It's amazing what a year and a few decisions can do to an NFL team.
In 2014, the Bengals looked to have yet another great chance at postseason success, but major losses were suffered early. And, by "early", we're talking after the first week of the season. Marvin Jones was dealing with foot issues while emerging star tight end Tyler Eifert suffered what became a season-ending injury against the Ravens in the season-opener. Cincinnati put the rest of the season together with duct tape and bandages, only to have a familiar exit in the playoffs once again without the services of the two other big offensive weapons, A.J. Green and Jermaine Gresham.
Now, Eifert and Jones have combined for 16 receiving touchdowns and over 1,200 yards receiving through 13 games, as complements to A.J. Green. Jones has remained healthy and productive in 2015, while Eifert has had a few nicks--one of which will cause him to miss this Sunday's game in the Bay Area.
Before the 2014 season began, the Bengals knew they needed a capable backup quarterback to groom behind Andy Dalton. Eschewing the familiar one-year veteran rental route the team had taken in the Dalton era, they grabbed college standout AJ McCarron in the fifth round of the NFL Draft. Some felt he would have been nabbed up sooner, but a variety of issues, founded and unfounded, led to his freefall. Given Dalton's ability to stay healthy throughout his career, not many thought McCarron would be needed this season. But, as fate would have it, what seemed like the Bengals' best chance to make postseason noise in decades rests on AJ's right shoulder.
Meanwhile, from 2011-2013, concurrent to the Cincinnati Bengals' rebuilding project, the San Francisco 49ers build a mini-dynasty of their own. The enigmatic Jim Harbaugh drafted incredibly well and in those three seasons his teams had 36 regular season wins and an NFC title.
One piece of Harbaugh's brief empire was built on a number of former Bengals joining the club. Justin Smith was a huge get back in 2008, while Dan Skuta and Ahmad Brooks helped to round out the defense. All spent time in The Queen City, while both teams pursued similar free agents in Carlos Rogers, Donte Whitner and others, furthering the idea that both teams had a similar blueprint in their roster re-creations.
Rumors of tension between the coarse personality of their head coach and the 49ers front office began to surface during the 2014 season, though. Those rumors, coupled with a down year by former superstar Colin Kaepernick, led to an 8-win season and Harbaugh's resigning/dismissal as the team's head coach.
What ensued was one of the worst offseasons by an NFL franchise in recent memory, whether it was truly the fault of the-powers-that-be, or random coincidence. Young starters Chris Borland and Anthony Davis surprisingly retired, as did future Hall of Fame linebacker Patrick Willis and the aforementioned Smith. Throw in Frank Gore and Michael Crabtree leaving via free agency with Aldon Smith getting axed because another off-field incident, and you're seeing the multitude of starters the team had to replace while also breaking in a new head coach.
San Francisco interviewed a number of candidates, but ultimately settled on the affable Jim Tomsula, a former assistant coach with the team. The man never really had a fair chance at a good 2015 campaign because of all of the aforementioned departures, and now after all of the turmoil and a benching of Kaepernick, San Francisco is staring down the black hole of a four-win season with just three games left to play.
What could greatly aid McCarron in his first NFL start is the lackluster rankings of the once-proud 49ers defense. They are 27th against the pass and 31st against the run, likely pointing to the pressure easing up on the Bengals' backup quarterback, while allowing his playmakers around him to do their thing.
Complicating his potential rise to success though, is the big absence of Tyler Eifert. After taking a cheap shot from Mike Mitchell to cause a concussion last week, McCarron hasn't had the luxury of having the franchise record-setting tight end to throw to. Other injuries to some key players aside from Eifert and Dalton, have hit a largely-healthy team at the worst possible time.
All signs point to Hue Jackson not tightening the leash on McCarron so much to become vanilla, but it is the second-year quarterback's first professional start, after all. What would be best for this Sunday and for the team going forward is if Jeremy Hill can finally get his mojo rising. He's struggled to the tune of a 3.6 yards per carry average this year. With the Bengals currently utilizing a backup quarterback and the weather getting worse, it seems to be an opportune time for Hill to shine.
On the other side of the field, Blaine Gabbert has taken the reigns from Kaepernick in an effort to resurrect his career. The former No. 5 overall pick was once an option for the Bengals to select in their 2011 reconstruction, but they opted for A.J. Green and Dalton in the second round of that same draft.
Gabbert fizzled out in Jacksonville because of his own stunted professional growth, but also because of a lack of supporting talent on the Jaguars roster. In the five games he's started for the 49ers this year, the club has gone 2-3, with Gabbert throwing six touchdowns against three interceptions at a 90.7 rating. San Francisco was just 2-6 with Kaepernick at the helm and felt a change, whether it be long-term or short-term, was needed.
Truth be told, Sunday is a big game for both squads and both quarterbacks. For the Bengals, it's an opportunity to clinch a playoff spot, after such a bitter taste to the end of last week. It's also an arena for McCarron to instill hope in his team that they can win games the rest of the year should Dalton not be able to return. Bengals players and McCarron himself are saying all the right things, but only quality play by No. 5 on the field will instill the deepest of confidences.
For the 49ers, it's all about planning for 2016 and player auditions for a roster spot next year at this point. They will be embracing the "playing for pride" mantra, while also wanting to put on a good display for a disgruntled home crowd. Gabbert may be auditioning for a starting job as well, whether it be with San Francisco or otherwise in 2016, as it seems like the time of the Bay Area bicep-kissing has passed.
I don't like picking the Bengals in this one with a quarterback getting his first NFL start, but the surrounding talent is hard to ignore. While Eifert and George Iloka are out, Adam Jones appears to be back after a month-long foot issue that caused him to miss two games and will provide great relief to the Bengals' defense.
However, I also have a hard time picking Gabbert against the Bengals' fierce front seven of the defense. They're getting to the quarterback with ease, and while Gabbert has the ability to scramble, they should be able to to him frequently behind a patchwork 49ers offensive line.
Both teams will have their struggles and it's likely to be an ugly one, but I think the Bengals emerge with their 11th win of 2015.
Bengals 20, 49ers 14
AC -- Keeping the arm loose for when the next quarterback spot opens up.