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Bengals mailbag: Cincinnati’s coaching future and indoor practice facility update

The Bengals made a couple of staffing changes this week, prompting quite a few questions from the Cincy Jungle faithful.

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It’s been quite the week for the Cincinnati Bengals. After getting embarrassed once again by one of the league’s elite teams in Week 10, heads had to roll.

Teryl Austin, the team’s defensive coordinator, was the obvious choice and was given his pink slip on Monday after his defense gave up 51 points to the Saints and their third consecutive 500-yard game allowed. And, in predictable fashion, Marvin Lewis brought his old friend Hue Jackson in once again for a supporting role.

What do these moves mean for the short and the long term with the Bengals? These were some of the questions on the minds of our readers and podcast listeners this week.

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Lewis hasn’t been a defensive coordinator since 2002. That doesn’t mean that he hasn’t had involvement on that side of the ball over the past 16 years, but the day-to-day operation of the unit has been laid at the feet of his assistants, as calling plays have not been part of his duties since 2004.

All of that changed this week with the firing of Austin. Instead of promoting a guy like Jim Haslett, Lewis autonomously gave himself the position, preferring to fix the unit in a much more hands-on way.

On this week’s episode of The Orange and Black Insider, we were asked about the viability of Lewis at his position. Were all of the issues Austin’s fault?

If you read the column from MMQB’s Albert Breer earlier in the week, you’d have received an image of Austin losing his group due to confusion and a lack of creating a true identity on that side of the ball. Unfortunately, Austin couldn’t formulate a plan to mold the group into the consistent turnover machine he had envisioned upon his arrival in Cincinnati.

What transpired instead was a group that often looked confused in coverage responsibilities, as well as giving off of the vibe that they wanted nothing to do with tackling opponents. What has been the result is a historically-bad defense and some very embarrassing performances in a small handful of high-profile games.

Still, a lack of tackling and getting off of the field on third down were problems under Paul Guenther last season as well. Austin didn’t walk into a situation like Guenther did in 2014 when he took over a highly-rated unit led by Mike Zimmer. This 2018 group definitely had its flaws when Austin took the reins.

Jessie Bates and Sam Hubbard were guys Austin thought he could build around. Both have had huge plays in gigantic wins this year, but they aren’t complete players quite yet. We’ve also seen regression from certain veterans this year, which is a definite indictment of Austin’s coaching prowess.

But, is there enough talent on that side of the ball to make the defense a somewhat-respectable unit?

The group is led by Geno Atkins, Carlos Dunlap and Michael Johnson. Shawn Williams has also made his share of plays since taking over for Reggie Nelson as a starting safety the past couple of seasons.

Meanwhile, Darqueze Dennard looks like he will return this week, giving the Bengals back their trio of first-round corners. Vontaze Burfict may also be returning to the lineup to hopefully give some stability to the unit, even though he also hasn’t looked like himself in limited action this year.

There is also a group of younger guys consisting of Bates, Hubbard, as well as Jordan Willis who have high draft designations and have flashed in their young careers. So, yes, the clay is there to mold.

Injuries have been a major issue on that side of the ball, once again playing into Austin’s corner. Even so, it’s a coach’s job to get the most out of players—even the rotational and/or backup guys. In the very early stages of Lewis’ takeover of the defense, there are some signs that a positive direction is forthcoming.

Take this clip from practice the week, for example:

“The basics” are frankly what has been needed this year and will continue to be required in the coming weeks for a playoff push. Tackling, technique and concocting a less complicated scheme will be the key to getting this group back on track. As mentioned above, there is talent in the form of a lot of high picks, but it’s about mining that ability at this point.

For weeks, we talked about the worries with the Bengals’ exciting start and the lack of it being a viable route to long-term success. Dead-last rankings against the pass and in overall defense have made the worries a reality, as the team is currently in a 1-3 stretch with the three losses coming against top teams.

Perhaps Lewis can channel some of the success he had when he created one of the best NFL defenses in league almost 20 years ago. Right now, getting them back to middle-of-the-pack would be fine.

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Ever since Hue Jackson was re-hired this week, many questions and concerns have surfaced from Who Dey nation. Is this a move to groom him as the next head coach? What kind of impact will he have in his role?

To summarize, Lewis brought in his old friend to help out on the staff, while he himself spearheads the defense. According to the long-tenured head coach, Jackson will solely help him out with the defensive duties, as well as with other in-game nuances.

