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4 myths about the Bengals this offseason

Groupthink has dominated offseason discussions to a point where talking about football has become almost insufferable.

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NFL: Adam Jones Archive Sam Greene-USA TODAY Sports

February and March are the worst two months on the football calendar.

That’s my personal opinion, but honestly, it really doesn’t get worse than the couple of months leading up to the NFL Draft. Sure, there’s the solace of free agency and the draft itself — both of those two aspects of the offseason are awesome — but virtually every component of draft season has already burned me out by the end of March.

I get that some people like the draft, and that’s good. No skin off my back, really. Many people on Cincy Jungle, Twitter and all around do great work, and in saying all of this I hope I’m not taking anything away from those who put together draft-related work and those who appreciate the work that these people do. My beef isn’t with these people, nor is it with anyone who knows how to discuss draft prospects without taking things over the top.

With that said, what really grinds my gears is everything else. Offseason football talk can be great, but nowadays, talking football has turned from an enjoyable interaction between fans into a combative and abrasive war between internet commenters.

The never-ending back-and-forth among fans — all of whom, myself included, have been influenced (at the least, if not more) by groupthink — about which prospects are best or worst, the heated debates about controversial prospects which somehow derail into full-fledged comment wars about politics, gender equality and the like and conspiracy theories regarding the staff of fans’ favorite football teams have all taken me to the brink in which football becomes insufferable.

Can’t we all just get along? And for what it’s worth, I’m not just talking about Cincy Jungle. In the months of February and March, football fans make assumptions left and right, and many of them don’t even seem to realize they’re making assumptions about anything. With those assumptions being made, people then go on to criticize others’ opinions and oftentimes cross the line in discussions. Frankly, it gets frustrating.

Football in itself is arbitrary. It’s pretty apparent in examining how the staff at Pro Football Focus and Bleacher Report’s NFL1000 project, whose jobs it are to “objectively” evaluate football teams and players, disagree on virtually everything, whether at a minor or major level.

Kevin Zeitler, for instance, was Pro Football Focus’ seventh highest-graded guard in 2016. Fans who wanted Cincinnati to re-sign the former first-round pick oftentimes cited PFF as evidence for the “obvious” reason to bring the standout back. But NFL1000, which — just like PFF — watches every snap of the All-22 film, graded him as the 22nd best guard in the league last year.

So was Zeitler worth bringing back and does he deserve to be paid like the best guard in the league? That depends on your standard. But are any of us, even the self-proclaimed draft gurus, going to pretend we know just how good Zeitler is in comparison to the rest of the guys at his position? Fooling ourselves into believing we know everything, or even just more than others, is the first step down a slippery slope in becoming an insufferable football fan.

So with that all in mind, take a seat and take everything I say (along with everything everyone else says) with a grain of salt, because I’ll be the first to admit that I — like many in this industry — do not know everything. In fact, I know very little. So sit back, relax and listen to me vent about why I think this time of year is terrible, because I’m just getting started. You might not agree with every point I make, but I’m pretty sure I’ll keep you entertained.

Also, I’ve got to give a shout out to Bleeding Green Nation, who had the original idea for an offseason myths post, which I’ve now used two times — once here, and once for Bolts From the Blue, our SB Nation Chargers partner.

Myth 1: If the Bengals don’t select Prospect X in the draft, they don’t know how to evaluate talent

I did as good a job as I could of trying to illuminate how arbitrary football analysis as a whole actually is, but if you’re more of a visual learner, this video is for you. “Draft talk” drives me crazy, so I really enjoyed the watch. Tony Zarrella, the sports director for Cleveland 19 News, does a great job here in explaining how empty all of the draft clichés actually are:

I like Solomon Thomas, Taco Charlton and Malik McDowell as Round 1 picks for the Bengals. Others might like Derek Barnett, Reuben Foster, Corey Davis, O.J. Howard or someone completely different. But at the end of the day, none of us know exactly what it is the Bengals are looking for from specific players in terms of value, ability or potential — that is, unless we have some anonymous Bengals employees among us.

That’s why no matter whether you’ve watched every snap on Draft Breakdown, whether you prefer reading highly regarded draft evaluators’ opinions or whether you literally don’t know anything about any player in the draft. There’s a more than likely chance you won’t know which 11 players the Bengals will end up with this year, or even whether they’ll be good, regardless of how much film yu study. I won’t either. None of us will definitively know whether any of these guys will pan out, and that’s okay.

