shot. While the ball slaps the rim, the rotation forces the ball to stick. Instead of dropping in or away from the net, the ball circles around like a predator stalking its prey. And just before the ball makes its decision, time stands still.
That's sports. That's what we live for as fanatics. Obsessing about film, calculating statistics, predicting rosters with one-word summaries fails to compare to the moment in which we witness a team rising or collapsing yet again.
We're flush with exciting reports detailing red zone successes, projecting rookies with dreamy all-pro eyes and a rapidly ascending ceiling for second-year students coming into their own as masters of their own trade. Everyone feels the strut, with a "lift your chin" Austin Powers-like finger point to Steelers fans, who are kicking empty cans surrounded by walls of dust from unpaved roads.
Preseason, training camp, offseason, none of it matters when you reach the moment that defines a season. That defines a year and even a generation. The sheer guts of a Josh Brown field goal at one of the league's worst stadiums for kicking field goals. Clutch. Conversion. Postseason. And before that? The perfect throw from a cold-eyed quarterback, instinctively finding and relying on A.J. Green with seconds remaining in the game. If you watched John Taylor's touchdown reception during the Super Bowl in 1988, that moment defines you. Not the loss, rather the journey. Because that was a damn fine ride.
Yet as the highs of success overcomes the weight of the pressure, so does the crushing breath that ends it. As the Bengals and Texans kick off the second half, Cincinnati is facing a two-point deficit. From their own 20-yard line, Andy Dalton hands off the football to BenJarvus Green-Ellis on a designed isolation over the left guard. J.J. Watt's swim and acceleration lands Andre Smith on his knees, as the all-pro trips up Green-Ellis three yards deep in the backfield. Only Green-Ellis' propensity for falling forward limited the damage to a one-yard loss.
On second down, Andy Dalton attempted a pump fake but was forced out of the pocket. Dalton felt the pressure, but failed to recognize the six-man rush during presnap adjustments. With more rushers than blockers, Bradie James looped around the interior, taking advantage of a significant lane that gave him a free shot at Dalton. Instead of withstanding the blow (and Dalton isn't known for standing tall in the pocket yet), Dalton abandoned the pocket to threw the football away.
Dalton's pocket protection on third down was fantastic, but his timing wasn't. After nearly five seconds scanning the field, this is what he saw:
Three-man route, all eating chunks of yardage. Waiting for someone to break. The coverages were good, but someone was single-covered. And if the timing was right, a first down is converted.
Dalton bails. As he's approaching the line of scrimmage near the numbers, he throws across his body. Brandon Harris nearly forces an interception that was intended for Andrew Hawkins, who broke off his vertical down the middle when Dalton scrambled, and the Bengals punt.
Thanks to a Chris Lewis-Harris fair catch penalty, the Texans open at their own 49-yard line. In a moment of clarity, the Texans offense opened with efficiency, during a game dominated by defense, with a series of runs, supplemented by not-complicated routes that gained chunks of yards. They scored their touchdown within four minutes and took a 16-7 lead. Cincinnati would never recover.
In fact Cincinnati's offense would fail to convert any of their third down opportunities in the second half and an Andy Dalton interception, late in the third quarter, would led to a Shayne Graham 34-yard field goal that expanded Houston's lead back to nine. Though in fairness, Dalton's interception should be laid at Green's feet for failing to complete the route. Maybe it was thrown too quickly, but it's A.J. "friggin'" Green, man. He catches footballs others can't.
The caveat in that the "rematch" wasn't a blow out. In fact the defense did what they usually do -- bail the offense out and keep the game close enough for the offense to string together a series of sustained successes.
But they didn't.
Fast forward to today and the theme is different. So are the expectations.
- Have a winning season. Check.
- Go to the playoffs. Check.
- Have another winning season. Check.
- Go the playoffs in consecutive seasons for the first time in 30 years. Check.
Now the pressure adds up. The big great postseason win that Cincinnati has been salivating over, criticizing Marvin Lewis for missing, which will finally transform a good season and make it great. We could say that we'd be happy just to make the playoffs. That applied in 2011, even 2012. Not this year. Nor the year after that or the year after that.
"Last year was a good year and not a great year. We expect a great one," said left tackle Andrew Whitworth. "We've got a lot of young weapons on the offensive side of the ball we've continued to add the last couple of years. I'm really excited about the opportunity of getting out on field and going for greatness."
But this team must thrive under pressure. They must dissolve mental collapses that we've come to expect that consequently consumes at least one full quarter. False starts. Offensive holds. Three and out possessions.
Unlike previous years with the boycott crowd being silenced, the expectations now are realistic. Obtainable. Yet the Bengals must overcome those pressures, those points of inevitable collapse. Otherwise the disappointment will be greater. Super Bowl is the obvious hope for every fan. Understandably, hope never translates into realistic expectations.
For now we'll enjoy the glowing reports of unproven players battling their teammates during practice. It gives rise to those hopes. Eventually those expectations of greatness will be put to the test and if success follows, then so will those expectations for something even greater.