Buckle up for what should be a very interesting Western Conference Finals.
The Cincinnati Bengals have been a professional football franchise for nearly 50 years. The Bengals came into existence in 1968 as an expansion franchise in the American Football League before joining the National Football League in 1970 during the merger. The Bengals were built under the watchful eye of Paul Brown who was their co-founder and first head coach. Brown coached the Bengals during their first eight seasons which was highlighted by three playoff appearances along with winning the first ever AFC Central Title in 1970. But under Brown, the Bengals were never able to win a playoff game which would be a harbinger of things to come years later for this franchise. When Brown retired from coaching in 1975 to concentrate on being the Bengals team president, he made a decision that would shape his franchise for years to come. Brown hand picked Bill “Tiger” Johnson to succeed him as the Bengals head coach over the young and upstart Bill Walsh. Johnson would resign midway through the 1978 National Football League season after the Bengals 0-5 start while Walsh would take over as the head coach the San Francisco 49ers in 1979 and he would lead them to three Super Bowl Championships with two of those victories coming over the Bengals.
On January 6, 1991, the Cincinnati Bengals defeated the Houston Oilers 41-14 at Riverfront Stadium in Cincinnati. And when the Bengals would go on to lose to the Los Angeles Raiders in the AFC Divisional Playoffs the following week, little did they know of the coming series of events that were waiting for them.
For the remainder of the 1990’s, the Bengals would not record a winning season which was highlighted by a slew of draft busts.
Marvin Lewis would be hired as the Bengals head coach in 2003, and after a pair of 8-8 seasons, he would lead Cincinnati to the AFC North Title in 2005. But in the AFC Wild Card Game, Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer would suffer a torn ACL early in the first quarter and Cincinnati would lose to the Pittsburgh Steelers. Even it defeat that day it wasn’t looked at as a big thing for the Bengals as they were a young team and they would be back soon. After three subpar seasons, the Bengals would once again win the AFC North in 2009; only to lose to the New York Jets in the AFC Wild Card Game. After parting with Palmer after the 2010 National Football League season, the Bengals would draft quarterback Andy Dalton in the second round of the 2011 NFL Draft. Dalton became the Bengals starting quarterback from his first day on the job and he helped Cincy reach the postseason each season with him under center. But come January, the Bengals continued to be one-and-done in the postseason.
This season the Bengals began by winning their first eight games. The Bengals were winning close games against contenders such as the Steelers and Seattle Seahawks, and all of a sudden they didn’t appear to be the same old Bungles. The Bengals were 10-2 when they welcomed the Steelers to Cincinnati for a Week 14 contest as they were looking to wrap up the AFC North Title. In that game Dalton would suffer a broken thumb that sidelined him for the remainder of the season. Dalton would be replaced by backup quarterback AJ McCarron who went 2-1 as a starter. The Bengals would finish the regular season with a record of 12-4 which would mark their best season since their last AFC Championship in 1988, but after a losing a Week 16 affair to the Denver Broncos, Cincinnati would miss out on earning a first-round bye,
With McCarron under center, the Bengals would find themselves hosting the Steelers this past Saturday night in the AFC Wild Card Game. For the first three quarters of the game, the Steelers would rack up yardage on offense, but they were only able to amass a 15-0 lead. The Bengals offense finally woke up in the fourth quarter. The Bengals would score 10 points to cut the deficit to five and they would get the football back with under four minutes left in the game. McCarron would lead the Bengals on a 45-yard drive that culminated when he found wide receiver A.J. Green for a 25-yard touchdown pass for their first lead of the night at 16-15 with just under two minutes remaining.
On the Steelers ensuing drive, backup quarterback Landry Jones was intercepted by Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict which actually spelled the beginning of the end for Cincinnati. Inexplicably, Burfict ran off of the field towards the Bengals locker room as if to say that the game was over. However the Steelers had all three of their timeouts remaining along with a plethora of time. And on the very next play, Bengals running back Jeremy Hill fumbled the football as he was stripped by Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier. The Steelers would regain possession of the football with an injured quarterback in Ben Roethlisberger leading them. Roethlisberger was attempting to drive the Steelers into field goal range for the potential game-winning score when he and Pittsburgh received a huge assist from the Bengals.
