Pictured above is Andy Dalton running out onto the field, getting himself and the crowd at Paul Brown Stadium ready for what is sure to be a great win for the Bengals against their lowly in-state rivals, the Cleveland Browns. That is exactly what happened, but it is also the last time the Bengals won a game. That was five weeks ago.
At the time, the Bengals’ victory over the Browns extended their record to 3-3 and gave the team and fans hope that a stronger showing in the final 10 games could result in a playoff appearance. Today, as we enter December, things have gotten worse. Things weren’t going great in Week 7, but hope was still alive. As the Bengals currently sit at 3-7-1, it’s safe to say that all hope for this season is gone and it isn’t coming back. But, with so much young talent on the roster and the Bengals’ recently strong history of developing that kind of talent, there are plenty of reasons to be hopeful for the team’s long-term future.
Rebuilding for the better
2016 might end up going down as one of the more surprising years for the Bengals to start rebuilding, due to how well they played in 2015. But the number of changes that took place in the offseason unfortunately helped lead to a season that didn’t go as well for the Bengals as they were hoping. But, in addition to being unexpected, the reform this time around should be much more comprehensive than the last rebuild in 2011.
And who knows, the futility of the 2016 season could prompt a complete regime change so the Bengals can move forward without Marvin Lewis. Aside from him and a few stragglers, the coaching staff looks almost completely different than it did after the 2010-11 rebuild, so if there was ever a time to finish off the wholesale changes, it would be now. The Bengals have done well at drafting in recent years and are in the process of making changes across the organization, so hopefully the next incarnation of the Bengals will be even better than the 2011-2015 product. The Bengals still have plenty of stars to hold on to and if they can add some of the missing pieces, they quickly can bounce back... And hopefully win a playoff game, too!
Andy Dalton and A.J. Green
No matter what happens through the next couple of years, the Bengals have the dynamic duo of Andy Dalton and A.J. Green locked up long-term. Dalton will be an unrestricted free agent in 2021, while Green will be up for an extension in 2020. That’s a minimum of three more years with this tandem, who have combined for 66 receptions, 7,135 passing yards, and 49 touchdowns during the last six seasons.
Although Dalton’s tenure in Cincinnati has been controversial at times, the fact of the matter is he has really stepped his game up over the past two years. As long as the Bengals still have these two dynamic talents to lean on, the Bengals will have a chance to be great.
Russell Bodine is improving
Since 2011, the Bengals’ offensive line has been inconsistent. Sometimes they have been great, but sometimes they have been problematic. One of the most problematic parts of this unit since the Bengals traded up to draft him in 2014 is center Russell Bodine. But, he has stepped up his game for the most part this season, having graded as the third highest center in the NFL last week by PFF, despite being benched because of his errant snaps.
The Bengals are seeing quite a few struggles out of new right tackle Cedric Ogbuehi and the rest of the offensive line this season. But, the continued development of the young starters is going to be key to the Bengals’ ability to compete over the next few years. If Ogbuehi can work out the issues that are causing him so much trouble, the rest of the Bengals’ offensive line can return to form, like the stout unit that helped the Bengals achieve a 12-4 record in 2015.
Young talent at linebacker
The Bengals’ linebacker corps has been a mixed bag in 2016. Outside linebacker Vontaze Burfict has been great since returning from suspension (60 tackles, two sacks, three pass deflections, 1 forced fumble, and 16 assisted tackles in only eight games). The Bengals have also seen stellar play out of veteran Vincent Rey, who has primarily played a rotational role instead of starting. And Karlos Dansby has improved in recent weeks, too.
Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for starting middle linebacker Rey Maualuga, who has struggled to be effective this season. With Dansby 35-years-old and in the twilight of his career, the Bengals are going to need their youth talent to step up soon.
Luckily, Burfict is only 26-years-old and the Bengals have young guys like Nick Vigil and Marquis Flowers waiting in the wings behind Dansby and Maualuga. They also have P.J. Dawson on the practice squad, who has all the talent in the world if he can ever convince the team that he deserves another shot on the roster. Furthermore, don’t forget about preseason standout Trevor Roach (24) who’s also on the practice squad and will be chomping at the bit when Dansby retires and the Bengals begin to tire of Maualuga’s ineffectiveness.
The rest of the AFC North is rebuilding too
Perhaps the biggest reason for optimism going forward is the sheer fact that the Bengals are rebuilding at the right time, so there is a good chance that they will continue to be on the Ravens’ and Steelers’ level for a long time. The Browns are perpetually in a rebuilding mode these days, so don’t expect them to become a real threat for a while.
You only need to look at the current standings for 2016 to see the fact that everyone in this division is going through a rough patch. The Ravens (6-5) and the Steelers (6-5) both recently returned to over .500 on the season and are struggling to hold on to the positions they have. The Bengals (3-7-1) have been absolutely dreadful this season, but still had a realistic shot at winning the division until they recorded their first loss to the Baltimore Ravens since November 10, 2013 last Sunday.
Ultimately, things might seem bleak for the Bengals right now. There are still five weeks left in a terrible season that the majority of us wish would just end right now. Part of that reason is the Bengals do, in fact, have reason to be hopeful in the long-term, despite how bad things will continue to look in the short-term.