(Editor's Note: This is the first installment of a two-part column. In this first installment, I focus on the Bengals' head coach, Marvin Lewis.
Somewhere along the way, "They're ready this time around" became "We had opportunities and let it go". Sound familiar? It should. The former is what Bengals fans told themselves going into Sunday's matchup against the Chargers, while the latter is the chorus line to every Marvin Lewis press conference following a loss since 2003. The 2013 Wild Card game was "different year, same result" for the boys in orange and black.
With a fifth one-and-done in Lewis' career as Cincinnati's head coach, the amount of questions and the level of frustration are at an all-time high. Surely they have to be due to break a dubious streak that is approaching two and half decades, aren't they? With those frustrations and questions come the inevitable finger-pointing. It's easy to project blame when things go wrong and, to this team's credit, the collective group has seemed to own their poor performance yesterday.
To say that the San Diego Chargers' roster is a stronger one than that of the Cincinnati Bengals would be borderline heresy. That's not an indictment of the Powder Blue gang from Southern California, as they have done a great job digging themselves out of the last few miserable years of the Norv Turner era. But, man for man, the 2013 Bengals team just has more talent. Hence why they had two more wins, why they beat San Diego in early December and why the Bengals were ultimately heavy favorites to win the game.
However, playoff football isn't just about talent. What it is about is a mixture of desire, scheme, execution and smart coaching.
Read these next statements very carefully: the Cincinnati Bengals utterly failed in those four areas on Sunday. As I scatter through the ashes of the aftermath, Marvin Lewis and Andy Dalton are the primary culprits.
As the two leaders of any football team, the head coach and quarterback receive the most praise when things are running smoothly while, conversely, they take the most heat after a loss. It's the nature of the NFL and the truth is that if you don't have the right men at the helm of your team, it is destined to fail. Did I mention that the Bengals are 0-5 in the playoffs under Lewis and 0-3 in the Dalton regime?
Starting with Lewis, his record in primetime games now sits 6-16 by my count. This only includes Thursday, Sunday and/or Monday Night Football games as well as the playoffs--there are a number of other "important" or "Big" games that some feel could fall into this category but those are not included here. Basically, in 24 of the biggest games of Lewis' career, they have a 25 percent chance of coming out victorious. This is the antithesis of "clutch", ladies and gentlemen.
Aside from that, Lewis' overall career record as a head coach in the NFL is astoundingly mediocre, standing at 90-90-1 with the latest playoff dud added to the resume. Five winning seasons out of eleven would likely get a coached axed elsewhere. Not in Cincinnati. Lewis has had five chances at postseason success with two different quarterbacks and the results have been exactly the same.
The players on both sides of the ball looked lethargic, stunned and completely unprepared for the big moment--again. Dropped passes, being dominated on both lines and self-inflicted wounds in the form of turnovers (as well as the lack of generating any of their own) were the keys of the day. A barometer to determine good and poor coaching can be seen with a team's performance after they come out from halftime. The Bengals were outscored 20-0 in the second half by the Chargers on Sunday. Take that how you would like.
Some blame Lewis' coordinators and there is weight to that argument. Jay Gruden's game plan looked stale and vanilla, making it seem as if the Chargers defense was right there in the huddle with the 11 Bengals players. As Josh noted earlier on Monday via Aditi Kinkhabwala of NFL.com, the Chargers saw absolutely nothing new from the Bengals on offense. That doomed the day for Cincinnati and his postgame deflection of blame was both disappointing and borderline appalling.
Here's why I give Gruden a little bit of a pass though: his hands are tied in many respects because of the limitations of his quarterback. At times, Dalton is a more-than-capable NFL quarterback. However, like his head coach, Dalton absolutely freaks out in huge moments. Aside from being 0-3 in the playoffs, Dalton has one touchdown against six interceptions and one fumble lost. There is no NFL team in existence that can win in the postseason behind a quarterback with those in-game stats.