With 18 seconds remaining in the game, Burfict was flagged for a personal foul penalty for a hit to the helmet of Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown. The hit would then put the Steelers into field goal range and it would get worse for the Bengals when cornerback Adam “Pacman” Jones was flagged for an unsportsmanlike conduct foul. In all the Steelers were the beneficiaries of 30 yards without having to run a play due to the stupidity and selfishness of the Bengals. Steelers kicker Chris Boswell would connect on a 35-yard field goal which would send Pittsburgh to the AFC Divisional Playoffs while the Bengals were left to wallow in their own futility. And just when it appeared that the Bengals were ready to cast themselves out of their long and storied reputation of shooting themselves in the foot, they simply could not handle success.
There are some people that are calling for Lewis to be fired as he is now 0-7 in the playoffs as the Bengals head coach. And although that Bengals owner Mike Brown won’t fire Lewis, a new head coach wouldn’t make a difference in Cincinnati as there are issues within the organization.
Even when the Bengals were able to stop the losing that haunted them in the 1990’s, they were done in during the 2000’s by players who had character issues as this team would see a different player almost every week being arrested by law enforcement officials. It got so bad for the Bengals that National Football League commissioner Roger Goodell paid the team a visit to encourage them to get their act together as they were embarrassing the league. And even though that the Bengals continue to shed this image, it was once again on display when they lost to the Steelers.
The Bengals were flagged with several unsportsmanlike conduct penalties during their loss to the Steelers which scream of undisciplined football, and more than ever the month of January is where teams cannot have selfish players making selfish plays if they want to win.
Make no mistake about it that the Bengals arguably have one of the most talented teams in the National Football League, but they are lacking leadership on both sides of the ball along with having an owner in Brown that it isn’t fully committed to winning.
Led by Lewis, the Bengals will be back at it next season as they will be seeking their sixth consecutive playoff appearance while they are still searching for their first postseason victory since both the Rams and Raiders called Los Angeles home. But unless their is a culture change from within the Bengals organization that includes an overall concentration on winning, this will continue to be a team that will befuddle anyone who follows them.
In 2011, the Cincinnati Bengals were in need of a quarterback and in the second round of the National Football League Draft that year they selected quarterback Andy Dalton. In his rookie season Dalton threw for 3,398 yards to go along with 20 touchdown passes and 13 interceptions as he helped the Bengals reach the playoffs. The Bengals would fail to advance in the postseason, but they appeared to have a foundation to build off of with Dalton. With Dalton as their starting quarterback, the Bengals would once again qualify for the playoffs in 2012 as a wild card. But just like 2011, Cincinnati was unable to navigate past the Houston Texans in the first round. Last season the Bengals began the year with a record of 6-2 and the folks in Southern Ohio were thinking about the Super Bowl. Dalton passed for a career high in passing yards (4,293) to go along with 33 touchdown passes and 20 interceptions. The Bengals won the AFC North for the first time since 2009, but the home-field advantage in the AFC Wild Card Round wasn’t a welcome sight for them as they lost to the San Diego Chargers 27-10. In the game Dalton had two costly interceptions along with a fumble. This past off-season Bengals owner/president Mike Brown signed Dalton to a six-year, $115 million extension as he believes in the man from TCU to be his franchise quarterback. But did Brown and the Bengals make the right move?
