What gets lost in all the power and glory of football is the shame. There is tremendous shame in football. There is mostly football shame in Cincinnati.
I know the coaches felt the hurt more than the cold in their bones on Monday. It wasn't supposed to go down like that this year. It was built with better stuff than that; it was tested. And yet there you have it. Not only another first-round loss, an absolute ass-kicking in the second half of that game. Their guys got pushed and rattled and beaten, all their perceivable powers neutralized in thirty minutes. The personnel was right, the schemes were working and the arrow was up all throughout this season. It was up, dammit!
They likely faced themselves in the mirror today wondering if they will ever have a roster like this again in Cincinnati. The last two years were building blocks and that was okay, but this was the year. This year the Bengals were really gonna....
Then there are the players. Yeah, most of them are coming back and yeah they will have another year of experience and yeah they will probably be good again next September, October, November and December, but how many Januaries do they have left in them? Perhaps because of their youth and early playoff regularity, this group may not realize the scarcity of that special winter-time occurrence. A winning culture matters and the definition of winning increases as the culture improves. So far, this team's culture is mired in not-good-enough. I don't mean to say they are without quality leadership and disciplined mind frames. They just aren't good enough.
Next are Bengals fans. Not an attractive fan base, this gang will often get surly on the first negative play and take a while to shake it off. They are a scorned bunch who perpetually feel like asses for being fooled again. They live with daily self-doubt and think the rest of the league picks on them and their team. When they meet outside of Cincinnati, they are astonished to have found the other, and feel an immediate bond in their shame.
Then there is the city itself. The people of this city are reeling for a meaningful victory. Cincinnati has a kind of inferiority complex already, being a one-time big city and now a "small market" place. Any time Ohio is mentioned in the movies or on TV shows, it's always Cleveland that's represented and never Cincinnati. People think our chili is gross. Our pro teams don't advance in the playoffs. We don't feel like winners.
Which is crazy when you think about it. You and I have no effect on the games. We hope a certain group of humans performs better than another group at a very physical sport. We hope they are better because they represent the place we live, but in reality, their representation of us is only the name on their uniforms. With two or three exceptions, none of these players or coaches come from Cincinnati (and even two or three seems kind of high). Almost all of them are in the one-percentile in athletic capabilities, so they aren't representing us in that sense either, and the poorest of the bunch gets paid ten times more than your average Cincinnatian. But we hate it when we are mocked after our specific athletic group of rich outsiders comes up short against similar groups from similar far-away places.
The uglier side of this fan shame manifests with people threatening players with black-hearted vulgarities on social-media channels and screaming for coaches to be fired, but most people just absorb it, digest it and move on pleasantly enough to their fellow humans, but not without a small twinge of defeat that never truly goes away. Over time, this feeling hardens into indifference, and many passionate fans become casual observers out of self-defense. This is partly why the area struggles to sell out games and is why these people are always one shrug away from not giving a shit.
I count myself among the masses who felt the shame on Monday. I felt it Sunday afternoon as the clock wilted away like an iceberg in the Arctic Ocean. I simmered in my seat and fiddled with my hat a lot as I replayed each Dalton turnover in my head. I vented to the room about Jay Gruden being outcoached after halftime. I went outside and pretended I could see Mike Brown in his tower, laughing at me.
If this is Mike Brown's fault, though, he is only guilty for employing the men beneath him. While he was the easy target of the past, MB hasn't done much to complain about recently. Perhaps he still lacks the gumption necessary to be shrewd and occasionally fire those he counts as friends, but his football operations have been proficient and his organization has enjoyed a prolonged string of quality regular seasons. A major decision looms around the future of the team's quarterback position, but that is another story for another day. For now, the blame should be redirected from the owner's box.
We might as well cut to the chase and blame Andy Dalton for the third consecutive Wild-Card loss on Sunday. He lost that game. He did. The others weren't their best, but he was a disaster in the second half and he matters the most. We know what Dalton can do well. When things are going as planned, when the offensive line is keeping him mellow and in rhythm, when the defense shows the looks he expects, things come up roses. He makes a lot of nice throws and surprises me a couple of times a game with his abilities, but then a wrinkle surfaces, something he didn't account for, and the whole operation falls apart.
There are only about eight really good to great quarterbacks in the game. Then there are good, average and random quarterbacks that make up the rest. Dalton has always vacillated between good and average and he remains there today. The playoffs have proven that it takes a high-level of professionalism at the quarterback position to advance in the contest, but this team either tried tricking themselves into thinking that they had a high-grade QB or that the rest of the team was strong enough to hide their problems. All it took for San Diego was to flush him out of the pocket for one half to crush the season. I think a lot of folks want to see Dalton be a game-manager, but he isn't that kind of a guy. He's either high-flying or hard crashing. He's either throwing four touchdowns or four picks. He's either Good Andy or Bad Andy.
The coaching staff certainly failed to make the adjustment in the second half the way the Chargers did, and it was hard to hear San Diego players say after the game that they saw no surprises from the Bengals and knew what was coming. This is an all-star coaching staff of respected men who have had little to no playoff success. At what point do those two things not correlate anymore? I like both coordinators and their schemes, I like the program Marvin Lewis runs and felt he improved on his game management skills this season. I like Hue Jackson and his moxie, and the Hayes brothers seem to know the game, but until all these guys win something we might remember in 20 or 40 years, we will die having forgotten about them, or worse, be pained by their memories.
Yes, shame is everywhere in this football town. It takes nine months to fully rev the engines again and allow the spring of hope to fill us once more and it will happen again, but one can't help but worry that the chances will dry up like it did in the wretched past. We don't trust that we will continue to enjoy year after year of divisional championships and playoff berths like some cities seem to do. Our desperation heightens with our limitation of days. Yet remember, dear desperate soul, that these men do not represent us; we represent ourselves. A great city, a great life, a great person is rarely defined through football, at least to the average joe. Root for them, yes, of course, but don't be ashamed when your hope is not satisfied. We are not losers because of the outcome of Wild-Card weekends.
We always hear that the same group of individuals is never completely replicated from one year to the next. There will certainly be changes in 2014, but we have yet to learn how dramatic they will be. Will all the same coaches come back next season? Will the new draft picks include a young quarterback? What free agents fit this team? Only time will tell. Until then, try not to stress about it. Enjoy the playoffs because you enjoy watching good football. Revel in the warmer weather sure to come in a few months. And when Bengals time rolls around again, remember who dictates your life and your shame. You do.
Mojokong-an ape of many interests.