Myth 2: Adam Jones needs to go because “he hurts the Bengals”

That people are still overreacting about the Bengals’ Wild Card loss to the Steelers feels like it should surprise me, but I guess I can understand why people are still agitated. With that in mind, I’m still incredibly frustrated by the cherry-picking that goes on when it comes to players involved with Cincinnati’s ultimate demise in the infamous playoff loss to Pittsburgh.

Of those players, of course, is Jones. The league’s most controversial cornerback was involved in another offseason incident this past January, which resulted in an arrest and even a felony charge (which was eventually dropped).

Never mind the discussion of whether Jones deserves what seems like his 20th chance after several off-field incidents throughout his career, what bothers me most about this whole ordeal is the notion that Jones has become a distraction on-the-field.

Last January, Bengals fans were irate with NFL officials after Jones bumped into a referee in a seemingly incidental mishap and was ultimately flagged on a penalty provoked by Steelers coach Joey Porter illegally coming onto the field.

One year later, however, revisionist history has taken its course. Now, Jones is no longer the innocent player frustrated with inconsistent officiating and rather a guy who “melted down” late in a game where ticky-tack calls on both sides ultimately defined the night. Jones’ postgame social media tirades certainly didn’t help his case in this case, but the notion that he was the reason why the Bengals lost last January’s game is blatantly untrue.

Fans also point back to last year’s incident between Jones and Raiders wide receiver Amari Cooper for a situation that was later revealed the then-rookie receiver provoked. Being provoked doesn’t right Jones’ wrong, but it at least somewhat explains why the defensive back was so aggressive toward his opponent in the following play. The two also made up at the 2016 Pro Bowl, where Jones claimed there was “nothing but love” between he and Cooper.

But with those two “incidents” — for lack of a better term — aside, not much stands out in terms of Jones “hurting his team” on-the-field. Sure, he can appear loud and frustrated at times during games, but there has never really been a circumstance where the cornerback has let his team down in a big spot, unless you’re really insistent that his penalty against the Steelers was the right call to make.

Whether people are willing to admit it or not, Jones is still a more than capable NFL cornerback. He’s no longer the top-10 cover man we all felt he was in 2015, but Jones remains one of the more effective players at his position in the NFL. Per Pro Football Focus, via Cincy Jungle (thanks, Jason), Jones only surrendered two receiving touchdowns last year. That means the veteran cornerback has allowed just three receiving touchdowns during the past two years, which seems pretty fitting for a guy being paid as the NFL’s 21st best cornerback. PFF and NFL1000 have him as the number 36 and number 30 ranked corner respectively, for what it’s worth. That certainly justifies Jones’ starting status and almost matches what he’s being paid from a pure numbers standpoint.

But Jones’ ability on-the-field goes beyond the numbers that come up in advanced analytics. The Bengals have been one of the NFL’s best ballhawking teams during the past half-decade, and Jones — despite his lack of gaudy interception numbers — has played a big part in that. Cincinnati has ranked among the top five teams in interceptions in each of the past four seasons, especially thanks to Jones. He has not only been a starter in each of those seasons but has also been one of the league’s best at setting teammates up for forced turnovers, thanks to hard work in the film room and incredible instincts on-the-field. Attributes like this don’t show up in the box scores or among Jones’ end-of-season grades.

In the latest Bengals-related news, coach Marvin Lewis dismissed questions about Jones while owner Mike Brown publicly voiced support for his longtime employee, both of which understandably we met with the dissatisfaction of many Bengals fans and Cincinnati residents. Giving credit where it’s due, not all fans felt this way.

I’m not here to justify Brown’s decision to support Jones as a person. But as an employee — at least on the field — Jones has done his job. He’s no longer a top 10 cornerback, but he’s also not being paid like a top 10 cornerback. That many Cincinnati fans — who want to see the team be competitive — claim replacing a starting-caliber player with a cornerback who spent 2016 on Injured Reserve (William Jackson) and has yet to see an NFL snap is the right move to make from a pure football standpoint, is strange to me.

With all of that said, the backlash toward Jones and the Bengals for the cornerback’s latest off-the-field transgressions are completely understandable and more than warranted. Any claims that Jones isn’t a starting-caliber player, however, are just downright untrue. Should Jackson, Darqueze Dennard, Josh Shaw, Bene Benwikere or KeiVarae Russell dethrone Jones at some point in 2017, I’ll be more than excited. I would be ecstatic to see Cincinnati’s young, talented playmakers receive a shot at some action, and I think Jones would still be of use in the return game, should the Bengals need him there.

