Leadership was one of the Bengals’ biggest losses of this offseason. Losing Andrew Whitworth and Domata Peko leaves a huge authoritative hole on both offense and defense. Both players were also some of the last remnants of a bygone era of Bengals football, one involving a constant struggle for the team to consistently compete for a spot in the playoffs. For the ‘new wave’ of veteran Bengals players, 2016 was more of a fluke than anything for a team so used to making the playoffs every year. With Andy Dalton, A.J. Green, Adam Jones and Clint Boling some of the most veteran players on the team, it’s time for the new guard to come in and use their experiences to guide the rest of the team back to success.
Only four players on the Bengals’ current roster have 10+ years of NFL experience and 12 guys have eight or more years of experience.
“They have to understand: You have to take control, you have to take over,” Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis told Albert Breer of Sports Illustrated. “Again, that group of guys, a year ago it’s 14 (vets), now it’s 20-something, that are at that point of their career. These guys have grown up. Now, they’re the leaders of the group, that group of players who’d never not gone to the playoffs.”
For the players who joined the team in 2011 or after, missing the playoffs as the team did in 2016 was such a new and foreign disappointment. But, it also provides a new perspective for those players to learn from.
“That’s the thing, there are only five guys in this building who were there before then,” Lewis said. That’s the great part of it. The rest of the group came in ’11 and ’12.”
The team’s playoff hiccup can be chalked up to the huge number of structural changes to the roster and coaching staff in the 2016 offseason, as well as some key injuries. Furthermore, the reliance on young talent didn’t make things easier. But, those situations are a possibility every year, so it was important for the new group of veterans to learn that lesson.
“You have to prepare for those times all the time,” Lewis said. “Obviously our season wasn’t what we wanted last year. That just heightens everyone’s awareness, that we have to change and be better.”
Unexpected departures are just part of the business. When they happen, the team has to know how to rise from the ashes and create something new and potentially better.
“People always think you’re this close or in position to do this, and there’s more to it than that,” Lewis said. “You have to have graduation from here. … For instance, with (Whitworth), you don’t expect it, and it happens, you have to be prepared for it. Any time, whether it was Andrew deciding he doesn’t want to play anymore or whatever, that was always a possibility. So we’ve been prepared.”
After all, having great veteran leaders like Whitworth doesn’t necessarily equate to a Super Bowl winning team. There are so many different factors going into a team building process, so the players in the leadership positions have to be rigid enough in their practice habits but still flexible enough to address key issues plaguing the team in any given situation.
One thing the Bengals are doing this year to better prepare the roster for the roughness and toughness of the regular season is reteaching guys how to be physical.
“We have been more physical in practice because we have younger guys. We have to reteach guys,” Lewis said. “I didn’t have to teach Whit how to be physical, or Peko how to be physical. But now we’ve got some new guys, some younger guys, and we have to reteach that.”
That includes a cut down on veteran rest days, it seems. And come to think of it, we haven’t heard about any veteran rest days since the second day of training camp.
“I had a player walk in here the other day and say, ‘I really think I need the day off today.’ And I sent him out the door,” Lewis said. “We’re not doing that. Your coach will take care of you, I’ll make sure he does. But I want everyone suited up unless you physically can’t. That’s a better way for this football team.”
Ultimately, it’s all about starting over and bringing the new generation up to speed. One day, it will be today’s young players moving on as veterans and developing the next generation of rookies. Coach Lewis has a plan for getting the young guys up to speed this year and it surely seems like a good one.