If you're a Bengals fan, the past week isn't exactly how you drew things up in your mind for the club. After an emotionally draining loss to their most heated rivals in the playoffs for another early exit, Cincinnati has experienced a major shift in their coaching staff. Earlier in the week, it was announced that Adam Gase took the Miami Dolphins head coaching position, and he poached a couple of Bengals defensive assistant coaches to round out his staff in South Beach.
Former defensive backs coach and emerging star in the NFL ranks, Vance Joseph will man the defensive coordinator post for Gase, while Matt Burke will coach the linebackers, the same job he held with the Bengals. The impacts of both could be felt at the respective position groups they oversaw in 2015.
Additionally, most expected former Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson would get another shot at a head coaching position after such a solid output from the Bengals' offense this year, but they weren't sure where he would land. The Giants, Browns and 49ers all came calling, but Jackson opted for the Bengals' rival in Cleveland, immediately bringing validity to the Browns and an already-tough division.
After the 2013 season, the Bengals' coaching staff was mauled in a similar fashion, with then-defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer and then-offensive coordinator Jay Gruden earning head coaching jobs with the Vikings and Redskins, respectively. After many believing Cincinnati couldn't recover from those losses, they have made two straight postseason berths, including a franchise-tying 12-win season in 2015.
But, after so many negative things happening in such a short period of time to start their offseason, will the Bengals take a step back in 2016?
A Potential Hangover:
Bengals players have publicly proclaimed that a hangover won't be occurring for the team after such a crushing loss to the Steelers in the Wild Card round last weekend. That's all well and good, but it is player-speak after all, and the proof in the pudding will be when the team begins taking the field for meaningful games nine months from now.
Given some of the leadership in the locker room, guys like Andrew Whitworth and Domata Peko, who were the most vocal about the Bengals not having a hangover, could rein guys in to make sure they are focused. However with wild cards like Vontaze Burfict and Adam Jones (who is set to be a free agent) in the locker room, and Burfict set to miss the first three games of the season with a suspension, who knows what the prevailing attitude and effort level of this team will be after such a draining end to the season--both with the loss and with such well-respected coaches leaving elsewhere.
Paul Guenther had the defense play pretty well in 2015, particularly down the stretch when Burfict hit his stride and much of the pressure to win games was placed on the defense to aid AJ McCarron. But, the major story line of 2015 was the offense's productivity under Jackson.
Free Agency and Jackson's Potential Poaching:
Do you think Jackson doesn't realize wide receivers Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu are impending free agents? He's also perfectly aware the two starting safeties for the Bengals, Reggie Nelson and George Iloka, are impending free agents as well. With Cleveland already snatching up former Bengals players in recent years (Andrew Hawkins, Frostee Rucker) before Jackson's arrival, it might be even more prevalent with Jackson at the helm of the Browns.
Playing in the Browns' favor is Jackson time as a Bengals assistant coach in all three phases of the game. Before taking over for Gruden as offensive coordinator, Jackson dabbled with the running backs, special teams and the secondary since arriving in 2012. He knows this roster well and is likely already targeting a few players for the Browns to nab up when free agency hits. If he's able to land any one of those four aforementioned players, it could be a big blow to the Bengals in 2016--particularly on the offense, of which he so beautifully orchestrated all of last season.
Jackson also knows how to build a team up and raise them from the ashes of embarrassment. In his seven total seasons as a Bengals assistant coach, Jackson has witnessed two of Marvin Lewis' roster re-creations that have led to some of Cincinnati's most successful seasons. Jackson has undoubtedly taken notes from Lewis and knows how to work within the confines of unfavorable ownership, as he has coached for the Davis and Brown families.
It's in this construct and his past experiences that has Browns fans excited for the possibilities ahead for Cleveland. If he is able to build a strong foundation with the Browns, it might be at the expense of some of the Bengals' prized free agents. In his press conference on Monday, Lewis was confident in being able to keep a number of Cincinnati's impending free agents, but we'll see if that actually occurs.
Has the well run dry?:
As CJ contributor Cody Tewmey reminded me of on Twitter, the Bengals were able to bounce back extremely well after the losses of Gruden and Zimmer and should be able to get similar production from the offense Jackson conjured up because of the quality staff Lewis has built.
After all, the departures of Zimmer and Gruden worked out for all parties involved, given Cincinnati's two straight postseason berths as well as Minnesota and Washington both making the postseason in 2015. While it seems like a daunting task, Cincinnati tapped internal options to take over for their former coordinators.
Here's the rub: Jackson, a guy with former NFL head coaching experience, was readily available for them to lean on in the transition on offense. There doesn't seem to be any other internal candidates with the same kind of pedigree to replace him.
James Urban has done a good job with the receivers in his five seasons as a Bengals assistant coach, but he doesn't have any NFL coordinator experience. Ken Zampese also seems to be a name that frequently pops up as an option when this position has been vacated in recent years, be he doesn't have NFL coordinator experience either. Kyle Caskey, the team's running backs coach, might be a viable option as well, especially with his time studying under Jackson.
Any of these coaches could step in and have the success Gruden and Guenther had in their respective terms as Bengals coordinators, as both only had position coach experience before becoming coordinators themselves. Gase made a leap of faith by hiring Joseph for a promotion too. You just have to wonder if the Bengals can keep striking gold if they continue to promote from within their own organization, especially when needing to replace three coaches. Simply put, it would be another foray into the relative unknown in some of these vacancies.
What about the Offense?:
First of all, think about how Andy Dalton feel today. After experiencing a career season in 2015, he gets injured and is forced to watch the team's most heartbreaking loss to the team against whom he was injured. Then, he has to deal with the departure of the coach who spearheaded his MVP-like campaign and wonder who he'll have as his next coordinator, his third in four years. Tough breaks.
This is the big question though, and it gives a sort of chicken-or-the-egg kind of response. While he was very productive under Jackson, Dalton did have some nice statistical years under Gruden as well. Were Gruden and Jackson propped up a bit because of the overall talent the Bengals have built on that side of the ball, or were they both the wizards the Redskins and Browns believe they are?
Maybe it's a bit of both. Regardless, the biggest differences in Dalton's game this year were his decisiveness, confidence and care of the football. Did this have more to do with Dalton's intense offseason workouts and the return of Tyler Eifert and Marvin Jones? Or was it Jackson concocting a scheme perfect for his quarterback and the weapons around him?
Again, maybe it's both.
Congratulations to coach Jackson. While Bengals fans cringe seeing him leave for a hated rival, he is more than deserving of the opportunity for a variety of reasons. If you watched the NFL Network pregame show before the Wild Card game on Saturday, you also got a new appreciation of the man and the love he has for the Bengals' organization.