Being a Bengals fan, there is always something dragging us back from being fully optimistic about the future. Whenever I get a little too confident, I bring myself down a couple notches by thinking about sitting in Paul Brown Stadium on Sunday, January 5, 2014. Specifically, I remember watching Gio Bernard fumble from what looks like five feet away in my memories. Other fans may have another particular memory they use to ground themselves. Or maybe you just look at all-time records in the NFL and humble yourself with our .448 winning percentage, which ranks 27th out of 32 teams. Whatever it may be, it’s time we start feeling good about ourselves as Bengals fans.
Fortunately, I am a relatively young Bengals fan, and the memories of the 90s are foggy and blurred to the point where they haven’t done much damage to my psyche. Those fortunate enough to have been coherent for the two Super Bowl runs of the 80s would understandably point to those teams for the answer to this question: Which Bengals team has made the winningest fours-year run in team history? However, the answer to that question is the team we are watching right now. As far as the regular season is concerned, the past four years have been the winningest four years in Cincinnati’s history. The ride hasn’t hasn’t been perfect, but it has been very, very good.
From 2011-2014, the Bengals are 40-23-1. The next closest four-year span belongs to the 1973-1976 teams who went 38-18. Yeah, their percentage was better, but let’s not let percentages get in the way of a good time! We have experienced 40 happy Sundays (or Mondays and Thursdays on rare occasions) since Andy Dalton and A.J. Green arrived in Cincinnati.
The question is, what does that record really mean? Being that this is the sixth best percentage of any time during that time frame, does that really mean that the Bengals are the sixth best team in the NFL? That’s really up to you, dear reader. If we are speaking in purely statistical terms, the answer is absolutely yes. However, I prefer to speak in terms of overall success, which means we need to include the postseason, and we all know what that means. I think it’s safe to say the Bengals have been a top-10 team during the past four years. However, if you want to start sniffing at the top-5, your playoff résumé better have some wins on it.
Some people may look at the disparity between the Bengals’ regular and postseason success and come to the conclusion that their regular season strength of schedule may be lacking. Looking at the raw numbers, that argument actually has some substantiation. From 2011-2014, the Bengals’ strength of schedule has ranked 27th, 14th, 12th, and 23rd in chronological order. While not terribly strong, I believe those numbers to be completely irrelevant. In the NFL, how a team performs the previous year has almost no bearing on how they will perform next year. For evidence of that, I’d say that the Bengals of 2011 far outperformed their projections based on 2010 and threw a wrench into other teams’ strength of schedule rankings.
However, if you do want to buy into the strength of schedule argument (while overlooking the similar results during the four-year span despite wildly different strengths of schedule (SOS), this year is your year, as Cincinnati’s SOS ranks 2nd in the NFL. While battling in a division with the Ravens and Steelers makes for a rough schedule every year, the Bengals have a plethora of games that may be tough outside the division. I stress the word "may" because it’s impossible to say how teams will perform, how injuries will affect teams, etc. I think the Bills will be a tough game in Week 6, but I wouldn’t be surprised if that team won anywhere from 4-10 games. It is a total crapshoot and almost an exercise in futility to ponder at this point. I think we will decimate San Francisco in Week 15. However, like Buffalo, so much has changed that it is hard to predict anything one way or the other with any amount of certainty.
However, let’s get back to macro. These past four years have been among the best in the Bengals’ history. The one defining trait of these four years is that we have had #14 under center for every single game. For all of the arguments that will surely take place in the comments section, Andy Dalton definitely has the best ability that any quarterback can have: availability. His ability to get under center for every game of his NFL career (68 out of 68!) has kept us from having to cheer on the Jason Campbell's, Josh Johnson's, and Bruce Gradkowski's of the world.
The ultimate question is this – Have the Bengals achieved all of this success because of him or in spite of him? Some might point to a talented supporting cast or a strong defense. I’d point to last year’s defense and similar record to refute such an argument. I also think that all of us (even myself) fall victim to overrating some of our role players. How else could I explain my irrational love for James Wright, despite his injury? I would tend to lean more toward the "because of him" argument. Don’t get me wrong, I know he is a middle-tier QB with limited upside. However, he has clearly had his hand in a fair share of victories, and I can only think of one instance off the top of my head where the team truly won in spite of Andy. I’m sure there are other examples out there, but that is much the same for many other QBs, regardless of talent.
While we haven’t seen any reason to believe that he may morph into Andrew Luck this year, we can also be equally as confident that we won’t be watching whoever is holding his clipboard take snaps in the middle of a playoff race.
With all of that said, should we be optimistic this year? If you like the roster and you like what you see on the field, get excited! Don’t let something that happened decades ago, or even last year temper expectations. Every season is a vacuum, and nothing outside of the current season affects the season. Individual games are the exact same way. So when we’re watching the Bengals on TV this year, and whoever is broadcasting the game shows a stat that says the Bengals have not achieved success in a highly specific situation in some abstract amount of time, just remember – that stat means DIDDLY POO! If it did, how could a lifetime .448 team make the playoffs four years in a row?