First and foremost, they did it. That deserves the headline for a franchise that has been kept in the dungeon of exposure for the past two decades. They eliminated the Ravens. They won the division. They went 5-1 over the final 6 and 9-3 over the final twelve with the two additional losses coming in OT on the road (after they were inside the opponents' 40's in OT in both games). Pittsburgh was the only team over the last 12 games that solidly put them away, and that was done on the power of three 1st Quarter STs gaffes that left them down 21-0 after that first quarter in a game they lost by 10. In other words, this team has been pretty damn good in 2013. Now we'll see how that translates to the first month in 2014.
The Ravens game was a par for the course of the 2013 Bengals. There were some rough rides from the passing game. There were musical chairs of injuries from both lines. There was a 10 yard punt. After dominating Baltimore statistically for three quarters, it was tied 17-17. The old Bengals would have found a way to lose this one and this season. The 2013 Bengals, a decidedly much improved product, did the opposite. That's really the story this week.
In this issue of Conclusions I want to look at the roster, the coaching staff, the front office, and the fanbase. Let's wrap up the regular season with my five basic conclusions for 2013 and then follow up with the review of the prior 4 issues along with the fifth issue of our 2014 playoff prospects.
5 Regular Season Conclusions
1. Character & Consistency: The team has shown the most character we can remember from this franchise since the Super Bowl years in the 1980's. They came back from a matched Achilles injury to their best CB Leon Hall. They came back from an ACL injury to their best defensive player Geno Atkins. They won the division despite losing about 10 expected contributors to IR. They overcame devastating consecutive OT road losses to Miami and Baltimore. They continued to weather the all-out media assault that lingers from the jailhouse era of the 2005-09 Bengals and the Mike Brown Fail era of the 1992-2003 Bengals. Marv Lewis has finally moved into a solidly winning career regular season record (90-85-1) and looks poised to claim his first playoff win after 4 prior failures. There is something different about this team and its approach to games and criticism. They sustained the death of ex-Bengal LB Thomas Howard toward the end of the season much better than they did when Chris Henry perished in 2009. It is the ability to move forward that has earned them the right to be called consistent. We'd like to see a playoff win to finalize the success that has been built, but they have already exceeded the expectations that were lowered after the mid-season defensive injuries.
2. Andy Dalton & Jay Gruden: These guys are joined at the hips, so let's not pretend otherwise. Gruden hand-picked Dalton for the 2011 draft based on Dalton's perceived ability to run Gruden's version of the West Coast O. They won 9 the first year and made the playoffs, 10 last year and made the playoffs, and 11 this year while taking the AFC North. The first year playoff game was a beatdown by Houston; last year it was close even though Dalton struggled again; this year we expect to win at least one. Over the course of three seasons Dalton has improved in wins, yards, TD passes, and Passer Rating. Overall these two have shown improvement despite high expectations and close observation. Is there room to improve? For Dalton he clearly needs to move to the next level now in communication with his receivers. He still needs to show better ability to go to the next receivers in his progression and to calm his early game erratic throws that seem to be generated by nerves. Gruden seems to have honed the playcalling to better fit this team's talents and seems to have a decent grasp on how to move the O. There still needs to be more involvement with the TEs in the passing game and at times a better mix of the running game. Overall, however, these two guys are moving on up.
3. Injuries: As Marv says, "it is what it is." What we have to realize is that injuries can and will happen in the 2013-14 version of a league of mammoth men colliding at high rates of speed into one another with abandon. Every team in the league has dealt with significant injuries - all we have to do is roll over the playoff teams to give an example. We were lucky this season to have kept our OTs, starting DEs, Andy Dalton, Vontaze Burfict, AJ Green, and our RBs healthy enough to participate in nearly all of the games. We also learned that our depth was even better than we thought with guys like Brandon Thompson, Terence Newman, Pacman, Vinnie Rey, Anthony Collins, Mike Pollak, and (drum roll) Dre Kirkpatrick doing their parts when suddenly called upon.
4. TO Differential: We harped on it a lot this year, but this is probably the factor that kept us from winning 14 or 15 games. We're talking about the losses in Chicago, Miami, and Baltimore. This involves protecting the ball better in the passing game and generating more takeaways on D. We have been average at best at these items and need to get a lot better in a hurry for the playoffs. This can happen and needs to happen to have a chance at moving on in post-season play.
5. Vontaze Burfict & Mike Zimmer: Awesome. We're lucky to have both. Let's pray that we are able to keep these two over time.
