(Editor's Note: Send your questions every week via Twitter to @CincyJungle and/or @CJAnthonyCUI to be featured on this post!)
Marvin Lewis and his crew have two regular season games left to decide their postseason fate. With the dominant 30-0 win against the Cleveland Browns last Sunday, the odds are in their favor to make the NFL playoffs, be it as a division winner or a wild card entrant. Solid showings against two quality opponents not only help pave the way to playing football in January, but also build confidence within the team and fan base as they prepare for a postseason berth.
As that destination gets closer in the front window, the questions of Bengals fans are largely revolving around two topics: the team's quarterback and the health of the roster. High-level of play often coincides with having your best players available and the Bengals might be getting some guys back at the right time.
Let's start with a question that is a little off of the beaten path, but I still found interesting, both because of the topic and for who posed it.
This one is a slippery slope and I don't want to dive too deep into these weeds. I won't go into my political views because frankly, a Cincinnati Bengals blog isn't the place for that, but I will say that every American has a right to have their voice heard and Andrew Hawkins clearly did that with the statement he made with his t-shirt.
I found it nice that Hawkins wasn't overly-boastful or obnoxiously in-your-face about what he was trying to say, but rather donned a shirt and let other people give the reaction that they wanted. So many times, people with large platforms, like a professional football player, use that to shove opinions and/or beliefs down the public's throat. I didn't really feel like that was the case here.
Still, whether he pushed his agenda hard to the media or not, Hawkins had to know that people were going to notice this. National attention has been gained, so much so, that when one begins to type "Andrew Hawkins" into an internet search engine, "shirt" starts to automatically populate with it as one of the top searches. Was Hawkins' intent with that shirt for it to become something that he is most noted for, rather than what he does on the field?
I listened to the nationally-syndicated "The Herd with Colin Cowherd" ESPN Radio program the other day and the topic of athletes expressing themselves with these type of gestures came up. Former NFL linebacker Bill Romanowski was Cowherd's guest and they went back-and-forth on the topic, especially centering around the emergence of social media over the past few years. That voice that I mentioned everyone having earlier is growing increasingly louder with those platforms.
Cowherd presented "Romo" with some data that was compiled noting that fans of professional athletes are mostly apathetic or take affront to athlete's pushing political and/or social agendas to them. It was surprising for the two personalities to learn, given how often people idolize athletes and celebrities. Romanowski basically chimed in with something to the effect of using social media and/or personal brands to push those opinions as more of a secondary thing, not necessarily using the team brand and/or letting and issue that the media swarms around end up controlling a locker room. I find that notion hard to argue with, regardless of what people think about what kind of a guy "Romo" is/was.
And, to that front, I think Hawkins achieved that to a certain extent. It might have been a different story if the Browns and Hawkins had gotten into the end zone, but who knows? "Baby Hawk" doesn't seem to be that attention-mongering type of guy though (at least basing that on his three years in Cincinnati), so I doubt it would have been the case.
I won't delve too much into the video that Mike linked in his Twitter question to me, but Hawkins did eloquently and calmly explained his reasoning behind the message on the shirt. This interview only took place after being swarmed by the media and a comment made by a the head of the Cleveland police union, saying that Hawkins needs to focus on his own job, not legal matters. In a classy step, Hawkins still said that he "respects and appreciates every police officer that protects and serves". He also downplayed the gesture by saying he is "not an activist in any way, shape, or form".
Still, I go back to the fact he wore the shirt over his pads in pre-game intros and had to know it would get attention, even admitting so in the video, saying "I knew that there would be backlash". I guess from where I sit, without getting overly-political or diving into the specific incident Hawkins was referencing, I respect the fact that he has an opinion, presented it, and then reacted calmly and professionally when pressed on it. I also harken back to Romanowski's view a little bit though, when talking about agendas in a team sport and wonder if this did have a little bit of self-service in it, even for a high-character guy like Hawkins.
Yeah...let's just move on.
None. Like, nary a peep, none. Last we heard, our good friend Geoff Hobson at Bengals.com wrote that the team could be shelving him until the postseason. That's entirely possible and would be a welcomed addition to the team's passing attack.
Still, with the debacle of Vontaze Burfict's knee, and the fact that Eifert was supposed to be targeting the Week Ten game against the Browns as his potential return, it isn't inspiring too much hope. Bengals radio analyst Dave Lapham went on air a few weeks back and said that there's concern that the dislocated elbow that Eifert had/has isn't healing properly. Yeah, that's not good.
Having Eifert back would be a nice security blanket for Andy Dalton, given the fact that he hasn't had two of his top receiving targets this season in Eifert and Marvin Jones. His return could be a boost for red zone efficiency (even though the Bengals are already ranked 10th in that area) and provide some stability for a unit that has seen some inconsistencies in 2014.
I'll be optimistic in saying that I'm hopeful he'll be back for the postseason because Hobson thinks so and Eifert has been seen out there doing side work at practice. But, if the developments with Burfict are any indication, the optimists might be severely disappointed.
To a certain extent, yes, I am. After a pretty stellar performance against the Steelers, Dalton threw for just 117 yards and an egregious interception. Unfortunately, because of the depletion of a couple of his offensive weapons, we're seeing Dalton lock on to A.J. Green a bit more frequently this year. The interception last week on the throw to Ryan Hewitt was particularly concerning because of Dalton saying that he didn't see the linebacker. It's his fourth year, some of those reads need to start being made.
For those that want to rush to Dalton's defense, there are plenty of things to point to for the offensive inconsistencies. Jones and Eifert being gone loses 12 touchdown receptions from 2013 and there isn't really a semblance of a slot receiver on this team. Dane Sanzenbacher has been ineffective, the team lost the aforementioned Hawkins to Cleveland, Giovani Bernard hasn't really been heavily-used in that role and the overall injuries at tight end hasn't allowed Hue Jackson to use them in the slot as much as he would probably like.Hence the heavy reliance on No. 18.
I've said it before and I'll say it again: if there's something we know about Andy Dalton, it's that he is a streaky player. If you look at his game-by-game stats, particularly in the last three, the level of inconsistency is maddening. With two elite games coming up to finish the season and more on tap in the postseason, the Bengals will need Dalton to heat up and go on one of those multi-game tears we've seen from him in the past.
Here's the potential caveat that is unknown at the moment, though: look at last game as an indication. Now, the teams that they will face going forward will have better run defenses than the Browns, but the Bengals didn't need Dalton to even be good on Sunday to pull out a huge win.
The NFL is a passing league, but when December and January roll around, the running game becomes increasingly important--even for the elite level quarterbacks. If Sunday wasn't an aberration with the running game and defense seeming to turn the corner, and that's a pretty big "if", then postseason life for Dalton will become a lot easier. The next two games will be a good litmus test for all three phases.
That isn't to say that Dalton won't need to make his share of throws. Balance is critical, especially in the postseason, so Dalton will need to zip it through some potential weather issues going forward. Even though the whole picture wasn't great for Dalton, the team did have a 50% third down conversion rate, with Dalton making needed throws on both third and fourth down.
He needs to play sharper, though, that's for certain. throwing in the 140-150 yard range and turning the ball over might be able to get you wins against Tampa Bay and Cleveland, but it won't get it done against the other AFC big boys. That's even the case with a stout running game and a defensive unit playing well.
Frankly, I'm always concerned with Dalton in big games, as evidenced by his 57.2 rating in primetime games. If everything falls into place, i.e. the running game and defense coming around and Eifert returns, than my confidence will build. Ultimately though, it's just going to come down to him actually going through it, playing and beating quality teams in big moments. Until then, we'll just have to sit on pins and needles, waiting.