Many wonder how and why Jackson keeps getting NFL opportunities. Aside from being chummy with people in high places, he is a guy who has charisma. That notion is being heavily-questioned in the wake of his recent media tour, but think back the Bengals’ 2012 stint on HBO’s “Hard Knocks”. Jackson was one of the stars of that iteration of the documentary with his jubilant personality and sometimes in-your-face coaching style.

Couple that with being a part of some great offenses (sometimes as the architect, as was the case in 2015 with the Bengals), and you have a resume that intrigues some clubs. For Cleveland, part of what they also had to like was Jackson’s familiarity with the AFC North, having spent nine collective years with Cincinnati (2004-2006, 2012-2015) and Baltimore (2008-2009).

In short, Jackson appears to be a guy who is a solid assistant in the NFL—even to level of coordinator—but not necessarily as a head man. There are other examples of this around the league in the form of Wade Phillips, Ken Whisenhunt and maybe even Josh McDaniels.

As an NFL head coach with two teams, Jackson is 11-44-1 (.205 winning percentage). His 3-36-1 record with the Browns, including a winless season in 2017, is the apex of his struggles as “the guy”.

Fans have been getting nervous that Jackson’s re-arrival in The Queen City points to his being the heir apparent to Lewis once he finally decides to retire. Given the above-mentioned statistics, it’s easy to see why the nervousness exists.

Is it a truly fair stigma though?

Keep this in mind: Jackson has had high-profile jobs in three of the most dysfunctional organizations in the NFL. In two of those spots (Oakland and Cleveland), he held the head coach title. Was he truly set up to be as successful as possible, given the issues and limitations that permeate through those franchises?

With the Raiders, Jackson actually had the team in the middle of a playoff run until Jason Campbell went down with a season-ending injury. He then orchestrated the Carson Palmer trade and the rest is history.

But, he did go 8-8 that year—his first as an NFL head coach. I seem to remember a certain Bengals coach netting the same result in his inaugural season as the team’s figurehead.

Regardless, aside from fan conjectures, there isn’t any true evidence that Lewis is prepping Jackson to take over the Bengals’ head coaching gig in the near future. For now, all indications show that this is a move to potentially push the Bengals towards a championship while Lewis is still the head man.

Lewis trusts Jackson. With his taking on of more responsibilities, Lewis needs another set of eyes seeing and correcting things the way he does. That’s where the logic in this hire comes into play.

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The topic of an indoor practice facility has been a long-lingering one for fans, and while one OBI listener brought it to our attention this week for discussion, it was initially raised by a local Cincinnati media member.

A notorious distinction of the Bengals franchise is that they are the northern-most NFL team without an indoor practice facility of their own. They have an agreement with the University of Cincinnati to use their facilities when absolutely necessary, but it’s not something that’s a regular thing.

The sad truth with being attached to the Bengals—whether as an employee or a fan—is that they are a slow-moving organization. With their sometimes-ornery operational practices, their owner believes that an indoor facility is a luxury that the team doesn’t need.

Obviously, this isn’t a new talking point for Brown and the team. Heck, even in 2011, it appeared that the old man may finally be budging on the building of a facility.

Yet, here we are seven and a half years later and it remains simply on a wish list.

Obviously, there are many arguments as to why the team should build a bubble. From a player standpoint, it simply plays into the free agency corner. The Bengals aren’t big players in outside free agency, but the showing off of top-notch facilities is a selling point to veterans they bring in for visits. There’s also a vague point to be made about injured guys sitting out in the cold, but that’s debatable.

Think about it from a coaching standpoint, as well. Many of the coaches are older and they probably aren’t stoked to be sitting out in the snow and the cold as the frigid months approach.

Some may think these are pretty weak reasons for a team to spend millions on a facility. I wouldn’t find fault in that belief system. I guess it’s just a sign of a team still unwilling to do the little things that most other elite franchises engage in with regularity (jersey retirements, anyone?).

Really though, the lack of an indoor facility is a symbol akin to an albatross for the Bengals. Brown has never been a beacon of modernity or innovation, which is ironic, given who his father was and what he brought to the game of football.

This report by Meghan Mongillo points to some positives in a possible project, but given what we’ve seen from this ownership, we shouldn’t be holding our collective breath for this being completed anytime soon.

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