Looking back at the 2015 season, it's safe to say the Cincinnati Bengals could have been one of the best, if not the NFL's best team.
That's painful to say, especially since they didn't make it past the Wild Card round. While Andy Dalton's injury was a big reason why, the Bengals also did themselves no favors with the amount of penalties they committed in 2015.
Penalties can often be the difference in a win or loss, not to mention the difference between 12 wins and 13+ wins, which would have gotten the Bengals the No. 1 overall seed in the AFC playoffs. That would have ensured they'd have been playing in the Divisional Round, and possibly with the services of Dalton.
Then who knows where this team would have ended their season.
But instead, we are left to reflect on what went wrong and what can be done to make sure it doesn't happen again. While Cincinnati certainly wasn't perfect and had several weaknesses, the overall body of work, even with Dalton's injury, was enough for this team to finish with a 12-4 record.
But again, penalties hurt this team and ultimately helped keep the Bengals from reaching their true potential. According to NFLPenalties.com, the Bengals had an average of seven penalties accepted against them per game in 2015, which was tied for the 11th most of any team.
That's not good, but not exactly horrible, and neither is the 58.59 penalty yards per game Cincinnati committed, the 13th most of any team. However, the number of penalty yards per game jumps to 65.8 in the Bengals' five losses (including the playoffs), which would have been the ninth most of any team.
The fact that the Bengals were in the bottom half and even bottom third in some penalty statistics shows it really was something that hindered them in 2015. It was very beneficial for teams who didn't commit a lot of penalties in 2015, including the Minnesota Vikings (fewest accepted penalties per game), Arizona Cardinals, New York Jets, New England Patriots, Pittsburgh Steelers and Carolina Panthers.
Those were six of the top seven teams in terms of fewest accepted penalties per game, and six of them had winning records while the Cardinals (third fewest) and Panthers (seventh fewest) made it to the Conference Championship and Super Bowl respectively. Those above-mentioned six teams all had winning records and five of them made the playoffs.
Many regarded Carolina (15-1) and Arizona (13-3) as the NFL's two best teams, but really, were they much better than the Bengals?
We may never know, but Cincinnati may have at least had as good of a record as those two. That was painfully obvious during the Bengals' trip to Arizona, where the two teams battled right down to the wire, but the Cardinals came away with a 34-31 win. That was a game that saw Arizona commit seven penalties for 40 yards, whereas the Bengals committed 10 for 108 yards.
It's safe to think penalties were the difference in that game alone, and it illustrates how much they really hurt the Bengals. Making it even more hard to stomach is that it was a lot of Cincy's best players who were committing many infractions.
Here's a chart of the Bengals penalties in each game this season:
|Opponent||Result||Penalties||Yards||Nullified Yards||1st Downs||Penalty Yard Differential in Game||Total Penalty Yard Differential for Season|
Here are the number of penalties committed by each Bengals player this year and what they cost the team:
|Player||Count||Declined||Yards||Nullified Yards||First Downs||Stalled Drive|
ESPN's Jamison Hensley created an AFC North All-Penalty team, and seven Bengals were unfortunately represented. Andrew Whitworth (eight), Andre Smith (11), A.J. Green (six), Marvin Jones (five), Carlos Dunlap (four), Domata Peko (three), Dre Kirkpatrick (15) and Vontaze Burfict (six) made the team.
I'm not too worried about Kirkpatrick, as this was his first full season as a starter, and he'll now have a full offseason to go over a full season of work and see what he needs to work on correcting better. But seeing Whit, a 10-year veteran, and Smith, a seven-year vet, committing that many penalties just can't happen.
Then again, Smith is a free agent this offseason, so there may end up being a drop off with his penalties next season. Still, most of those other Bengals are going to be back in 2016 and maybe for several more years to come, so this issue must be addressed this offseason.
The good news is the team has already expressed that having more poise will be a big offseason focus, so hopefully that translates into fewer penalties next season.