The season is finally dead and gone for all including the Champion Seattle Seahawks. Let's have some Conclusions about where we stand and where we need to go with respect to our own reference, the AFC North, the AFC, and the NFL.
With the self-reference approach we ought to be pretty happy that we made three consecutive playoffs and won a 3rd Division title in 11 years under Marvin Lewis. However, there were two sets of goals set this year: one by the team (undefeated at home, win the AFC North, win the Super Bowl) and one by the majority of fans (win the first playoff game under the Marv Lewis watch). By both accounts we failed. By my measure this season was not a success. See, when you become ambitious in life, you need to keep moving up in stature. If you're staying the same, you're getting worse. I believe that (unless you're winning the Super Bowl every year). Our Defense got better, but we lost our beloved coordinator. Our Offense got better, but we lost our coordinator (even if you can't love a Gruden). Our Special Teams got a little worse, but we did have a lot of personnel change there as well as the unfortunate Kevin Huber injury. From a movement standpoint in 2013, the tide came in and then it went out. And now here we are in the same water, our wallets lighter, our ages one year heavier, our fates unchanged. We got another piece of birthday cake, but the song remains the same (and BTW that song was not "We Are the Champions!).
Looking at the division we seemed to have gained ground on everyone even though we only went 3-3 in divisional games. We are the Champs in that realm, but that doesn't last long. When is the last time the Bengals have won two consecutive Division championships? Answer: NEVER. For the incrementalists you can say that we will have made progress in 2014 if we win the division and lose in the first playoff game yet again. Within the division what have been the trends? We have seen it become difficult to win on the road, and we have seen Andy Dalton struggle in every division game, bar none. For me this interprets out to be a real problem. It may mean that Dalton's trends are so apparent on film that he has become easy to defend in repeat contests. Or it may mean that the Defenses in the AFC North are just tough. I think it's a bit of both as we saw SD also bring sorrow to Dalton in a repeat 2013-14 contest. But let's not get carried away with Dalton right now because there is no use re-opening the wounds at this point. What else is important in the AFC North? Did anyone else notice the increased importance of Special Teams where Cleveland was atrocious, Baltimore was kicking FGs from almost anywhere on the field, and Pittsburgh was blowing us up at every chance? And I also noted that we had a problem getting behind early in divisional games this past season.
At the conference level we played well enough to beat AFC East champs New England, AFC South champs Indianapolis, and AFC West Wild Card San Diego all in regular season. There was no constant winning approach however in these three games with the Patriot game being a defensive struggle, the Colt game being a high scoring blowout, and the San Diego game being a well played game that focused on strong D and a dominant running attack. That's really good news as it shows that we can adjust our approach to win games. But what do we need to do now to move in front of Denver, consistently beat other playoff teams, and play better on the road? All signs here point simply to better consistency at QB and a more even running game. Could this come through a simple change of Offensive Coordinator? Let's hope so, else we'll be sitting in the same position this time next year wondering what we're going to do differently. In the other phases of the game we have the top D in the Conference and will need continuity from our new rookie D coordinator. We'll also need to figure out how to get our edge back on Special Teams. If we're smart, we'll think a bit this off-season about how we're going to beat teams on our 2014 schedule such as Denver, Indy, New England, Houston and any potential AFC playoff teams like San Diego and Kansas City. With Denver we figure that we'll have to have a nice stable of DBs, bring pressure, and play aggressively in coverage as the Seahawks did. Indy will require a similar approach given the direction that Andrew Luck is headed along with their improving WR depth. New England will require us to be balanced in all phases on D. From the Offensive standpoint I think we're going to need to improve our running game to put Andy Dalton into easier situations.
At the league level we have seen that Seattle and San Francisco are emerging as the best teams in the league with a lot of balance and depth on the roster, mobile QB play, stingy defenses, an eye for turnovers, and the ability to make big plays at key points in games. Add it all up and look in the Conclusions below:
1. 2013-14 was not a success. As Meatloaf once sang, "Two out of Three Ain't Bad." So the team can be happy with the undefeated home record and the AFC North crown. However, fans are not happy with Marv Lewis going for yet another recycle after 11 years of an overall 90-89-1 record. That would have been good back in 1995, but it just isn't acceptable to be 0-5 in playoffs while taking home $3 mil annually, Marv. So you had better win a playoff game in 2014, else there will be pitchforks and torches at the door.
2. The success of our coaching changes remains to be seen. I am encouraged with Paul Guenther as an up-and-coming coach who appears to actually be a better teacher and communicator than his mentor Mike Zimmer. But we see better than we hear, right Marv? Improving on the #3 overall D will be a tough chore.... as will be improving on the #10 overall O. Yet, don't we mostly feel better with Hue Jackson taking over for the other Gruden? I do. Jackson is a more inspirational guy compared to Jay Gruden. It's as if we exchanged the personality types of Zimmer and Gruden to the other side of the emotional aisle with each of their replacements, and maybe that's what we need? The trouble however may come with the depth of coaching. Now we don't have Jackson helping out behind the scenes with all the offensive specialty areas as much, and we don't have Guenther going one-on-one as much with the LBs. Let's hope that the new RBs and LBs coaches transition well through the fog.
3. To improve in the division we need more early game emphasis, better Special Teams consistency, and more focus on the road.
4. In the conference we'll need more balance on O and upgrades in our pass coverage and pass rush on D.
5. At the league level we'll need increased roster balance, more athleticism, and more focus on creating a better turnover ratio.
I hope that you had an enjoyable 2013 season. But new seasons begin where old seasons die. If I had to bet, I"d guess that some of the Seahawks are already in the weight room training and that Peyton Manning is reviewing film for next season. It never ends. The Bengals are simply at that final hurdle now where they need to dig down just another foot and consistently find the last 10% of their talent. There's no such thing as too young in this league. Russell Wilson says, "Why Not Us?" and then he walks the talk. The Bengals simply need to finish adding to their depth off the field and finalizing the strategic pieces on it. I think 2014 is it for some people in this organization as well as for many fans. There will be no acceptable excuses whether it be that so-and-so got injured, Andy Dalton is still learning his position, Kyle Cook's ankle hurts, or Jermaine Gresham is still trying really hard. Let's draw the line in the sand now and say that we won't settle for anything less in 2014 than a Super Bowl win. Excuses are for losers, and I'm sick of losing. So there are no excuses now.