Exactly 10 football seasons ago, the Cincinnati Bengals were 7-2 and enjoying the bye week as the AFC North thumper and conference heavyweight. The flying could get no higher in the Queen City as a young quarterback had become full grown and the points and wins just kept coming. There was an excited astonishment at how fast Marvin Lewis was able to build such a formidable program in only three years and with greenhorn stars in the right places, the future of the team was breathtaking.
The road since has been a wild roller-coaster ride, well documented in these pages and others. The rigorous emotional toll that all the participants—coaches, owners, players, and especially the city and fans—have collectively experienced makes what has happened this season even sweeter, but also less intense.
In 2005, the success was more thrilling. The franchise had been buried with awful team direction for over a decade and became the example of a bad professional sports organization. To blow that kind of losing culture away so quickly to the point that the Bengals were a serious Super Bowl threat in three years was unheard of. Because of the speed of the hype, it was easy to become swept up in it and freak out a little.
This time around, in 2015, the admiration for an even-better team feels like the applause of a terrific golf round—there in spirit, but executed calmly. There is almost an "about-time" vibe to this perfect 8-0 sensation that delivers wins like the milkman but still gets the obligatory nod over the hearty pat on the back. Of course, the four previous consecutive playoff losses have scarred the confidence of everyone who watches football. Of course the doubt lingers from the ghosts of the franchise's past, but it's because this success we see today has been built slowly, and because of that, we are less surprised and less excited.
That doesn't mean it isn't terrific football.
The Bengals have a stout overall defense that is almost certain to improve as the year goes on—particularly now that supervillain Vontaze Burfict is back. This man is drawn to chaos and disorder on the field; he embodies Eris. Also, the discussion that Geno Atkins only needed time to become the monster that he used to be, turned out to be entirely accurate and he is now wreaking the familiar havoc we around here enjoy watching week to week. Carlos Dunlap also loves having the old Geno back as both of their sack numbers inflate more every week.
Nonetheless, this is an offensive football team. If you can keep the Bengals under 24 points, then you have taken them out of their game and might be on the fast track to becoming their first loss, but how can you? There are a lot of mouths to feed in this pond of tiger sharks and everybody brings something different to the table.
We know about A.J. Green. He has Jerry Rice material in a Randy Moss body. He could be the greatest of his generation—and still may someday be—but he lacks a shade of toughness that keeps him from transcending all the way above his peers.
We're learning about Tyler Eifert, who looks like Mark Bavaro across the middle and plays with a kind of lunch pail demeanor that rarely irritates anyone. Eifert has demonstrated that he is ideally the key to the castle and makes life easier for everyone else in the passing game.
Marvin Jones is the other key. Deceptively tough, extremely quick and with an uncanny ability to concentrate on contested throws, Jones is quietly becoming an emerging superstar, who, at this point has proven to be pretty damn trustworthy in the offense.
Sanu is a nice piece as a rugged, overgrown receiver, Burkhead is fun with his versatility and weird football body-type, and even Ryan Hewitt has pair of strong hands that have been clutch a couple of times already this year. Also, the Bengals run routes to their tackles sometimes..their tackles.
It's clear that Hue Jackson is a madman. He burned convention in an ashtray where he keeps his victory cigars. His formations are so all over the place, that for some of the more bizarre ones, the ones television commentators may never get used to, have sort of become the norm. How many times have the Bengals run the quick out to Marvin Jones with a tackle and receiver flanked out wide in front of him? He can target whoever isn't double teamed because every player he can design a play for can win one-on-one. It helps too that his beleaguered starting quarterback -- Andy Dalton -- appears to have decided that he isn't going to take crap anymore and will just win all the damn time and be an MVP candidate.
The passing game was pretty explosive two seasons ago when Jay Gruden had Dalton throwing an awful lot and had a healthy arsenal then too, but this year is that, only better, with age and a little bit of anger. It's the strongest passing game since that of the Bengals' 2005 season.
It would come as no surprise, then, if it were cooled a bit as we head into the second half of the season. Jeremy Hill has not produced to his expectations just yet, while his colleague Giovani Bernard has perhaps exceeded his own. The two have combined for a good enough backfield, but if both were humming along at full capacity, the possibilities would be endless.
There is a common misconception that Hill is a heavy between-the-tackles runner and Bernard is the burner used strictly outside or in space; but it's the opposite. Hill is a finesse runner who seems to look for the home run instead of keeping his legs moving and running over somebody. Bernard has the vision to bounce it outside for good yardage, but he can take it up the gut for the hard-nosed shorter gains behind his linemen and he has served that function for this team better than his backfield teammate.
The most noteworthy element about the team's success has been its lack of injury. Marvin Lewis changed the practice schedule this year which looks pretty damn genius from this angle. The effect has been stunning and goes to show what a fully operational Bengals depth star can look like when given the chance. The man has built a rock-solid roster to the point where first and second round draft picks can play a very minor role, or not at all and it doesn't matter.
If you enjoy picking nits, then you could put a magnifying glass up against their schedule and groan about the ho-hum competition they've played this year. Sure, Seattle is still decent and Pittsburgh is pretty scrappy for a hurt team, but those aren't February teams.
Still, a blind man could at least smell all the talent in Cincinnati. This is high-powered stuff, not to be dismissed as an expensive imitation of the real deal. The Bengals haven't felt like this in a long time and it has never been so refined before. This team is a gilded-edged memory in the making for Bengals fans; it may not get better than this.
Mojokong—the feelings of football.