Myth 3: The Bengals have a character problem

With the Bengals appearing to be headed in the wrong direction after a multitude of losses during the past two years, it’s easier than ever to criticize Cincinnati. The Jones-related drama coupled with the Bengals visiting some draft prospects with very serious red flags in the character department, however, have made Bengals-related discussions even more toxic.

Yes, Cincinnati hosted controversial running back Joe Mixon on a visit and appear to be interested to some degree. Yes, the Bengals also attended Florida State’s pro day, where running back Dalvin Cook — who has some off-field concerns of his own — was the center of attention. The team has also scheduled a private workout for pass rusher Devonte Fields who, like Mixon and Cook, has some concerns.

But, as many people have pointed out, all we know is that the Bengals have visited or hosted these players. It’s hard to imagine anyone on the Bengals’ staff, which rarely makes any public statements about anything, leaking rumors that the team has interest in a guy like Mixon, Cook, Fields or anyone else, controversial or not. As of early April, all there is to know is that the Bengals are visiting these players.

Could the Bengals’ talking to Mixon mean they’re interested in him? Absolutely. Could it mean the team is doing its due diligence? Sure. Does it mean the Bengals are going to select him in the second round of the draft? Contrary to roughly 75 percent of mock drafts I’ve seen among Cincinnati fans and media members, not necessarily.

So while there could be room for concern in regards to the Bengals potentially sending the wrong kind of message to the team, I’m still reserving judgment. To those claiming the Bengals have thrown character evaluations in the garbage and gone back to 2006, at least wait until Cincinnati selects Mixon before trashing the team.

Myth 4: Cincinnati is nearing Cleveland territory

This one’s just funny to me. The Browns have an abundance of draft capital and an improved offensive line, while the Bengals lost a couple of impactful offensive linemen.

Somehow, there are fans who believe a one-win team from 2016 is no longer going to be a cellar-dweller and that a team that has made six playoff appearances in the past eight seasons — thanks in large part to the success of Andy Dalton, A.J. Green, Geno Atkins and the like — will finish 2017 at the bottom of the AFC North standings. Keep in mind, we’re talking about a Browns team that decided paying off Brock Osweiler’s salary is worth adding an additional second-round pick and sixth-round pick (at the cost of a fourth-rounder).

The jury’s still out on Cleveland right now, but as of today, the discrepancy in talent between Cleveland and Cincinnati — even with the Browns’ draft capital — isn’t close. Keep in mind, this is a Browns team that despite paying Zeitler more money than any guard in NFL history doesn’t have as good of an offensive line as it did two years ago, when the team went 3-13.

And, of course, the Browns still don’t know who will start for the team at the most important position, quarterback, on the roster come Week 1. After Cleveland upgraded the offensive line and will inevitably upgrade its defense with the addition of Myles Garrett in Round 1 of the draft, people are starting to believe the Browns could finally climb out of the cellar. But while that’s possible, it will take Hue Jackson and company more time than one year to figure things out.

Also worth mentioning is the fact that Cleveland downgraded at quarterback, wide receiver and safety during the offseason, which has conveniently gone unmentioned. Cincinnati fans also seem to be forgetting that the Bengals, with 11 picks in the upcoming draft, could massively upgrade the roster in April. And with the anticipated returns of Jackson, Andrew Billings, Marcus Hardison and Brandon Thompson, the team could potentially reap even more benefits.

That’s not to say I know for sure the Bengals will be better than the Browns next year; I don’t. But making a claim that a team which finished 1-15 last year is all of a sudden going to leapfrog the Bengals, who in a bad year finished 6-9-1, is a scorching hot take.

What’s the lesson to learn in all of this? I guess it’s that we as football fans need to be more conscious of our inherent desire to make conclusions before stopping to think whether we’re operating under assumptions. I remain optimistic heading into the draft, and I’m confident the Bengals will bounce back in 2017. I can’t force you to join me in believing that, but I encourage you to remain hopeful — because let’s face it, nothing in football is ever going to break our hearts the way the Bengals’ loss to the Steelers in the Wild Card round did.

We as Bengals fans have gone through the gauntlet, so there’s really no reason not to keep our heads up.