A double-edged sword has become apparent with the Cincinnati Bengals in the mini-empire they have built since 2011. After taking flyers on some questionable characters and even making the occasional splash in free agency in Marvin Lewis’ first seasons in Cincinnati, the team has gone back to its long-standing conservative roots.
Sure, the Bengals still take the occasional shot on players with some red flags (like Adam Jones and Vontaze Burfict). And sometimes the team makes a lucrative player trade. But, the organization has preferred to lay low in outside free agency, rarely signing impact players who weren’t already on the roster. The NFL Draft has been the Bengals’ bread-and-butter in recent years, and it appears it will be more of the same this offseason, despite some vague rhetoric from both Lewis and Director of Player Personnel, Duke Tobin.
After the Bengals’ five straight postseason berths from 2011-2015, a 6-9-1 season from the team and their supposedly-deep roster is unacceptable. What seems to be a perfect opportunity for the team to cut ties with dead weight on the roster and rid itself of coaches with stale messages, doesn’t appear to be in the 2017 offseason cards.
As the calendar has turned to February, every major figure in the franchise is intact for the coming season. Many wanted to see heads roll, particularly in the coaching ranks, but the Bengals apparently feel that 2016 was a blip in the radar, rather than a trend.
Does the continuity in the staff point to a rebound in 2017, or will it be more of the same?
Why change was needed:
Marvin Lewis has done a number of great things for the Bengals since 2003. Whether it’s creating a level of respect from within the division, consistent high grades in the draft, or more playoff berths from 2011-2015 than the team had from 1980-2002, Cincinnati football has been much more fun to watch under the former Ravens’ defensive coordinator.
However, after seven postseason tries and two franchise quarterbacks, Lewis has constantly led the team to embarrassing finishes on the biggest stages. With just one year left on his current deal, it seemed like this offseason was the perfect time to get rid of Lewis.
While he’s well-liked by vested veterans who have entrenched roles with the club, an air of complacency can be felt for even those of us who aren’t privy to the everyday pulse of the locker room. One also has to wonder about the weight of so much disappointment from a championship window that appears to be closing on the players. Is it anywhere close to what the fans feel?
On the assistant level, many changes were made last offseason, both by their own volition and due to coaches being poached by other clubs. In fact, two of their star assistant coaches have been hired for head coaching gigs the past two seasons, in the form of Hue Jackson with the Browns in 2016 and Vance Joseph with the Broncos in 2017.
With the offense sputtering under first-year coordinator, Ken Zampese, the defense looking like a middle-of-the-road crew in another post-Mike Zimmer season, and Paul Alexander’s offensive line massively disappointing last year, the coaches below Lewis are also under scrutiny.
To the disappointment of many, Lewis somehow believes he is entitled to an extension this offseason. While most believe he should finally be in a prove-it year, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Bengals extend his contract without proper cause this offseason.
Continuity is a trend of champions:
Even though envy runs deep within Who Dey Nation when it comes to the Pittsburgh Steelers, their six championships are something the Bengals dream of. Would it surprise you that the Steelers have had just three head coaches since 1969? Chuck Noll, Bill Cowher and Mike Tomlin have been the three, all of which have Super Bowl titles to their names.
Emulation is one of the sincerest forms of flattery, and even though there are major disparities in certain aspects between the two franchises, the Bengals have been trying to be more like the Steelers in some respects. And, in a few of those areas, it has worked for Cincinnati.
Lewis has brought a semblance of competitiveness to the Bengals—something that was lacking from 1991-2002. Perhaps it’s out of extreme fear of the unknown outside of Lewis, an inbred confidence in his yet-to-be-seen ability to finally give Cincinnati a Lombardi Trophy, or both, owner Mike Brown has preferred to stick with the known quantity instead of exploring the unknown.
Additionally, the always-tough practice of patience is one that may actually pay off after one down year for the Bengals. After eight coaching changes among the assistant ranks in the 2016 offseason, it seemed to be one of the major catalysts to a six-win season.
The Brown family decided not to gamble on younger, unproven coaches as a possible remedy to the upheaval experienced last spring. Cincinnati’s offense particularly fell on hard times this year; Zampese took the reins from Jackson and Bill Lazor was hired to take over Zampese’s former job as quarterbacks coach. Throw in the losses of Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones, as well as Tyler Eifert missing eight games in 2016 and A.J. Green missing seven, and you can understand the dip in year-to-year production.
Still, it’s a fine line to walk, and one in which the great teams don’t easily find satisfaction. Is it simple growing pains and bad luck that led to an observable one-eighty on offense? Or, should contingency plans at positions that are stacked, when healthy, be something to build on in an effort to promote competition this year?
After so much change in 2016, maybe the Bengals needed some extreme consistency in 2017 to improve. Another volatile offseason could have just led to more failure for Cincinnati.
Regardless, the Bengals are making the logical decision to give this staff at least one more year as an intact group to rekindle the magic they have experienced during the previous five years. Even so, it’s going to take a multitude of wise personnel decisions this offseason to mask any potential coaching deficiencies that might exist beyond the transition year of 2016.