All offseason, analysts have been cynical about the Bengals’ 2016 outlook. Sure, the team lost, Marvin Jones, Mohamed Sanu, Andre Smith, Reggie Nelson and even others — including former offensive coordinator Hue Jackson, but that doesn’t negate Cincinnati’s depth, continuity and yearly success on and off-the-field. The Bengals certainly aren’t perfect, but it’s hard to come up with a list of 10 teams who have been more successful since A.J. Green and Andy Dalton entered the league.
Yet talking heads continue to blatantly ignore Cincinnati’s continual success. In fact, the ignorance has turned into complete disrespect for the franchise. NFL Network’s Chris Wesseling grew up in Cincinnati and eventually rescinded his Bengals fandom after years of heartbreak. Once a diehard Bengals fan, Wesseling now celebrates what he calls “Wesstivus,” a year-long tradition in which he celebrates each Bengals playoff loss. Wesseling considers himself a football agnostic, which is a term he coined (or at least popularized), which simply means he enjoys football while not necessarily having a rooting interest. That’s what makes Wesseling such an interesting candidate to defend the Bengals: he made a dossier of all of the things the Bengals did to break his heart, and he spent the first few years of Dalton’s career reaming the quarterback and his entire team. But in 2016, when the disparagement for Cincinnati has come to the point of exhaustion, Wesseling is taking a different stance. Searching for under-the-radar offseason conversation points, the Around the NFL columnist had this to say in a recent episode of the Around the NFL Podcast (What no one is talking about, at 31:47):
“Nobody is talking about the ongoing disrespect for the Cincinnati Bengals, who will enter the season once again with the strongest roster in the AFC and should be considered prohibitive favorites in their division over a Steelers team that loses a difference-making talent seemingly every week,” said Wesseling.
“You know, we talk about Andy Dalton as if he’s some one-year wonder, and that because Hue Jackson’s gone and Marvin Jones is gone and Mohamed Sanu’s gone, that he’s just [going to] turn back into a pumpkin at midnight. But I think the fact is he made the leap. He’s a franchise quarterback now, and you heard it when Brandon LaFell came in and saw him during the offseason — compared him to Tom Brady for his mastery of the offense and how he leads that team. I think a little more respect is due [for] Andy Dalton.”
Wesseling didn’t seem sold on Dalton as a top quarterback in the NFL in the early months of the 2015 season, but to his credit, he recognized Dalton’s progression as the Bengals continually dominated their opponents over the first 12 games of the season. His fellow Around the NFL columnist, Gregg Rosenthal, still seems a bit skeptical, though he’s a bit hopeful. This is understandable; Rosenthal, along with most NFL analysts, tend to be more bullish on the Bengals late in the season after they’ve piled up wins and have cemented themselves as legitimate contenders than he is on the team when it is facing questions in the offseason.
“I think that’s fair, but this is the chance for him to prove it, because he’s [going to] start the season, like you said, with LaFell, Boyd — a rookie — as his slot receiver and Tyler Eifert being on the bench, so I don’t know who’s starting at tight end, [maybe] Tyler Kroft” said Rosenthal. “It’s not an easy starting situation. He’s coming off an injury too, and if he is that guy who made the leap, he’ll keep the ship afloat and he’ll play well.
Fellow Around the NFL columnist and noted Browns fan Marc Sessler, whose disdain for the Ravens and Steelers far surpasses his opposition to the Bengals, had nothing but praise for Marvin Lewis and his team’s development throughout Dalton’s career.
“Well we’ve talked about the Steelers and Bengals as Patriot-like in their consistency, from top to bottom [of the organization],” said Sessler. “The Bengals — I understand the playoff situation — they are the benefactors now of keeping their coach and assistants around. Marvin Lewis has a huge coaching tree at this point, and the Bengals have to be looked at as one of those teams that year to year, they don’t blow the ship up, and they now have a roster through Marvin Lewis and the scouting department, that didn’t exist before, into something formidable.”
Sessler hit the nail on the head; Cincinnati’s transformation from cellar-dweller to perennial contender has been nothing short of remarkable. Sure, the Bengals still need to win a playoff game to finally avoid continual storylines about how they can’t get the job done when it matters most. But it’s worth noting how much the team has improved in the past five years, let alone in the Marvin Lewis era.
“There are very few teams in today’s NFL that can just allow veteran free agents to walk and then immediately plug in somebody just as good, and the Bengals have that kind of depth,” said Wesseling, likely referring to the promotions of Shawn Williams in Nelson’s wake, Darqueze Dennard in Leon Hall’s absence and Cedric Ogbuehi after Smith’s departure as key examples, amongst others. Rosenthal specifically mentioned the Bengals’ cornerback position as a key example, citing the drafting of William Jackson III as a savvy move which will allow the rookie to develop and eventually work his way into the rotation in a way similar to how Dre Kirkpatrick eventually became a starter. Jackson will have a long way to go now, after suffering a serious injury which could potentially be season-ending, but the point stills stands. Sessler also mentioned Vontaze Burfict as an example, noting how the other 31 NFL clubs wanted nothing to do with him and the Bengals took a chance, quickly grooming him into a Pro Bowl-caliber player.
There’s no denying Cincinnati still has one of the best rosters in football. The Bengals have found their franchise quarterback; they have a young one-two punch at running back which has the potential to be the best in the league when things are going right; they have the best wide receiver-tight end duo in football and they have a dominant defense. Cincinnati’s roster might have a couple of weak links, but it also has an excess of depth at positions like defensive tackle and offensive line.
Last season, Cincinnati didn’t know whether Andy Dalton could step up to be a top-10 quarterback; it didn’t have definitive proof that Eifert could be dominant when healthy; it didn’t know whether Atkins would ever return to form and the team couldn’t ever anticipate Dunlap tallying a 13.5-sack season. In a broader sense, it’s not to crazy to imagine that despite their losses, the Bengals are a far better team now than they were a year ago today. That’s something to be excited about, and it should be a pretty scary thought for Cincinnati’s 2016 opponents.