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Bengals 2011 Epilogue: Fruits of the Lemon

[Originally published on February 9]

The day after the Super Bowl comes with a weird mix of feelings. On one hand, there is a note of the morose knowing that come next Sunday, football will not be played. Suddenly there is a gap in the weekly routine and it's initially unsettling.

On the other hand, a break from football is necessary and even somehow refreshing, like a shower you only take once a year. The extended break between football-related activities gives us time to enjoy basketball then baseball before pulling our collective obsession out of the closet again. Brains everywhere decompress and file away most active football thoughts and memories until the following autumn. The fact it's taken away from us, allows us to appreciate it more. Limited supply leads to higher demand in this case.

That means before we close out Volume 9 of the Marvin Lewis saga, we must first briefly recap then look ahead.

Rather than whip out the microscope and supply doses of weekly Bengal analysis, this year I spread the season out over quarters like a giant map in the middle of a war-room, and now that it's over it can be summarized as such:

Early on, the Bengals overcame an awkward get-to-know-you phase with a confidence-building comeback in Week 4 against Buffalo. After that, the defense emerged as one of the better units in the league, and Andy Dalton proved he was no average rookie quarterback. The offense showed poise despite it's youth and inexperience and the result led to Cincinnati winning its next four games.

Next the Bengals wondered into AFC North waters and played four divisional games in a row, beating only Cleveland at home during that stretch. True to its bruising reputation, the injuries piled up while facing teams within their division. After the struggles, Cincinnati was branded as a team that could not play against quality competition and sadly it was true.

Desperately clinging to a playoff spot, the Bengals repeatedly stumbled through the last portion of the season. No win was thorough or convincing, and the raised stakes of a possible post-season birth did not translate to any raised performance from a supposedly hungry team. The table was set in Week 17—beat Baltimore at home and earn a wild-card spot. They lost, but the stars aligned for them and they made it anyway at 9-7. Yet, for the second straight week, they allowed the big stage to consume them and petered out late in the Wild-Card loss to Texas.

Still, the season was a success nonetheless, and now the future has perhaps never been more bright for the striped franchise. With the gems found in last year's draft firmly in place, a potential all-world tight end primed for a breakout 2012, two first-round draft picks coming up in April, and the most cap space in the NFL, the possibilities for the years to come in Cincinnati are endless.

Another key to the growing success of the Bengals is that both coordinators return despite being heavily involved in head-coaching job searches elsewhere. Now Jay Gruden can mold Dalton even further, and continue to form the offense around his sound offensive philosophy. Unlike a year ago, Gruden will have more time with his talent and can develop it at a more comfortable pace. Defensively, Mike Zimmer returns with his loyal band of merry men, but the expectations for him and his unit are higher than those of Gruden's squad. He must somehow fix the secondary and get a full year of solid play from his entire staff to take this team further into January.

So now a team that some mockingly predicted would end the year without a single victory, has since put itself into real consideration to win a championship in the very near future. What once seemed delusional and a waste of time to even discuss should now be on the lips of Bengal fans everywhere when bragging about their team. I believe the NFL is tiptoeing into a new era where the old mainstays will be supplanted by the up-and-coming youngsters that are enlivening the league today. New powers like Texas, Miami and Cincinnati will soon emerge from the ranks of the average and push out the aging favorites. In 2011, the rain clouds parted. In 2012, the sun will shine.

Mojokong—this ends book six.