The Cincinnati Bengals have reached the NFL playoffs each of the last four years, but have squandered each opportunity during Wildcard Weekend, no matter the point spread and no matter the home advantage.
As the 2015 offseason draws toward draft day, the writers charged with covering the Bengals are placed in an especially interesting predicament at this point. Whether it is merely for passing time as the draft approaches or simply to offer a far-too-early prediction for conversational purposes, we love our preemptive predictions.
As far as my version of a pre-draft preview: Hate me if you must, but I can't see the Bengals making the playoffs in 2015, for several reasons.
First off, the Bengals have the second strongest strength of schedule in the NFL – meaning they will face the second-highest average winning percentage from teams' 2014 regular season records. The only team with the higher strength of schedule is the Steelers, thankfully.
When looking at the division, the Steelers have only gotten better. Bell is the best overall running back in the AFC North (and quite possibly in the AFC), and there's more than a strong case for Ben Roethlisberger as the best quarterback in the division. The only competition? Hint: He doesn't have red hair. The only reason Andy Dalton isn't in the basement in that category is because the Browns don't have a quarterback – so the Red Rifle is third by default.
This approaching season, the Bengals will face the Broncos, Bills, Cardinals, 49ers, Seahawks, Rams, Raiders, Texans, Chargers, and Chiefs. Take a moment to let that sink in. The only games I can see the Bengals being legitimately favored in are against the Raiders, 49ers, Rams, Texans, and possibly the Chiefs. That's not to say that they can't win against the other teams – they probably will win a few close ones. However, the chances for the Bengals to win more than half their games have never been more in doubt. Not since Andy Dalton's first season, anyways.
Expected wins: Browns (once), Raiders, 49ers, Rams.
Expected losses: Broncos, Cardinals, Seahawks, Chargers, Chiefs, Steelers (twice).
The rest of the games fall in the middle, where they could more easily go either way. Especially from what we've seen this early, based on predictions from the 2014 season and the pre-draft offseason.
Now, the Bengals have not had an explosive offseason. But they also haven't had a bad one. Signing A.J. Hawk will provide a solid, hometown leader for the defense on rotation (think James Harrison two years ago, only expectedly better). Bringing Michael Johnson in will also do wonders for reviving what was once a deadly pass-rush. Part of the reason Geno was so ineffective this past year can be explained with two-pronged logic. One, the man was covering off an ACL injury. Two, without a true standout at defensive end, it's extremely hard to fight off double-teams on the inside as the biggest threat. Both of those should be corrected for 2015, barring injury or other unforeseen circumstances.
With the signing of Denarius Moore, the Bengals add a No. 4 receiving threat, assuming the change in scenery will do well for him. His best season came in 2012, and he's managed to put up solid numbers in an offense that is anything but solid. I'm excited to see what he brings to the Queen City.
Injuries played a huge part in the Bengals’ struggles last season, and it is the only excuse that can be used to shield Andy Dalton. Gresham, and Green missed time and Jones and Eifert missed the entire season. Members of the defense also missed time, most notably, Vontaze Burfict. This season, with a bit of good fortune, will be far more productive and far more consistent with all the role-players suiting up for games.
The interesting thing is that in a run-heavy offense last season, Andy Dalton digressed in a significant way, with the 25th best QBR in the league. That's not exactly a six-year, $96 million deal worthy performance. Injuries are to blame, however, injuries alone can't serve as a valid excuse. The job of a good quarterback is to make the players around him better, not depend on them to make him look good. That simply isn't a trait Dalton possesses. Even when Hue Jackson called for a run-first offensive game-plan, Dalton struggled in many passing situations where even an average quarterback wouldn't have. Pocket presence has been an issue throughout his career, as has Dalton’s lackluster (and that's being kind) deep pass. Last season, high passes also became a huge problem. There isn't any statistic for high, missed passes other than the standard incompletions number. But if there were – and this is coming from someone who watched every game – he would be an undisputed gold medalist in that category.
Yes, a run-heavy offense could potentially affect a quarterback's rhythm. Yes, Marvin Lewis will probably use that excuse (if he hasn't already). But no, it doesn't excuse it. The ability to throw the football is in a quarterback's job description. You don't say, you'll ask mockingly.
But tell Dalton that. Rhythm is one thing, but it's getting a lot harder to defend his job as a starter for a playoff contending team. As most cases go, a team only goes as far as its quarterback takes it. And Andy Dalton isn't taking this team anywhere.
The team will be at Andy Dalton's Super Bowl house-party this year. And the Red Rifle is probably scheduling the invitations to go out by the end of October.