Be honest: when Redskins kicker Dustin Hopkins pulled the 34-yard overtime field goal to the left, you laughed out loud. It was just that kind of day, or early morning, for those of us watching in the U.S.
As a Bengals fan, if you’ve felt like you have followed Alice down the rabbit hole since Cincinnati’s loss to the Steelers last January, you aren’t alone. The Bengals leave London as a truly mediocre team at 3-4-1 in 2016, which is basically a microcosm of Marvin Lewis’ tenure as the Bengals’ head coach.
For the fans in attendance at Wembley Stadium, they got a show. After some miscues by both teams in the first half, the second half was filled with both fireworks and frustration. Five combined touchdowns by both teams in the final two quarters led to an improbable overtime session and eventual tie.
“I feel blah. I feel like nothing,” wide receiver A.J. Green said via Bengals.com, who was one of the only Bengals players to truly step up on Sunday. “Blah” basically describes the first half of the 2016 Bengals’ season.
However, we aren’t telling you something you don’t already know, as we have recapped the game well here on Cincy Jungle. Still, there are other facets that need to be dissected as Cincinnati enters their much-needed bye week.
Coaching transition and continued undisciplined play:
Though many Bengals coaching figureheads remained this offseason (Lewis, Paul Guenther, Darrin Simmons and Paul Alexander), a major turnover occurred this spring, be it by Cincinnati’s design or other teams poaching their ranks. Hue Jackson left for a head coaching gig in Cleveland, while lauded secondary coach Vance Joseph was promoted to defensive coordinator in Miami.
However, Jim Haslett came in and was charged with the overlooking of the linebacker corps. Kevin Coyle, the Dolphins former defensive coordinator, ironically took over his previous Bengals post as a secondary coach, while Jacob Burney relieved Jay Hayes on the defensive line. Perhaps the biggest transition was Ken Zampese taking over for Jackson, even though the two had worked together for years. The Bengals hoped these shake-ups would improve the team enough to get past the playoff hump, but we’re eight games into 2016 and it’s obvious an overall regression is occurring.
The most glaring issue is with the secondary. Many will readily point to Coyle because of rumors and the widely-known love Bengals players had of Joseph, but issues are aplenty. Age, a general confusion on overall roles and a couple of new starters have landed Guenther’s unit in the doldrums.
The Redskins’ offense isn’t an easy one to defend, but the lack of an athletic linebacker to consistently be able to cover a tight end and their inability to clamp down on a defense in third-and-long situations (Washington was 8-for-17 on third down on Sunday), continues to spell doom for Cincinnati. Kirk Cousins is a solid NFL quarterback, but the Bengals’ allowance of 458 passing yards, which is the second-most in Redskins history, is inexcusable. Former 2012 first round corner, Dre Kirkpatrick, has improved in his second year as a full-time starter, but on Sunday he often looked lost.
Additionally, the Bengals used another first round pick in 2014 on another corner in Darqueze Dennard. He’s barely been used this year, other than on special teams. No. 21 had an inexcusable penalty in overtime by running into the returner on a fair catch, and while it didn’t cost the Bengals the game per se, it was an example of players just not responding well to this regime’s coaching style.
“How the #$%^ did we tie?,” asked linebacker Vontaze Burfict after the game. Maybe looking in the mirror with an overtime third down holding penalty by No. 55 and the unit’s overall inability to guard both Jordan Reed and Vernon Davis would be a good start. Accountability is set by the coaches and it’s a trait that just doesn’t seem to be acknowledged by many of the players this year.
Take this for example:
Asked Adam Jones about his confidence in #Bengals finishing strong: "That's a clown-a** question."— Jeremy Rauch (@FOX19Jeremy) October 30, 2016
Is it really a “clown-ass question”? No, it’s not. It’s a fair question after the Bengals started the season 3-4-1 and with the defense unable to do their job on a recurring basis.
A misplaced trust in aging veterans, as well as draft and free agency strategies:
The Bengals are notoriously sheepish in free agency. Some fans love it, while others tear their hair out about it, and while they were active with their internal free agents in 2016, the Bengals once again slept on outside additions. Linebacker Karlos Dansby, at 34-years-old, and veteran receiver Brandon LaFell were the crowning achievements by the Bengals front office, outside of resigning their own.
LaFell is the current team leader in touchdown receptions with four, but two were in garbage time against the Cowboys, and he still continues to be a feast-or-famine type of player in Zampese’s offense (just one catch for six yards on Sunday through five quarters). Dansby is active, but it appears that father time is winning yet another battle, as he is more of a chase-and-tackle player in 2016.
Aside from those two, take a look at the internal players who the Bengals have entrusted with big deals. Vincent Rey, AKA the king of dropped interceptions, the safety tandem of Shawn Williams and George Iloka, and cornerback Adam Jones.
None have lived up to the big contracts given to them, and the safeties continually seem to be out of position. Both Reggie Nelson and the Bengals played hardball in negotiations this offseason and it’s easy to see why with age seeming to catch up to others on the roster like Dansby, Jones and Andrew Whitworth, but the guy who often put the secondary in good positions has been missed.
What’s worse is the dissension among the ranks. Almost weekly, we’ve heard the announcers say that Jones was getting on a teammate in the secondary after a busted play. While sorting things out, even in a heated manner, is great, it doesn’t come off that way when you’re losing.
Mike Nugent didn’t sign a new contract this season (two-year extension in 2015), but the Bengals preferred to rely on his veteran status—even after a shaky offseason. Through the first six games, Nugent was having a Pro Bowl-like season. However, the past two weeks, Nugent has struggled and it really came to light on Sunday. A missed field goal and extra point loomed large, even with the deficiencies everywhere else.
What does a tie mean, going forward?
When looking at the Bengals’ record, it essentially means they are a very middle-of-the-road team. Players look frustrated, while the coaches look confused and all signs point to a .500-like season. If so, it very sadly points to a closing of a possible championship window that began with Lewis’ roster rebuild back in 2011.
If you’re an optimist, the Bengals are heading into a bye to get things right and face a slate of upcoming games that are very winnable. The Giants, Browns, Ravens (twice), Bills and Texans are in the next eight games, but Cincinnati needs to play a completely different form of football to make the postseason for a sixth straight season. Hanging your hat on the return of Tyler Eifert obviously helps (nine catches for 102 yards and a score against Washington), as does the continued development of rookie receiver Tyler Boyd going forward.
If you’re a pessimist though, you’re looking at the Bengals needing either a 7-1 or 6-2 finish to the season for a playoff berth. While the above-mentioned games seem winnable, Baltimore is always a tough game, and the contest just out of the bye against New York is on primetime on Monday Night Football. Lewis’ Achilles heel has been both games in the spotlight and those out of the bye.
Both will note that not many things are going right and the team isn’t stepping up in the clutch situations, as we’ve seen in recent years. The bye allows that trend to either continue or positively start going the other way.
In short, there are more questions than answers right now. The Bengals could enter the bye after tying with the Redskins and come out a completely different team. For now, it looks like a Wild Card hangover is lingering and the personnel transition within the franchise has been simply too much for the team to handle.