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Orange & Black Insider: Are Bengals’ coaching changes to blame for 2016 struggles?

Is the mass exodus of assistant coaches following the 2015 season partly to blame for the team’s lack of success this year?

NFL: Denver Broncos at Cincinnati Bengals Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

When you are successful, everybody wants a piece of the action. Teams will copy your game plan and try to emulate it. They will pursue your players in free agency, hoping they have the same success in their new environment. And they will attempt to pluck away your coaches with lucrative promotions, hoping that magic follows them to their new homes.

The Bengals have reached the playoffs in five consecutive seasons, from 2011 to 2015, which is a feat difficult to accomplish in today’s parity-driven NFL. Teams who have not been as successful as the Bengals have tried to capture a piece of this success for themselves. Following the 2013 NFL season, the Bengals lost both their defensive coordinator, Mike Zimmer (to the Minnesota Vikings) and their offensive coordinator, Jay Gruden (to the Washington Redskins). Both men were promoted to head coaching positions.

Despite losing their top two coordinators, the Bengals managed to move on, and continued to play at a playoff level of football. On offense, the team already had Hue Jackson waiting to succeed Gruden as the Offensive Coordinator. And on defense, the team was loaded with talent such as Geno Atkins, Carlos Dunlap, Vontaze Burfict, Reggie Nelson, Terrance Newman, and Leon Hall.

After the 2015 seasons, the Bengals suffered more coaching changes, but it was closer to a massive hemorrhaging of their coaches than a small cut. Teams hired away many assistants which had to be back filled by the Bengals. Offensive Coordinator Hue Jackson was hired away by the Browns to become their head coach, marking the third time the Bengals’ offensive or defensive coordinator was hired away to a head coaching position in the last three years.

The Bengals also lost co-defensive backs coach Vance Joseph, who was given a promotion to defensive coordinator with the Miami Dolphins. They also lost linebacker coach Matt Burke, who joined Joseph in Miami. Fellow co-defensive backs coach Mark Carrier also left the team. Long-time defensive line coach Jay Hayes also departed, joining the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, for the same position. Scout Greg Seamon also left the team before the draft, joining Jackson in Cleveland.

These multiple exits have resulted in many coaching changes for the Bengals from last season to this season:

  • Offensive Coordinator: Ken Zampese (replaced Jackson)
  • Quarterbacks coach: Bill Lazor (replaced Zampese)
  • Defensive Line coach: Jacob Burney (replaced Hayes)
  • Linebackers coach: Jim Haslett (replaced Burke)
  • Defensive Backs coach: Kevin Coyle (replaced Joseph)
  • Defensive Backs coach: Robert Livingston (replaced Carrier)
  • Scout: Greg Seamon (also gone)

That is a lot of coaching changes following last year’s successful 12-4 season. Now, partway into the 2016 season the Bengals are struggling at 2-4, which raises the question: Is the overhaul of assistant coaches part of the reason for the lack of success?

Last year the Bengals scored an average of 26.2 points per game. This year they haven’t even scored more than 22 points in a single game. The team has failed to establish a consistent rushing or passing attack, with only have six passing touchdowns in six games, and their running backs only averaging 3.5 yards per carry. The play calling has seemed a little predictable this season, and it leads one to wonder if first-time offensive coordinator Zampese is a major reason for the team’s lack of offensive success. Are his growing pains of trying to learn on the fly, affecting the Bengals’ ability to score points?

One could argue that player turnover is to blame, but the team returned most of their offensive starters from last year (nine of eleven, although one of those nine has been injured all season). They retained their quarterback, their elite wide receiver, their running backs, and four fifths of their offensive line. So one would expect that personnel changes can’t be the primary reason for such a drastic drop-off from last season.

Last year the Bengals defense allowed only 17.4 points per game, which was only 0.1 off the lead for the top mark in the entire NFL. This year, they have given up at least 22 points in every single game, aside from a home game against the train wreck that is the Miami Dolphins.

From 2013 through 2015, the Bengals’ pass defense allowed an average of 246 yards per game, and accomplished the very difficult feat of grabbing more interceptions than touchdowns allowed. In those two seasons they only gave up 18.0 touchdown passes per season, while grabbing 20.5 interceptions. This year, the Bengals are also giving up about the same amount of yardage, 247 per game, but have allowed 14 touchdown passes to only four interceptions. And keep in mind that they are getting lit up by rookies Trevor Siemian and Dak Prescott, as well as Ryan Tannehill and Ryan Fitzpatrick, who is getting benched in favor of Geno Smith. They only faced Tom Brady once this year, but based on the numbers, one could have assumed they faced Brady every week.

While the Bengals had Joseph and and Carrier working with the secondary, they secured more interceptions than touchdowns allowed. With those coaches gone, the results have gone horribly wrong. With Hayes and Burke coaching the front seven of the Bengals’ defense, they were one of the top groups last year, giving up only 92 rushing yards per game, and only eight touchdowns on the entire season. This year, with the same front seven (other than the upgrade to Karlos Dansby at linebacker) they are far from league leading, giving up over 108 rushing yards per game, and on pace to surrender 33 percent more touchdowns.

The key players are essentially unchanged from 2015 to 2016, with Dalton, Green, Hill, Bernard, Whitworth, Zeitler, Boling, Bodine, Hewitt, Eifert, Atkins, Dunlap, Peko, Johnson, Maualuga, Burfict, Kirkpatrick, Jones, Iloka, Nugent and Huber all returning in their starting roles. But while the players are unchanged, the results are totally different. And so the large number of changes among the coaches seems a strong possibility for the team’s struggles.