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What we learned from the Bengals’ loss to the Steelers and official playoff elimination

The Bengals’ 2016 season will end against the Ravens and for the first time since the 2010 season, the team won’t be going to the playoffs.

Pittsburgh Steelers v Cincinnati Bengals Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

It’s been a rough season for the Cincinnati Bengals, and though the season isn’t over yet, the Bengals’ chances of a sixth straight playoff berth are officially dead. This marks the first time in the careers of A.J. Green, Andy Dalton, the rest of the team’s 2011 draftees and every Bengals player who entered the league since, that the Bengals have not made the playoffs.

There are 14 players on the Bengals’ roster, kicker Randy Bullock included, who have missed the playoffs in their NFL career, that’s only 26.4% of the roster. Despite the team’s zero playoff wins to show for all of those appearances, it’s still pretty impressive how much success this roster has had.

Cue the fires:

Yes, the Bengals are still the NFL franchise that has gone the longest without a playoff win. It’s an unfortunate but true reality that fans — and more importantly, players, coaches and team personnel — have to deal with. Before we go down the “AJ McCarron needs to start, Marvin Lewis needs to be fired, the Bengals’ championship window is closed” rabbit holes, there’s one notion that needs to be dispelled.

The Bengals are not an average football team. Making playoff runs in five consecutive seasons is not average.

The Bengals aren’t average. Cincinnati has been a good football team. If you’re looking for average, think back to the Cowboys’ five-and-a-half seasons prior to 2016, in which Dallas went 45-43 under Jason Garrett, losing win-and-you’re-in Week 17 matchups in 2011, 2012 and 2013 — one loss to each divisional rival — and finishing the season 8-8 in each of those three years.

Since then, things have gotten worse and then better for the Cowboys, but it’s easy to have recency bias now that the team is thriving in the Big D. (And for what it’s worth, many Cowboys fans wanted Garrett fired after each of those three 8-8 seasons, as well as after the team went 4-12 last year.)

Since 2000, only eight of the 32 teams in the NFL have made the playoffs in five consecutive seasons. Love him or hate him, Marvin Lewis — at least, prior to 2016 — had consistently taken his teams to the playoffs, regardless of circumstances like losing Geno Atkins in 2013, losing half the the best players in 2014 or losing his quarterback in 2015. Since drafting Dalton, the Bengals have gone 57-40-2 — playoffs included — despite playing in one of the toughest divisions in the NFL and losing key contributors to season-ending injuries every year.

That’s not to say the Bengals couldn’t benefit from a coaching change. I would love to see Cincinnati bring in a young guy like Kyle Shanahan to try and change the team’s culture — not by getting rid of guys like Vontaze Burfict and Adam Jones, but rather by changing game-planning and coaching guys to remember that expectations need to be sky-high for a team this talented.

The Bengals have yet to win a Super Bowl in their existence, and they haven’t won a playoff game in my lifetime. But we as fans — at least in recent years — have been spoiled in comparison to fans of teams like the Jaguars, Bills and Browns. Sure, the Bengals haven’t won that elusive playoff game, but the team has been fun to watch, they’ve established themselves as an exciting team that has been able to compete in almost every matchup (at least prior to 2016) and they’ve ultimately won a lot of games.

This isn’t to shame fans for wanting more out of this team. At some point, the Bengals need to understand that expectations are higher than a playoff one-and-done. Cincinnati has a remarkably talented team, with playmakers on both sides of the ball and developing talents eager to make an impact.

The Bengals aren’t average, let alone bad, when you look around at some of the other teams in the NFL. 2016 sucked. It really did. Watching Cincinnati lose football games is never fun, even if we try and convince ourselves that getting a higher draft pick will be worth losing those games. Losing to the Steelers is never easy, especially considering the Bengals were excelling in the first half.