Unlike most rookie quarterbacks that enter the NFL, Dalton came into a good situation. Dalton wasn’t a first round pick and thus he didn’t have a ton of pressure heaped on him. The Bengals play in one of the smaller markets in the National Football League and Dalton doesn’t have to endear a ton of media scrutiny. Also the Bengals team has been a talented bunch for him to work with. Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green is one of the best in the business as far as catching passes and he has been a huge security blanket for Dalton. In three-plus seasons with the Bengals, Green has 283 receptions for 4,214 and 32 touchdowns. Last season the Bengals had the 10th best offense in the NFL while this season they are currently 12th. The Bengals are currently 5-3-1 and they appear to be winning in spite of Dalton.
The Bengals began this season with a huge 23-16 road victory of their division rival in the Baltimore Ravens. In the game Dalton was 25-of-38 passing for 301 yards and a touchdown. The Bengals started the season with a record of 3-0 and they had a chance to make a statement coming off of their bye week in Week 5 on Sunday Night Football as they traveled to take on the New England Patriots who were trying to rebound from a blowout loss in their previous game. But it was Dalton and the Bengals that were blown out by the Patriots 43-17. In Week 6, the Bengals tied with the Carolina Panthers 37-37. Dalton did put the Bengals in position for the game-winning field goal that was missed by kicker Mike Nugent to end the game. But it was Dalton that threw a pair of costly interceptions in regulation when the Bengals were up and they were preparing to put the game out of reach which allowed the Panthers to get back into the game. In Week 7, the entire Bengals team did not show up as they were blown out by the Indianapolis Colts 27-0. In the game Dalton was 18-of-38 passing for 126 yards and no touchdowns. In the Bengals last four games Dalton has only thrown two touchdowns to just six interceptions. The bottom completely fell out for Dalton this past Thursday night versus the Cleveland Browns. Dalton had his worst game as a pro as he was just 10-of-33 passing for 86 yards with no touchdowns and three interceptions. The Bengals were steamrolled by the Browns at home 24-3 as a national television audience was able to see Dalton implode firsthand.
Dalton was paid as if he is an elite quarterback, but in three-plus seasons he has been unable to take his team or his game to the next level. Dalton has been without Green for the majority of the season who has been out with a lingering toe injury, but he just seems to be making the mistakes that you would expect a rookie to make. While in the pocket Dalton has not done a good job of ball protection while on his throws he is forcing the football too often. This season Dalton has 8 touchdown to 9 interceptions.
Unlike the past few seasons it is going to be tougher for the Bengals to get into the playoffs as every team in the AFC North currently has a winning record. More than ever Brown and Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis need Dalton to step up and be a leader and he isn’t doing it. The Bengals offense has been at its best this season when they have balance in their run and passing games; not when Dalton is taking it upon himself to play “hero” ball.
Dalton is 27-years of age and their is room for him to improve in order to become a consistent quarterback. At 6’2″, 215 lbs., there is not a throw that Dalton cannot make, but he needs to take a lesson from a pair of Super Bowl winning quarterbacks in the AFC North. Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco and Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger have combined to win three Super Bowl Championships. Flacco and Roethlisberger have the ability to take their games to another level as they simply impose their will on their teammates which is what Dalton needs to do. Aside from not having Green, Dalton lost his offensive coordinator for the past three seasons in Jay Gruden who is the current head coach of the Washington Redskins. But when you’re paid as handsomely as Dalton was it is time to show us what you can do and lead the orange and black to bigger and better things.
After being demolished by the Browns, Dalton and the Bengals are set to embark on the remainder of their schedule which could see them miss the playoffs for the first time since 2010. The final seven games of the season begin with three straight road games. Next Sunday the Bengals will travel to the Mercedes-Benz Superdome where the New Orleans Saints are very tough to beat. After the Saints, the Bengals will travel to take on the Houston Texans who have an opportunistic defense. Those two games will be followed by a road game versus the Tampa Bay Buccaneers who in spite of their losing record are playing hard under head coach Lovie Smith and anything can happen. The final four games of the season will see the Bengals have their rematch with the Browns and a home game against the defending AFC Champions in the Denver Broncos which will be sandwiched between two games with the Steelers. If ever there was a time for Dalton to assert himself and show that he is the $115 million man it is right now.