Those who look at the 2013 Cincinnati Bengals and their season may use the tagline "what could have been". It was probably one of the deepest rosters in team history, yet the team that was so strong at home during the regular season was ousted in the first round while hosting the San Diego Chargers. It was a bitter and abrupt end for a team that had showed everyone the potential of going further than previous Marvin Lewis incarnations.
What is now left after that ugly defeat just a week ago, are hard feelings towards both Lewis and soon-to-be fourth-year quarterback Andy Dalton, as well as question marks surrounding the club going forward. With Jay Gruden taking the vacant head coaching job in Washington with the Redskins and Hue Jackson predictably stepping into the role, there is an odd mix of major questions and optimism that are bubbling up to the surface.
These three men (Lewis, Dalton and Jackson) will be huge factors as to the direction of the 2014 season and beyond. Throw in the fact that the team could be losing its prized defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer and the word "fleeced" could start to be used. With so many balls in the air at the present time, one must ask if the Bengals are on a one-year plan in 2014.
It's an odd proposition for a club that has pounded its chest for its foresight in the draft and its stance on building a strong foundation of core players (which they have), but this concept looks to be ringing true. The team might very well be looking at 2014 as a "prove it year" for a handful of coaches and players.
Why? Windows for success are only open for so long in the NFL and if some of the current Bengals personnel in place isn't getting it done, then it may be time to make major moves after the 2014 season is done. If it is a success however, then the Bengals would have wisely used their "prove it year" to their benefit and know that the right pieces are here.
Lewis And Dalton Both With One Year Left On Existing Contracts:
Shortly after the disappointing loss against San Diego, I pointed the majority of the blame at the team's head coach and their starting quarterback. Some agreed and some didn't, and the fact remains that there are a number of fence-riders on the subject of the team moving on from Lewis and Dalton. Both have done many good things while in Cincinnati, but the big game win seems ever-elusive for these two men and many wonder if the team has hit its ceiling under their respective leadership tenures.
The Bengals and the Brown family who manage them don't operate as knee-jerk reactionaries-- the support for Dalton and non-news on Lewis' job continues to prove that stigma as being accurate. This franchise has long been viewed as being reactive instead of proactive in almost every way that they conduct their business. In very few cities, if any, would a 0-5 record in the playoffs (three losses at home) be forgivable and seen as showing promise and/or progress.
Still, letting things ride with Lewis and Dalton for one more year makes sense. It would be hard for the club and its fans to totally discard a coach who has earned a form of a "Lifetime Achievement Award" in a sense. I don't really dig on the idea myself, but I understand the logic. Lewis has been given free reign to mold this roster into his own in the post-Carson Palmer era and has had the team in the playoffs for three consecutive seasons--something unprecedented in the team's history. He has one year left on his contract to see if he can get the Bengals past the first round of the playoffs. If he doesn't, or the club fails to make the postseason this year, perhaps the Brown family will decide that the team could do better under someone else.
The same could be said with Dalton and the similar situation with his contract. Kicking a guy to the curb who just this season set new single-season franchise marks in passing yards and touchdowns would raise eyebrows. Still, both he and Lewis have been astoundingly inept in the biggest of games. And, given Lewis' and Mike Brown's relationship in recent years, it would be more likely that Dalton is shown the door before Lewis.
In his three seasons here, Dalton has been "the guy" without question. He's had zero competition behind him and some believe that Gruden was too light on Dalton--especially in the repeated mistakes he supposedly showed in practices. With Jackson apparently bringing in a more run-oriented offense, it could take pressure off of Dalton to be more of a game-manager at times, which would ultimately lessen the likelihood of him committing killer turnovers. His counterpart in Baltimore, Joe Flacco, didn't win the big one until his fifth year in the league so maybe seeing what Dalton can do in a little bit of a different offense makes sense. At least see if Dalton can win some or all of the big games in front of him in his fourth season.
Hue Jackson's Impact:
When Gruden was hired by Washington, the rumors came fast and furious about the team secretly being happy about his departure. It was pretty much a foregone conclusion that Lewis would hire Jackson as the new coordinator once Gruden left and many believe that a semblance of balance will be achieved under Jackson. It's possible, but it's conjecture at this point, based solely on his personality and track record as a coordinator a few years ago.
There are some positions on offense that could use some re-tooling and/or an influx of new talent, which could help Dalton flourish under Jackson. It's doubtful that Jackson is on a one-year deal like Lewis and Dalton (his terms haven't been released), but seeing a sample size of one season would be enough of a barometer to see the progress of Dalton and his surrounding pieces. If they achieve balance and make it further into the postseason next year, then Jackson and Dalton would appear to be the right men for the job. If there is regression, predictability and the same high amount of turnovers, then more questions will be raised.
It's an unfortunate truth that Jackson may only have one year to get the collective thumbs up or down, but this young roster is maturing and needs to reach more potential. Jackson will likely keep his coordinator job for more than a year, but a single campaign might be all that is needed to show everyone the future.
The Defensive Coordinator Situation:
Unfortunately for all of those associated with the Bengals organization, this may be the last year that the team has Mike Zimmer as its defensive coordinator. Cincinnati has seemingly squeezed all that they can out of the fiery coach, but it looks like "Zim" will finally get his chance as an NFL head coach in Minnesota. This could be devastating for the Bengals if he leaves, as he has brought the most out of so many defensive palyers here. Free agent rejuvination projects, low draft picks and players whose motors were questioned all thrived under Zimmer. We have seen the tweets from players and all know just how valuable he is to this team's success.
There is a light at the end of the tunnel, though. There are some decent names floating out there as replacements, both outside and inside of the organization, so there are some able fallback options. Whoever receives the new role should ZImmer leave, the talent level will still be loaded with many of the important players signed to recent long-term deals. All won't be lost if the Bengals' defensive coordinator spot opens up.
However, if the replacement coordinator heads a unit that takes multiple steps backward (which would be easy to do, given their No.1 ranking in the AFC this season), it could cause major panic going forward. The strength of the team must remain just that and if it isn't, we have seen Lewis pull the plug pretty quickly on some of his past hand-picked defensive coordinators (Chuck Bresnahan, Leslie Frazier).
Ironically, all of the men involved in each of these areas have their respective fates intertwined. Any one or some of these members of the Bengals could become scapegoats if 2014 doesn't live up to expectations once again. It's likely, depending on which side of the Lewis/Dalton fence that one is on, that fans could be hoping for either a feast or famine season. If you are a fan that happens to want Lewis and/or Dalton gone, you probably need to hope for a disastrous five or six-win season.
However, if the team does indeed look at 2014 as a "prove it year", a feast of a season could solidify the cast of characters for years to come.