But the Bengals lost on Sunday, and regardless of whether the team could’ve managed a win, Cincinnati’s season ended when the Ravens beat the Eagles. It’s an unfortunate reality we’ve caught ourselves in. So without any further ado (which at nearly 800 words in I don’t think is possible), here’s what we learned from the Bengals’ Sunday loss and mathematical playoff elimination:

Deserved or undeserved, the narrative that the Bengals are an undisciplined team isn’t going away anytime soon.

Burfict can help 500 guys to their feet after every tackle he makes, but at this point in his career, the linebacker is a marked man. We especially saw this when Steelers tackle Marcus Gilbert, unprovoked, shoved him on top of David DeCastro, who quickly pounced on a grounded, defenseless Burfict. The linebacker wasn’t completely innocent on Sunday — he and DeCastro nearly took each other’s heads off on one play when the guard was pulling outside — but he was innocent in this circumstance. Despite his innocence, Dan Fouts and Ian Eagle were still trying to find ways to frame the dispute as Burfict’s fault.

I’ll leave this here:

Ken Zampese’s biggest struggle as an offensive coordinator has been getting his offense to execute unscripted plays.

I wrote on it extensively here, but to sum it up quickly, the Bengals’ unscripted (or situational, to be more broad) play-calling has led to long periods of offensive incompetence in the second halves of games. Anthony also wrote on coaching — be sure to check it out here.

The Bengals’ offensive line not only surrenders sacks and hits on Dalton, but it also has a direct effect on the team’s inability to connect on deep passes.

Brandon LaFell has been hyper-criticized by fans for his not being Marvin Jones, and at this point, there’s not much anyone can say or he can do to change his perception, fair or not. But LaFell, though he’s not a burner, is not responsible for his team’s struggles connecting on the deep ball. Here’s one play from Sunday’s game that doesn’t show up in the box score:

Here, the wideout burns Artie Burns deep, drawing a 39-yard pass interference penalty. But on the play, Dalton — with pressure by Pittsburgh (despite missing its best defensive lineman in Cameron Heyward, for what it’s worth) — is immediately forced to bail out of the pocket. As a result, the quarterback doesn’t see LaFell wide open down the field. The quarterback under threw LaFell and benefited from pass interference on a play — which could’ve easily resulted in an interception — where the receiver was wide open.

No one’s saying LaFell is better than Jones — he’s not. But having a guy like Jones on the roster wouldn’t make the deep passing game much more effective than it currently is, considering the quarterback barely has any time in the pocket. The only reason Green is able to consistently haul in deep passes is because he’s the best deep threat in the NFL and Dalton can heave a pass his way without fearing his wideout cannot make a play.

This is the same reason why we see Tyler Eifert being underutilized in the passing game. The Bengals haven’t run the ball well enough to justify implementing more two tight end sets, and the team’s line, more often than not, needs tight end help just to keep its quarterback upright. If Eifert were to go out for passes more frequently, Dalton would not only risk getting hit and sacked even more, but he also wouldn’t have enough time in the pocket to make the correct read, which in turn would likely lead to more turnovers, whether strip-sacks or interceptions.

Both the Cincinnati media and the Pittsburgh media went too far on Sunday.

On Cincinnati’s side, it was Jeremy Rauch, who rather than providing the information that Burfict had no post-game comment, elected to rattle off a tweet I’m sure he anticipated would go viral:

It would be foolish to think Burfict is the first NFL player to ever cuss out a reporter after a loss, yet many fans have become even more enraged with the linebacker after this 121-character tweet.

On the Pittsburgh side, it was Mark Madden, of WXDX.com and timesonline.com who blasted out a pretty interesting tweet of his own:

Here’s another tweet that didn’t go as viral but was still just as funny to me:

How this guy has a job in media and the fact that NFL fans listen to what he has to say baffles me. Then again, Stephen A. Smith, Skip Bayless and Colin Cowherd are three of the highest-paid journalists in sports.

For the first time in a while, the general consensus among Bengals fans has been pretty clear.

People want a new coach. I can’t fault them for it. While I could understand why Mike Brown would keep Marvin Lewis around, it would be nice to see a change for once.