When the Cincinnati Bengals headed to the locker room after a 16-12 loss to the Buffalo Bills at Paul Brown Stadium, their 2016 playoff hopes all but evaporated. The team could go on a six-game winning streak to sneakily secure a division win, but from what we’ve seen from this team over the past couple of weeks, that prospect seems nearly impossible.
Not many things went right for the Bengals against Buffalo, but when you hold an opposing quarterback to 166 passing yards and give up just 16 total points, it’s largely a game your team should win. Especially when we’re talking about a must-win game on your home turf.
Fingers are being pointed at a number of different players for their individual performances, or lack thereof, but the somewhat-unexpected struggles this year start at the top of the franchise. Because of different factors and decisions that have been made in recent years, the five-year playoff run which has ended in five straight one-and-done outs is starting to prove to be a house of cards.
Don’t just blame Mike Nugent:
Look, the obvious blame is being placed at #2’s right foot for Sunday’s loss, but that’s not entirely fair. Yes, the two missed extra points on Sunday were huge, especially when the team moved into field goal position at the end of the game, but it’s just a microcosm of other issues under the surface.
Over the bye week, the Bengals had a chance to make a move at the kicker position, as they brought in multiple different kickers for a tryout. The fact that no moves were made could have been simply a message to a struggling veteran, or that the coaching staff wasn’t impressed with whom they brought in, but they stuck with Nugent after the bye.
In defense of Nugent, if there is one, there were 11 missed extra points in the early slate of Week 11’s games, including Nugent’s two, so the new rule is affecting most teams. Giants kicker Robbie Gould (who they had to sign due to Josh Brown’s placement on the commissioner’s exempt list) also missed two PATs on Sunday. But the Giants won. Still, it’s been way beyond time to move on from Nugent and the coaches have been so stuck in their ways that they haven’t brought in another viable option.
It initially seemed as if they were correct in their bye week assessment, as Nugent had a good game against the Giants last week, but the two missed PATs were gigantic on Sunday. The Minnesota Vikings gave Blair Walsh a number of chances before moving on to Kai Forbath this week (one of the players the Bengals brought in a couple of weeks ago), as an example of a team exercising patience and making a wise move amidst a then-four-game skid.
It’s on Nugent to make those kicks, but it’s also on the staff for failing to recognize what kind of a kicker Nugent is and the struggles he’s shown since joining the team in 2010. Regardless, the veteran will probably be looking for a new job this week, leaving the Bengals to pick over the leftover free agency scraps. Sound familiar?
Their “draft-and-develop” philosophy has stalled out:
The Bengals are notoriously sleepy in free agency and prefer to utilize the “best player available” strategy in the NFL Draft. When you’ve made five straight postseasons, it seems like a decent strategy, akin to playing with house money. After all, the 2011 and 2012 draft classes have yielded great results and have been the catalysts to a successful rebuilding effort in the post-Carson Palmer era.
However, subsequent classes have been hit-and-miss at best, mostly because they kept stockpiling for the future instead of opting for potential instant-impact players. Moreover, the team almost never trades up for players they actually like, often opting for someone else that “falls” to them. In fact, Cincinnati has only traded up in the draft three times since their inception in 1968, with the most recent being for center Russell Bodine in 2014. Yeesh.
There’s no doubt that free agency should be used as a supplement to the draft-and-develop philosophy. We’ve seen so many teams cripple themselves with high-priced free agency moves that don’t pan out, and it’s refreshing to see the Bengals not pin their own backs against the wall in that regard.
Still, there’s a fine line to walk. The Bengals didn’t invest in an edge rusher of any kind this offseason and it has crippled them up front this year. Instead, they decided to lean on their productive veterans who have been worn down because of the immense amount of snaps they have played over the past handful of years, as well as hoping Will Clarke and Margus Hunt would have finally turned the corner. After a hot start, they’ve cooled off immensely, as evidenced by their collective one tackle on Sunday versus the Bills.
