This is a week of happiness for Cincinnati Bengals fans—at least for those who swim in the fishbowl of denial gulping down the water of fantasy.
On Sunday, the Bengals defeated the Cleveland Browns soundly. For the younger folk out there, I should remind you that the team that is currently in Cleveland isn’t really the “Browns.” It’s an expansion team called “the Browns,” after the real Browns moved to Baltimore. These new “Browns” have only been around for 18 years or so.
Why does that matter, you ask? The Bengals, celebrating their 50th year and older than the modern NFL itself, should have—at this point in their history—had some ups and downs, good years and bad, seasons in the playoffs, and, yes, times of rebuilding.
Instead, however, they have remained one of the most consistently disappointing teams in the NFL for as long as my stepson has been a fan of Mariah Carey—since the early 90s.
What I mean is this: A team like the Bengals, with a coach in his almost-15th year, should not, cannot, and will not be compared to a team like the Browns, with a coach in his second year, in a young franchise that has had a hard time building up its foundations.
Sunday’s “victory” against a team that has not won a game since December 2016 is not a victory at all. It says nothing about the Bengals’ ability to win, but maybe a little bit about their ability not to lose in a truly embarrassing fashion. In fact, the only thing it says about the Bengals is that they aren’t quite as bad as the Browns.
That’s like saying I’m not as bald as Larry David. It still doesn’t mean I have hair.
This leads us to Monday’s press conference, when, surprisingly, Coach Marvin Lewis was actually pretty open about why the Bengals succeeded. He discussed the success of Cincinnati’s zone coverage and ways they might improve in man-to-man. He spoke of the stellar performances of Tyler Kroft and Nick Vigil. Sure, they were some vague “probably” or “I can’t remember” responses. Look, we’re still talking about the master of conversational web-weaving. But for Lewis, it seems that a “victory” really loosens him up.
That is, until the questions centered on the offensive line. Here’s how the conversation went:
Q: All of the offensive linemen played, so is it fair to say you’re still tinkering with the different spots?
ML: “I think we’re just playing.”
Q: Do you like the idea of offensive linemen rotating?
ML: “That’s just the way it is.”
Q: Do you feel that Andre Smith should be starting full-time?
ML: “We’re just going to keep going. Day to day. Week to week [laughs—and beware the ML laugh].”
Q: If the offensive line continues to struggle, what are you going to do?
ML: “I don’t know that they necessarily [struggled]. We had a ‘struggle’ play or two, but I thought they played a better football game, and they’re going to have to continue to that. Your evaluation is separate from mine [laughs].”
Q: Do you think the line is playing better? Or, is it that Dalton is in more of a rhythm and is getting the ball out quicker?
ML: “It’s a combination of everything. We changed, which is what we said we were going to do. [Offensive coordinator Bill Lazor] has done a great job of that.”
Normally, at this stage in the essay, I offer a translation. But what does any of this mean? “I think we’re just playing.” Yes, it’s football, and technically one “plays” football. Perhaps, though, he means they are “playing around with new ideas.”
When ML says, “That’s just the way it is,” is he making an existential statement about the universe, or is he saying that the Bengals are stuck with the shoddy o-line they have?
Even I, the great Marvin-Lewis-translator, could not make sense of this. Marvin Lewis had given me a ride around the block and dropped me off at a friend’s house, when I thought we were going out for ice cream.
So, I did what any self-respecting translator does. I asked someone else. And the smartest person I know is Bengals analyst and o-line aficionado John Sheeran. In one sentence, he woke me up to reality.
John told me that the rotations we have seen—the fluidity in the offensive line—is not part of any grand scheme. Rather, it marks the end to an “experiment” that we all intuitively knew would backfire—namely, failing to retain Cincinnati’s top linemen (Andrew Whitworth and Kevin Zeitler) in hopes that Cedric Ogbuehi and Jake Fisher would do the job.
They haven’t. While Whitworth has become the backbone of the L.A. Rams, Ogbuehi and Fisher are one Moe, Larry, or Curly away from being the Three Stooges. As my friend Jason Marcum has described it, Ogbuehi and Fisher are playing a game of "musical chairs" with Andre Smith. It’s a game that's neither cute nor funny, but a sad reflection of Cincinnati’s poor management decisions and refusal to pay to keep talent.
Lewis’ vague response—his “that’s just the way it is”—results directly from not wanting to state the facts. They are playing musical chairs because there’s nothing else to do at this point. Ogbuehi and Fisher might weigh a lot, but there’s really little else that qualifies them to get paid to be NFL linemen.
And this gets to the last statement Lewis makes. “We changed.” Not quite, Marvin, not quite. Yes, a quarterback coach was promoted, and, yes, an offensive coordinator who should have been fired a long time ago was finally let go. But, in actuality, nothing has changed.
The only real difference from the preceding three Bengals’ losses was that this time the opponent wasn’t the Ravens, the Texans, or the Packers. It was the Browns, and that has made all the difference.