Coming off two brutal losses, reducing an unexpected (though exciting) 4-1 start, it makes you wonder: What should we look forward to as Cincinnati Bengals fans?
Are things a bit directionless right now? The team’s 45-10 loss to Kansas City, with an entire nation watching (well, probably not entire nation), was an atomic punch that exhaled the life force that supports our fandom. Here we go again. National game. Same stupid troupes. Nothing has changed. Nothing will ever change with the same owner and coach. You probably heard these comments all week.
Cincinnati has lost its identity. Their direction.
Perhaps the downfall began with Tyler Eifert’s injury; since the “cant-unsee-that” injury, the Bengals offense has scored seven, 21, and 10 points against Miami, Pittsburgh, and Kansas City respectively (and it took freak fourth quarter plays against Miami to beat the Dolphins). Injuries have leveled a heavy burden on this squad. Joe Mixon and Giovani Bernard haven’t played together since Baltimore, starting center Billy Price has been out since mid-September, and the tight end position, with the exception of C.J. Uzomah, is being filled by practice squad players.
Maybe opposing defenses deciphered Bill Lazor’s schemes. Tyler Boyd, the darling of every fantasy football show last week, isn’t that secret weapon right now. Boyd has averaged 4.7 receptions and 44.3 yards/game in October after an impressive opening month in which he secured 6.5 receptions and 87.3 yard per game. Just double-team Green and Boyd. Who else can hurt you? John Ross is hurt, and an empty threat.
Are these excuses?
Excuses can support legitimate context: “Hey boss, I can’t make it to work. My car’s engine exploded.” “That’s not an excuse.” “Umm.”
Dread also fills these old bones when Teryl Austin’s group takes the field. The Bengals defense has allowed four quarterbacks to surpass 350 yards passing with two offenses surpassing 195 yards rushing — they allowed only one team to generate 195 yards rushing over the last two seasons combined (and those years sucked!).
Let’s be fair. Atlanta was just a shootout; games with that personality tend to carry a life of their own. Kansas City is amazing, led by an offensive-minded head coach who designs plays, creating space for open receivers. And Vontaze Burfict’s return didn’t have the “savior” impact some believed it would. In fact, it’s been seriously disappointing.
Perhaps this is the nature of defense in today’s game — lot of yards, but minimal gain in points allowed.
Roughing the passer is called so frequently the league should think about making quarterbacks wear their red practice jerseys during games. Defensive pass interference, another subjective call, is called with regularity; offensive pass interference (or illegal picks) are given wide latitude as the league shows more concern for excitement for dollars, rather than the quality of competition.
Cincinnati is on pace to allow 464 points this season — that would be the most points allowed by a Bengals defense in the last 30 years (460 in 1999, 456 in 2002, 452 in 1998). More yards, more points. Players have to execute... then again, what is this defense? Are the schemes not working? Is Austin’s defense not a fit with the players on this team? Should we be more patient?
To be honest, I’m at a crossroads.
Should we expect this team to significantly rebound against Tampa Bay? Should we expect a better second half performance and a possible push toward the playoffs? And if the Bengals do make it there, should we expect them to make an impact in the postseason?
Should we reset?
This season isn’t a wash by any means; games are to be played. Games of interest, like those against the Saints, Chargers, and any of the four division games after the bye remain on the schedule. Sundays can still be fun, if the context is isolated to that specific game. If we’re thinking about the season, those convictions feel more vulnerable.
Our expectations shouldn’t be so high anymore — if they ever were. Yes, Cincinnati should have beaten Pittsburgh, but whatever mental block remains in place (with an assist from officials), won’t go away. No matter what, when, where. Cincinnati can’t beat Pittsburgh. It’s silly to expect an alternative result until the Bengals actually overcome that hurdle.
Their embarrassing clown show against Kansas City was an intersection between two teams headed in different directions. The Chiefs are riding with an exciting superstar quarterback and tremendous skill players, while the Bengals are struggling to recapture an identity with many contributors lost to injury.
Now those games are over, the Bengals can refocus on beating a handful of mediocre teams in the next month to rebuild their confidence. They are gravitating toward a unifying theme. According to reports this week, the team had a players only meeting. Unity was the theme.
“We’re all about keeping everybody together and getting us back on track. We have a group of great leaders in this locker room,” offensive lineman Trey Hopkins said. “When they have something to say, they make it known. I’m sure nothing was said that hasn’t been said already in here to you guys (the media).”
The question remains: What now?
Should we expect the playoffs? It seems like a distant probability. After Kansas City, it feels like Cincinnati is 1-6, rather than 4-3. Should we scratch expectations about the season, or disregard them entirely and just enjoy Sunday afternoons?
I’m OK with that.
Sport is recreational. Fun. A break from reality. Rather than brooding, analyzing, and conjecturing the remainder of this wacky season, crack a cold one, enjoy your Sunday afternoon games, and go about the week as normal.
That, I can accept.