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Bengals’ 2016 season feels much like 2014 season

If dominating bad teams and falling short against good teams after a rough offseason seems familiar, that’s because it should.

NFL: Cleveland Browns at Cincinnati Bengals David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports

The Bengals’ 2016 season so far has been one of trying to overcome numerous personnel changes, injuries, and the struggles of the coaching staff to get the Bengals to play well against teams with a winning record. With a new offensive coordinator, multiple new coaches, the absence of or lackluster play of big offensive weapons through most games, and a struggling defense complemented by Andy Dalton trying to carry an inexperienced offense, 2016 has been one giant roadblock for the Bengals and it’s a big reason why the team is 3-4-1 heading into the Week 9 bye.

Does any of that sound familiar? It should because, save for an earlier bye and an extra win thrown in there, that situation is very similar to where the Bengals were at this point in the 2014 season. The Bengals’ 3-0 start that year and the 4-2-1 record by the end of Week 8 in 2014 certainly looks better than their 1-2 start and 3-4-1 record by the end of Week 8 in 2016.

But, consider the winning percentage of the opponents they beat in both years. Through the first eight weeks, the combined record of opponents the Bengals had beaten was 9-15. The combined records of the opponents they lost to or tied with was 14-9-1. Right now, the combined record of the opponents they have beaten in 2016 is 6-17 and the combined record of the opponents they lost to or tied with is 27-10-1. The Bengals had a very tough schedule through the first six weeks of the season, so it would seem that the Bengals would be looking better right now if their schedule was easier like it was in 2014.

That’s not to say the Bengals have an excuse for being under .500, but it would explain why this season feels so much like 2014, yet the team has a worse record through eight weeks.

As we head into the bye week, the Bengals and their fans are primarily worried how to improve some key aspects of the team. Yes, it’s nice to have the fifth most passing yards and the sixth most rushing yards in the NFL through eight weeks. But, it doesn’t help much when you are in the bottom half of the league in total touchdowns (18) while giving up the ninth most yards per game of any NFL defense (378.5). It also doesn’t help when Andy Dalton is the second most sacked quarterback in the NFL (25). It’s hard to get anything accomplished when you’re laying on the ground.

Lessons to learn

One of the biggest parallels you can draw between the 2014 season and the 2016 seasons is the Bengals’ overall lack of preparation for their stronger NFL opponents. One of the biggest reasons for that is the fact that they were so predictable on offense at the time. The strategy in 2014 was essentially: get the ball to A.J. Green.

Once Jeremy Hill got things going in the second half of the season, he became part of that equation and the offense briefly became multi-dimensional. But, Green didn’t stay healthy down the stretch, so the Bengals went right back to that ineffective one-dimensional offensive style that got them in trouble against the Patriots, Panthers, and Colts.

This year, you can see a similar pattern developing with the incredible season A.J. Green is having, but the lack of production from the rest of the team through most of the first half of the season. Lately, we have been seeing more production from guys like Hill, Giovani Bernard, Tyler Eifert, Brandon LaFell, and Tyler Boyd, but the Bengals would do wise to continue to spread the ball around as much as they can to maximize their offensive firepower as they begin their serious push for playoff positioning.

In addition to making a point to spread the ball around as much as possible, the Bengals would do well to remember that unpredictability was a key resource in 2014. Throughout the season, offensive coordinator Hue Jackson dialed up creative plays to keep opposing defenses on their toes, while defensive coordinator Paul Guenther’s innovative blitz packages took advantage of the lack of discipline from their opponents.

As a newcomer, the Bengals’ current offensive coordinator, Ken Zampese, has the opportunity to be creative and unexpected with nearly anything he wants to try this season. Getting predictable this early in his career is the last thing that a coach like Zampese needs. His offensive schemes have been improving in recent weeks after a rough start, but there is still room for improvement. Guenther, on the other hand, would do well to try to recapture the imaginative persona that helped him become such a desirable defensive coordinator candidate after Mike Zimmer left for Minnesota in the 2014 offseason.

The last lesson to learn from 2014 is resilience. There were multiple times that the Bengals looked all but down and out throughout the season, and there were multiple times that the setbacks suffered were just too great to overcome. But, that team shook off the adversity in time to put together a strong second half of the season and finish 10-5-1. Things didn’t go so well in the playoffs, but the point is they overcame adversity through sheer will power and made it to the playoffs, despite many expecting them to fall short due to all of the offseason setbacks.

At 3-4-1, the Bengals’ 2016 season is not over by any means. Like things did at points in the 2014 season, the season might look bleak now. But, the team can still pull things together if they remember to spread the ball, stay creative, and keep fighting when faced with ties, blowout losses, and major injuries.