Take a look at who they trusted with big contracts this offseason—especially when talking about their own internal free agents. Almost everyone they have relied on has disappointed in big ways. They trusted their system and former productive player to keep the status quo, at best, instead of finding ways to get better as a team. Honestly, have Adam Jones, George Iloka, Shawn Williams, Vincent Rey and outside free agents Karlos Dansby and Brandon LaFell impressed you this season? Those were their free agency gets.
Moreover, team speed is an issue. I understand Marvin Lewis’ stance on preferring battle-tested veterans on his roster, but many who are starting have become slow, old and/or ineffective. After personnel losses at the coaching and player ranks this offseason, their conservative approach is doing them no favors in 2016.
A.J. Green suffered a bad injury on the first possession of the game and it might cause him to miss the rest of the season. Who stepped up in his absence? Tyler Boyd made some nice plays, including his first NFL touchdown catch, but Buffalo’s defense didn’t respect the speed the Bengals employ outside of Green. It’s why long-developing passes were disastrous on Sunday—protection was once again porous and the other receivers couldn’t get open beyond 10 yards.
Everyone had high hopes for guys like Darqueze Dennard and Josh Shaw, but their biggest strengths seem to be downing a punt deep in the opposition’s territory. Many other draft picks aren’t contributing, nor are any of the additions challenging longtime veterans for starting jobs.
It once seemed like a sound factory-like approach, churning out quality players, but either the developmental stage or obstinance in playing younger players has hurt the teams. Take a look at the Green Bay Packers, who use a very similar approach, to see it also catching up with them this year.
Marvin Lewis and his staff:
The decision to stick with failing veterans aside, Lewis and his staff aren’t giving their team the best chance to succeed. For instance, going into this week, the Bills’ rushing offense was ranked No. 2 in the NFL. Though he was battling a fibula injury, linebacker Rey Maualuga practiced all week, but was inactive on game day.
Granted, Maualuga has his limitations, but he has always been effective in stopping the run. Why, if he was healthy, would you sit him against such an effective rushing attack? In case you didn’t pay attention, the Bills racked up 183 rushing yards on Sunday afternoon on Cincinnati’s home field. And that was with LeSean McCoy sidelined with a thumb injury for much of the game, including all of the second half.
Again, we’re talking microcosms. This week, Lewis rounded up some of his most trusted veterans for a pow-wow before a must-win game.
“I wanted to show that we’ve been in these situations before, and you have to pull out of it,” Lewis said, via The Cincinnati Enquirer. “The only way to pull out of it is to put your head down and go to work. There’s no other way, no magic words that make touchdowns appear or disappear. If I did, I’d find them.”
Does the mantra sound familiar? It should because Lewis has preached the “hard work” theme since his 2003 arrival in Cincinnati. Given the way the Bengals played on Sunday against Buffalo, it appears that this is the very definition of a stale message falling onto ears that have become deaf to the same words preached for 14 years.
Let’s also have a look at linebacker Vontaze Burfict. Since he already doesn’t like those of us associated with Cincy Jungle, we might as well call him out on a gesture he made to the stands after a critical defensive stop. He had a productive game to be sure, but after the stop he decided to flip a double-bird to the stands, which will likely incur another fine.
As a head coach, it’s difficult to effectively manage the minute-by-minute antics of 53 players, but it’s clear that the message given to the team this offseason by owner Mike Brown and Lewis on poise after the loss of composure against the Steelers in the Wild Card game wasn’t received. This isn’t to paint a bleak picture of just Burfict though, either.
The rest of the team is visibly experiencing a Vegas-like hangover. Most of it likely has to do with that crushing loss 10 months ago, but the losses of respected coaches like Hue Jackson and Vance Joseph are also obvious factors. They are pressing, making mistakes they don’t normally commit and, at times, seem disinterested in what’s happening on the field.
All the aforementioned issues point to the coaching staff. This trickle down effect from the top to the players has led to a disappointing 3-6-1 record this season.