5 Overview Conclusions
1. Playoff Forecast: Marv likes to give it in weather terms, so we'll stick to that approach. I think we look sunny for Sunday playing where we've been undefeated this season, hosting a warm weather team in cold weather conditions, and playing a SD team that we beat a month ago. Let's also mention that we get to play at home at 12:30 pm on Sunday. There are no excuses going into this game. If we get past the Chargers, an occurrence that I totally expect, then we travel to NE the following Saturday night to play the Patriots in Foxboro. If we don't get bast SD, then this season cannot be called a success. It can be deemed positive - after all, we made three consecutive playoffs, overcame major injuries, won all of our games at home, and won the AFC North. But we won't have the monkey off our backs in the post-season, the final hurdle to moving on from the "Curse of Bo Jackson's Hip" (or the "Curse of Mike Brown's Ownership", whichever you prefer). So that's all I'm saying about the playoffs right now. Win the first one and worry about the rest later because you can't beat NE this week and can't beat SD after this week.
2. Roster: Let's look at a quick rundown by category of where we might be going with respect to personnel during the off-season - please take note that "no planned change" at a position doesn't mean that the team wouldn't draft a guy at the position depending on the situation but it does suggest that I'd be surprised if the team spent money in UFA for such a player:
Offense - QB: need better depth than Josh Johnson, and I'm strongly in favor of drafting a QB in the top 3-4 rounds to keep on the roster and develop to be our #2; I do think we need to re-sign Dalton now when the price and timing is right (and, again, this is a change from my opinion at mid-season...i.e., I think Dalton is now moving in a rapidly improving phase of his confidence and leadership); RB: I don't foresee any planned change in our 4 roster guys; WR: It will be time to extend AJ Green, while Hawkins and Sanzenbacher will both be RFAs; we are very heavy at this spot and also have Cobi Hamilton developing on the PS, so again I don't foresee planned change here; Brandon Tate will be a UFA; TE: With Alex Smith and Jermaine Gresham heading into UFA status while Orson Charles has been less than spectacular, we could see an acquisition and/or draft pick at TE especially if Gresham is not re-signed; OL: Pollak and Collins will both be UFAs, and the season ended with a sense that we need to think about re-signing both - with Boling injured, Cook underperforming, and the OL playing better with Whit at LG, a consensus seems to be emerging that our best OL comes with Collins at LT, Whit at LG, and depth provided by Pollak's ability to play all the interior positions; since we don't know what staff is thinking about the center position, we can wonder aloud whether we might draft an OL even if we can retain these two UFAs
Defense - DL: Michael Johnson will be a UFA, and it would be great if he could come back - since he didn't repeat his big sack season of 2012, the odds may be better in that regard; assuming that Atkins stays on track with his knee progress and that Geathers will be back again, we are looking stocked at this position if MJ is retained - but if he goes, then we might have to look at an acquisition of a player who can constitute depth; LB: the only roster listed LB to be a UFA is Vinnie Rey, while everyone else including Lamur and Porter should be back; situational LB/S Taylor Mays will be a UFA; thus, this position won't be a top end need although it's always one where depth seems needed; DB: the questions will revolve around whether Hall can conquer a second Achilles injury, whether Newman has much left in the tank, and whether Ghee and/or Mays are re-signed; I think an early CB in the draft might be in order, and we might be able to use another depth player at S.
Summary: We are pretty stocked and need to first focus on the UFA process with Gresham, Alex Smith, Collins, Pollak, Tate, Michael Johnson, Vinnie Rey, Ghee, and Mays. I think that we could get these guys all back with about $24-26 million of cap expenditure, while we spent about $17.5 mil in 2013 cap on them. That's basically $8 mil or so more against the cap to keep everyone, and then we have to think about the costs of extending Green and Dalton. The latest thing I can find about 2013 cap numbers suggests that we are $8.2 mil under, while the NFL cap is increasing about $4 mil in 2014. The last things to consider are that Dalton's current 2013 cap number is $1.4 mil, while Green's is $5.4 mil - figure that Dalton's number will rise to about $10-11 mil per year and that Green's will move to about $10-12 mil. Those are estimates - you can argue about specifics if you want, but the point here is to get a quick look at the numbers. These rough numbers suggest that re-dos on Dalton and Green while re-signing everyone on the UFA list would leave us about $10 million over the cap. So we're pretty deep but won't be able to re-sign everyone. Or in other words, Collins and Johnson may be unaffordable.
In the draft I think we'll look for the best DB and best OL available with early picks; we'll consider a TE, QB, DL, and LB as we move through the rounds. We have a lot of room to take Best Player Available.
3. Coaching Staff: The staff really gelled in 2013, and the major questions for 2014 involve whether Zimmer and/or Gruden will get head coaching offers elsewhere.
4. Front Office: I won't go deep into this one other than to say that there has been massive progress in how the Bengals are working the entire business process, and the fans should feel good that it seems headed in the right direction.
5. Fanbase: The fans seem to be less desperate and more confident about the 2013 team than they have been in the past 2+ decades. The fact that the front office is doing things differently probably has had a large soothing effect, and the negative speak now seems to be in the rear view mirror.
Bottom line today is that a win in the playoffs this year will mark the season as a success, while a loss will bring the taste of bitter failure. Sure, there are a lot of confounders - we didn't have Atkins and Hall; Andy's just a pup; Goodell hates us. Whatever. If ever there was a Sunday for this, Just Win, Baby!