As the August sun reflects off the striped orange helmets that line the practice fields next to the concrete monstrosity that is Paul Brown Stadium, a group of more than 100 men look to one another for the answers and solutions that could propel them to the elusive heights of a playoff win.
Of course, not all of them will be there should the Bengals reach such a milestone—in fact nearly half won’t be—and those who are remaining in the end will have seen the same steps that have taken place in each of the last four years.
Some may view the Bengals’ offseason approach this year as a dogged determination to stay the course and see the damned thing through to the end it was designed to achieve. Others may see the direction as a rigid stubbornness of settling for the same results with the same personnel. In either case, the theme is an unchanging mold of a football team that is unquestionably talented and effective, but firmly placed in the not-good-enough pile with other winners who are not champions.
Marvin Lewis has become as much a regular to Cincinnati autumns as Oktoberfest or fireworks, and he once more strolls out onto the only field he’s ever known as a head coach. Behind him, is a core that has developed and matured together into one of the league’s deeper rosters with everything one could ask for, minus the abstract spark that moves all the necessary human components just so to win a Super Bowl, or even a playoff game.
The first thing most minds recognize when they set out to define what that missing spark may be is the orange hair under the orange helmet of Andy Dalton. If the height of his proverbial ceiling was ever hazy on specifics, after four years of showing a skill set that is pretty darn good yet still fatally flawed, we now know what this man is capable of achieving at the highest level. If it were a case study—and of course it is—then data is what we rely on and the results speak for themselves.
But what a weird element the pressure of the postseason is. Over a 16-game stretch, Dalton is capable of winning the occasional big game that puts the Bengals into the playoffs in the first place, but if it is sensed that the magnifying glass has increased, the output turns out negative. And, as each loss in January piles up, that pressure is heightened with the enormous doubt the majority have in Dalton’s ability to raise above.
Perhaps it isn’t entirely fair, though. Last year, the team was an absolute shell of its offensive self by the wild-card round. The inability for anyone to get open made stopping the run easier, which ruined everything in terms of scoring enough points. The optimist in us might latch on to the hopes that with a healthier roster heading into that game, Cincinnati could have pulled an upset, and with having their offensive weapons back and healthy this year, at hand is yet another legitimate shot to turn things around. Is it enough, though?
Tyler Eifert could be a game-changer if he makes it through the season healthy. Never have we heard that he lacks anything or that he just hasn’t looked very good. The superlatives of his training camp performances fall easily from the mouths of the commentators that are privy to such exposure and the excitement naturally builds up around him. The only question is, can he stay healthy?
Marvin Jones is another flashy gem in Hue Jackson’s jewelry box—fast, good route runner, and tremendous concentration on contested catches—but his fragility is also in question. Marvin Lewis has little tolerance for injuries, but Jones has the sense of a player who might find it a challenge to avoid them.
The big "if", becomes if the pair, along with A.J. Green to some degree, will make it through a full season, or even most of it, because behind those guys is the same flimsy replacements the Bengals were stuck with against the Colts in the 2014 playoffs.
It seemed like a year to have possibly made a run at a free agent veteran receiver as an insurance policy to the top three targets (Green, Jones and Eifert) who all missed time last year. The obvious anemia the offense displayed in that game might have scared some general managers into overreacting, but not the Bengals. Rather than buy another pair of hands, Cincinnati looked instead to patch up a defense that was once great under former Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, but became mediocre once Paul Guenther took the job. Their selections on that side of the ball were telling in their philosophy.
The big ticket was getting pass rusher Michael Johnson back, after heleft for Tampa Bay for a year, only to realize that not every scheme fits the same and scurried back to a comfortable spot next to familiar fellow defensive linemen. MJ, though, was the first major injury scare for the Bengals in 2015 when he sprained his knee early in training camp which will reportedly keep him out of the whole preseason.
Another familiar face returning to the Bengals is defensive tackle Pat Sims, who blossomed under Zimmer but couldn’t replicate the same effectiveness in Oakland. Sims had been a sneaky key piece of the Zim Clan of the past, and like MJ, seems to only fit here in Cincinnati. Now in his second tour in stripes, Sims may find the ranks a bit more crowded than the teams he played with in the past. There is stiff competition at defensive tackle and ol’ Pat could be on the chopping block once it’s time to make the tough decisions on cut day.
Long time Green Bay stalwart A.J. Hawk meandered back to Ohio and finds himself in Cincinnati to provide depth to a linebacker group that is perhaps the thinnest in terms of talent and health on the defense. The stud of the group, Vontaze Burfict, might never be the same reckless cannonball he was in 2013. With micro fractures in his knee and concussion and neck injuries piling up on the still relatively young warrior’s body, guarantees are nowhere to be found that he will return to his Pro Bowl self. Hawk is nowhere near the player Burfict can be—hell, he may not be the player Rey Maualuga is—and his role on the team remains curious. Those who watched the Packers closely last year were not necessarily thrilled with the season he turned in and losing him in free agency to the Bengals did not incur much heartbreak to the cheese heads.
Outside of all of these purchases, though, the real key for the Bengals on defense remains the keystone Geno Atkins and his ability to get back to devouring offensive linemen on a very regular basis. When Atkins was at the top of his game, the entire defense fell into place and became a bruising, but controlled force to the opposition. His recovery from a blown-out knee, however, was a slow process and last year, he was famously dubbed as "just another guy" by Guenther. The talk now, though, seems as refreshing as the morning dew as every person who has witnessed him move this summer says he is back to his fire-breathing dragon self. In the only preseason game thus far, he looked quick off the ball and found himself in his comfortable confines of the opposing backfield.
The man who might be a serviceable sub for Atkins when he does rotate to the sideline during games is rookie Marcus Hardison. It’s hard not to like the width of this young man who at 307 pounds. looks big but not fat. Hardison has played end and tackle in the limited action we’ve seen and has a quick first step and lots of power. He and undrafted tackle DeShawn Williams have flashed out of the gates and could likely eliminate Devon Still from the picture once Week 1 is ready to unfold.
This roster still looks mighty firm on paper. The depth is of a high quality at nearly every spot and recent top draft picks like Dre Kirpatrick, Darqueze Dennard, and Jeremy Hill are all poised to elevate their game to impressive heights. The fear of another letdown in the postseason is not based on personnel or talent evaluation, it’s based on the leadership of the team that leads the same decision making that has been unable to get over the hump on four consecutive tries. Will there be anything different in the approach of Marvin Lewis, Hue Jackson and Paul Guenther, or Andy Dalton? Has the blueprint been tweaked enough to expect a possibility of different results? Or does the formula come out to be the same equation as it’s been every time under the Lewis-era?
Growing optimism mixed with worry is the life of a Bengals fan.