Fans and players of a struggling team are each faced with similar questions, and they mainly revolve around desire.
For the players, it’s about playing for something; working for something. Every morning they wake up and have to go back to the grind even as the season is bound to end in a whimper. Most of them have never experienced consistent winning at the NFL level. Some of them haven’t consistently won games since high school.
They’re professionals, sure, and this is their job, yes. But most working individuals would agree that jobs can get tedious and monotonous at times.
In the midst of a fifth-straight losing season, the entire Cincinnati Bengals’ roster knows this better than most NFL players, as does their fanbase. What purpose do people have to spend their time, energy, and money over and over again towards an organization that consistently displays an inferior product in an industry that’s valued at over $10 billion?
Personally, I think the answer for both sides is the players.
Fans identify themselves as followers of a team, but what keeps them interested is the players. That’s who they’re watching and invest so much of their interest in. When Tyler Boyd scores a touchdown, they don’t cheer for Mike Brown or his family, they cheer for Boyd and his teammates.
In the weeks leading up to Joe Mixon signing his contract extension, plenty of fans told me that Mixon was the heart of the team and made watching the Bengals enjoyable. Regardless of Mixon’s true value to winning football games, he created an emotional attachment with the fanbase.
Fans care about seeing their favorite players continue to play for the team they’re attached to whether or not those players are worth keeping around. And this is even more pertinent when the team struggles as a whole. They may not be expecting wins, but the if players they like to watch suit up, they’ll tune in.
Going back to the players’ side, when the team is losing and the season is dragging on, the role of leadership suddenly falls on the players. They’re the ones going out there every week on the field taking orders from coaches who haven’t put them in positions to succeed. Their bond can either strengthen or deteriorate during losing stretches, and it may come down to how the best of them perform.
This was all a long way of saying that it’s up to the Bengals’ top players to lead by example in the final weeks of this season, and whether they want it or not, they are why fans continue to watch the team.
The Bengals’ latest game against the New York Giants featured a defensive slugfest that eventually featured backup quarterbacks on both sides of the ball. It was the defense that had my curiosity in this game because having any sort of expectations for an offense led by Brandon Allen was going to lead to disappointment. Despite their best efforts, the defense could not carry Cincinnati to a victory over New York’s NFC team, and one matchup in particular stood out.
Carl Lawson has been the Bengals’ best pass rusher this season, and that statement doesn’t even articulate the situation well. Lawson’ essentially been the Bengals’ only pass rusher this season, but it’s not like he’s been dominant by any means.
Now in his fourth season, Lawson has been up and down in a year where if he’s not great for a week, the entire defense is in trouble. This week presented an intriguing opportunity for Lawson to showcase his upside. The Giants’ pass protection has been largely underwhelming this year, and rookie left tackle Andrew Thomas has been a big part of the problem.
But if you just watched this game, you wouldn’t have known that.
Thomas faced Lawson 36 times in pass protection and didn’t allow a single pressure. The only time Lawson got close to sacking either Daniel Jones or Colt McCoy was when Thomas was blocking someone else when facing a blitz. It was an impressive battle between the two of them, but Thomas undoubtedly won the war.
Here are seven plays from the matchup that I thought were interesting.
Lawson getting shutout by a rookie who has been more of a liability this year wasn’t the reason why the Bengals lost this game, but knowing Lawson was facing a talented left tackle who won’t play the Bengals again until 2024 is indeed a reason as to why I watched this game.
As an impending free agent, Lawson may not even be in Cincinnati next year, but he’s earned a voice in the locker room as an unquestioned on-field alpha in his position group. And we’ll at least be able to watch him while we unfortunately keep watching the rest of the team.