If the number three marks a pattern, then a pattern appears to have formed under three of the biggest names in this latest era of Bengaldom:
Three NFL seasons, three playoff appearances, and three playoff duds produced by QB Andy Dalton. Three consecutive postseason flameouts in Marvin Lewis’ third career "reboot" in Cincinnati. Three playoff games in which Jay Gruden’s "run first" offense has thrown more than double the times it has run the ball with disastrous results. In the past few seasons, the Bengals have shaped themselves into a model NFL franchise, one that exercises fundamental consistency, patient player development, prudent drafting, and a high character locker room that is possibly the tightest knit bunch in the league. Yet each of the past three times the Bengals have been bounced from the first round of the postseason tournament they have seemed unable to string together even a par performance, continuing to fuel the national perspective of being a team that fades when the lights are brightest.
This offseason, Bengals fans will search for answers from those three aforementioned team leaders, but only two have proven to deserve a fourth chance to break the pattern they have helped establish.
Andy Dalton has had three years to prove he can show up in big games. Consider us unconvinced. The October AFC Offensive Player of the Month and Bengals’ record holding QB has accomplished a number of feats in a short NFL career, but the results show an 0-3 postseason record and a leader who seems to be in over his head when the heat gets turned up. The big question seems to be, can he win for us in the postseason? The answer will be "no" until he does. A better question may be, have we seen all we’re gonna get from the young QB? Maybe not.
In three seasons, Dalton seems to have plateaued as his QB rating, TD:INT ratio, and completion percentage have remained more or less static. However, in each successive season, Dalton has thrown for more yards and TDs than the year before. That means he’s been getting better -- he’s carried more on his plate and shouldered more responsibility within the offense.
The biggest problem with Dalton has always been turnovers, which have also continued to increase, indicating that though his abilities have broadened, the efficiency of his play has remained the same. Yet while a QB tends to peak physically in their third season, there is one area you can almost count on growing between years 3 and 4: in between the ears. Dalton would be putting up MVP-caliber numbers and winning games like this last Sunday afternoon if he could cut down his turnovers with smarter play. Most of his mistakes are mental, and experience will be his best teacher moving forward.
Similarly, Marvin Lewis has had 11 seasons to prove he is the man for the job in Cincinnati and has an 0-5 postseason record to show for it. His coaching ability is justifiably in question after failing to rally his team to victory in the most crucial of moments. He appears to be unable to win the "big game". Looking at what he has done, though, is nurture a winning culture and compile a loaded roster for a Bengals organization that has endured some of the darkest stretches of futility in all of pro football annals. A big criticism of Lewis is his lack of preparation for game day, and never was this more apparent than in Sunday’s 27-10 loss at home to the Chargers. Wasn’t it?
Before the game, a group of the team’s leaders huddled together and used their perceived lack of respect as a way to rev themselves up. Those guys were thirsty; motivation was not a factor on that day. The Bengals defense, although it had some difficulty against the run, still played well enough to keep the team in the game with a number of patented red-zone stands. As we all know, however, it was the offense that imploded with a questionable game plan. So if Lewis is criticized for his offense’s inability to execute, shouldn’t he be praised for the defense’s tenacity all season long? Or does the blame/praise fall more on the coordinators? Bingo.
In 2011, Jay Gruden inherited a brand new offense with a brand new QB and star receiver, and has since fashioned a run-heavy West Coast offense that maximizes its team’s strengths. Three years later, a nearly identical offensive personnel is still searching for an identity as it flounders in the playoffs. Despite forging an exciting, creative offense in his first year, Gruden has shown a tendency to "out-cute" himself in big games, calling game plans that are much more complicated than need be. Sunday, a bootleg should not have been called on 3rd-and-1 at midfield. Not with the Bengals’ massive guards; not with Domata Peko leading Benjarvus Green-Ellis into the hole; and certainly not on a day when Dalton was throwing terribly on the run.
The past two offseasons, there was a lot of talk about reverting back to the "meat and potatoes" of offense and running the ball more. This became a problem midseason when Dalton was throwing 50 times a game, and popped up again in the playoff loss. In all of the Bengals’ past three postseason losses, the one common denominator has been a clear disparity in offensive balance. In three playoff games, Gruden has called 123 passing plays to only 60 rushing plays for his "run first" offense. The first reaction would be that this makes sense, as the Bengals had to throw the ball more after trailing the other team in those games... Until you see the halftime scores for each contest: trailing 10-17 at Houston ’12, trailing 7-9 at Houston ’13, and winning 10-7 vs San Diego ’14.
Those games were far from decided when the Bengals took the field in the second half, yet overeager playcalling led to an interception here and a fumble there, often giving the opposing team an advantage the Bengals couldn’t overcome. Blame him all you want, but Dalton doesn’t throw as many interceptions when he has the ball less. Gruden has done his QB no favors when it comes to calling plays in crucial games and continues to answer to the same mistakes he was making back in Year 1.
Three years into this current regime of Bengals players and staff and we have seen the screws tightened each season as improvements and adjustments are made across the board, and the progress has shown in the team’s steadily climbing regular season record. There is only one major area in which the team has stagnated, and it is no longer an excuse for this offense to not have established some sort of identity by now.
In three years of living the same old pattern of mediocrity, losing in the first round of the playoffs, there is much to be made of franchise pillars such as Andy Dalton, Marvin Lewis, and Jay Gruden. In three years, Dalton and Lewis have demonstrated progress to deserve the fans’ support for a fourth in the driver’s seat as they attempt to break the pattern they’ve helped establish. Best wishes for a head coaching gig and all the love in the world to Gruden, but the Bengals need to move on past an offensive coordinator who hasn’t grown up with the rest of the team.