The more things change, the more they stay the same. For all the (deserved) opprobrium being hurled at the Cincinnati Bengals in the wake of their implosion against the Buccaneers Sunday, the fact is that this year's team isn't turning out much different from last year's, aside from the two-win difference in the won/loss column.
At the end of last season, Football Outsiders' exhaustive DVOA rankings put the Bengals right about the middle of the pack: offense ranked 19, defense 13, special teams 21.
After five games this season? Offense 19, defense 14, special teams 16 (h/t Mike Nugent).
And while the 2010 Bengals are throwing more and running less, the net result has been a wash. RB Cedric Benson has 101 fewer yards rushing and one fewer touchdown (2 vs. 3 in 2009) on the ground over the first five games; QB Carson Palmer has 171 more yards in the air than through five games last year and the same 7-6 TD-INT numbers.
So...why were we 4-1 then and 2-3 now? Because when you live on the edge, it's easy to fall off. Last season's grind-it-out style resulted in week after week of close games in which Palmer was required to work a two-minute miracle and/or the defense had to go out and Get. One. More. Stop.
This season's air-it-out style has resulted in week after week of close games in which Palmer is required to work a two-minute miracle and/or the defense has to go out and Get. One. More. Stop.
Last season, they got those miracles and those stops. This year, they haven't.
Case in point: week 2 last year. The Bengals are trying to get their first win at Lambeau Field. At the 2:00 warning, the Bengals kick a field goal to make it a 10-point game. Defense needs one more stop.
They don't get it. In a bit over a minute, the Packers go from their own 21 to the Cincinnati 27 and kick a field goal. Then special teams emphasizes the "special" part and the Packers recover the onside kick. After two Aaron Rogers incompletions, the defense gives up a 22 yard pass on 3rd and 10. And with :16 left, Rogers hit Donald Driver at the 10.
And the Packers get blown for a false start. Game.
Next week, the Bengals host Pittsburgh. This time, it's on the offense. With 5:14 left, the Bengals get the ball down by 5. Palmer orchestrates a 16-play, five-minute drive that includes two fourth-down conversions (both by pass), a touchdown (pass) and a successful two-point conversion (pass) to put the Bengals ahead by 3 and win the game.
Some weeks, it was both. Week 5, 2009, in Baltimore: down 14-10 with 2:15 to play, the Bengals hand the ball to Palmer again and ask for a miracle. In a drive that features just 7 rushing yards (6 by Palmer) the Bengals go 80 yards for a touchdown, aided by 30 yards in Baltimore penalties. But Baltimore still has 16 ticks on the clock, and it takes a Leon Hall pick to seal the win.
This season? It's last season's evil twin. Two weeks ago, the Bengals, down 3, drive from their own 14 to the Cleveland 31 before a Chad Ochocinco penalty and a Carson Palmer sack force a punt. No miracle. Now, with 4:41 on the clock, the defense needs to get a stop. But they can't stop Peyton Hillis, who first converts a 3rd and 1, then rips off a 24 yard run to close things down.
And then there's Sunday. Set aside ThirdAndThirteenGate -- if the D can stop the mighty Bucs offense from driving 50 yards for a TD, the Bengals probably win. But they can't. Then it's back into Palmer's hands for another miracle, which doesn't materialize. You can only push your luck so far.
Josh asked earlier today who was giving up. Not me. They barely scraped by most of last year, and I didn't let it bother me. Maybe I should have, but it isn't my style these days. So I'm not going to let the fact they barely fell short twice this year get me down, either. They have to get better, yes, but I see a lot more room for improvement right now than I ever did last year.