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Devil’s Advocate: Comparing the 2016 Bengals to the 2015 Chiefs

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Things haven’t been pretty in Cincinnati, but they could still be worse.

Cincinnati Bengals v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

It’s hard to be optimistic after the Bengals lost what should’ve been a very winnable game. No Tony Romo, no Dez Bryant and the Bengals lose to a team led by a rookie quarterback-running back duo. Facing one of the less impressive defensive lines in the NFL, Cincinnati’s offensive line surrendered four sacks on Andy Dalton after the quarterback already took 13 through the first four weeks of the season. That’s simply unacceptable, especially considering this line was among one of the league’s best just a year ago.

In this piece, I will do my best to be as optimistic as possible. Keep in mind, I’m not saying the Bengals are going to finish the season 13-3 and win the Super Bowl, it’s just me playing devil’s advocate using a very recent example as evidence for the potential of the Bengals turning the ship around.

2016 Bengals, meet the 2015 Kansas City Chiefs. After beating the Brian Hoyer-led Texans in Week 1, the Chiefs lost five straight games. With Pittsburgh and Denver looming among Kansas City’s next three opponents, it appeared as though the Chiefs’ season was over. Here are some of the comments from SB Nation’s Chiefs blog, Arrowhead Pride after the Chiefs lost their fifth consecutive game:

One loss closer to big changes!

Life is good.

There weren’t any big changes, but I’m sure life was good for this fan nonetheless.

I really don't think the guy (Reid) has it anymore. I think he is using the Chiefs as a distraction from some of his personal life problems.

The hotness of this take is Skip Bayless-level.

This team has given up.

A bunch of losers. Peters is the only bright spot. Maybe Kelce. Blow it all up.

Maybe wait on that...

I’m sure glad I wasted another 3 hours of a sunday to watch these overpaid losers. I sure wish one of the reporters would grow a pair and ask Reid when he will be benching alex smith and giving up play calling duties. Unless those two things happen, then the chiefs are admitting that losing is okay and they don;t care if they win or not and reid should be fired. On another note, I am just getting pumped about getting the #1 overall pick in this years draft. Eric Fisher Part 23 on the way. YAY.

Another fire flames take by a guy who should’ve been the replacement for Bayless on ESPN’s First Take.

Maybe it’s me, but I would be more sympathetic towards Reid if he acted like he cared. His nonchalant attitude bothers me badly.

I wanna see him chewing on someone on the sideline. I wanna see him berating a referee. I wanna see him chew Alex’s ear off when he does dumb stuff. Especially when we are in a 1-5 rut. This is the NFL!

Showing he cared would make me feel like he is actually trying and has an emotional connection to this team and its fans.

Does anyone feel the same?

I think Bengals fans can empathize with that one.

“Okay, I get it,” I assume you’re thinking. Yes, the Chiefs’ turnaround was one of the biggest shocks of the 2015 NFL season. And the Bengals’ chances of turning the ship around — at least now — seem minimal. But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible.

Consider this: in the Chiefs’ 1-5 start, they faced three teams which had made the playoffs in the previous year and faced three 2014 playoff teams for the remainder of the 2015 season.

In the first six games of 2016 (next week included), the Bengals will have faced three teams which made the 2015 playoffs. They, like the Chiefs in 2015, will only face three of last year’s playoff teams in the following 10 games.

Seven of the Bengals’ remaining 11 opponents have lost at least two of their past three games, including the Ravens and Browns, whom the Bengals have beaten in nine of 12 games since 2013.

The Bengals will need to start winning games, fast, to make a playoff appearance, but the second half of the season looks much better on paper for Cincinnati. And as we saw with the Bengals’ 8-0 start in 2015, 7-2 stretch in 2014, 6-2 start and 5-1 finish in 2013, 7-1 finish in 2012 and five-game winning streak in 2011, the Bengals are more than capable of pulling off a run, whether mid-season or later in the year.

The Dalton-led Bengals have been an incredibly streaky team. Things are either great or terrible in Cincinnati; there’s not much room in between. And while being streaky isn’t ideal, there’s nothing to suggest another run isn’t within the realm of possibility — especially considering Vontaze Burfict isn’t acclimated to NFL play yet and Tyler Eifert will return to action, hopefully before the bye.

Back to the Chiefs. Last year, Kansas City’s struggles through four games were primarily on the offensive line. Fans had gripes with nearly every member of the Chiefs’ offensive line, as superstar running back Jamaal Charles rushed for fewer than 60 yards in three of his first five games before a torn ACL curbed the running back for the remainder of the year. Charles rushed for 1,000 yards or more in each of his previous three seasons. Quarterback Alex Smith was sacked 22 times through five games.

But as the season progressed, things changed. I’m not going to pretend I know what changed, but something did, whether by injuries, players moving around the line or simply the coaches’ techniques finally working. Backup running backs from Knile Davis to Charcandrick West to Spencer Ware, as well as the quarterback, all found tremendous success running the ball behind Kansas City’s line through the remainder of the season, while Smith was only sacked 23 times through the next 11 games, after going down only one time less in five games.

But more than any individual changes, the Chiefs — as a team — turned the ship around. From top to bottom, they bought in. With the loss of Charles, offensive coordinator Doug Pederson (now head coach of the Eagles) and Andy Reid simplified the playbook and tailored the offense to its quarterback’s strengths. Adjustments, such as the implementation of some spread concepts from Urban Meyer’s Utah offense in which Smith once played, led to significant improvements. Smith rushed for a career-high 498 yards in 2015. Reid’s patience — in tailoring the offense to the struggling Smith’s strengths, rather than benching him as fans had clamored for — paid off dividends for his team. The head coach placed a higher emphasis on third downs, after his offense was the worst at converting third downs of any team through the first six weeks.

Minor adjustments, rather than major changes, were key to Kansas City’s 2015 revival. Now, it’s up to Marvin Lewis and the Bengals to implement similar changes in Cincinnati. On Sunday, we saw the first change: the Bengals were two-for-two in the red zone, as Dalton connected with Brandon LaFell on touchdown passes each time the offense reached the Cowboys’ 20-yard-line. Up next will be figuring out what needs to be done along the offensive line — not in terms of changing personnel, but rather developing cohesiveness and executing plays. Adjusting on defense so that the front seven does a better job stopping the run and just trying to get something out of the guys on special teams will also be priorities.

The Chiefs’ turnaround was a historic one. In fact, they are one of two teams since the AFL-NFL merger to make the playoffs after a 1-5 start. The other? The 1970 Bengals. The Bengals may be 2-3 after five weeks. Heck, they’ll probably be 2-4 after they play the Patriots next week. But even if they lose in Week 6, they’ll still have a chance to turn the ship around.