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To Be, or Not To Be Encouraged

Nearly a week later and Andy Dalton is still the quarterback of the Cincinnati Bengals. It’s a reality that is not going to change in the next 12 months. As much as the public—I imagine Bengals fans, too—seems to be clamoring for an end to the reign of football purgatory in Cincinnati by getting rid of Dalton, it’s not going to happen. I don’t know Mike Brown, have never spoken to the man, but in watching how he runs the team (aside: this originally autocorrected “run” to “ruin”; even computers disapprove of Mike Brown’s reign), there seem to be two truths I can surmise about the man. The first is that he is weirdly loyal, probably to a fault, to his guys. Marvin Lewis is his guy now, as is Andy Dalton. (The other truth? I bet he really enjoys a good rack of ribs. Like a real juicy slab, slathered in a rich, thick, perfectly tangy and sweet barbecue sauce. I just see it.) Dalton is under contract for one more year, after which a decision will be made on his future. So I’m not going to assess whether or not Dalton should be the quarterback next year because it’s a useless task. And I’ve hurt my brain watching each of his throws multiple times over the past eight weeks. He is going to be the starter. This time next year, maybe we can talk.

In the meantime here are a few reasons that Bengals fans should feel optimistic and a few reasons that the optimism can be favored. I’ll try balance out a good thing with a bad thing. It’s what ol’ “.500 Marv” would want.

Reasons to be encouraged

The rookies can ball
In no sport does the draft matter more than the NFL. A wrong selection, particularly at quarterback, can set a team back at least five years. Consecutive missed picks and we’re talking about an even longer rebuilding project. Take a look at the Jacksonville Jaguars, a team that finished this year 4-12 and hasn’t had a winning season since 2007. Here are the Jaguars recent first-round draft picks.

2008: Derrick Harvey (out of the league). 2009: Eugene Monroe (traded). 2010: Tyson Alualu (bad at football). 2011: Blaine Gabbert (REALLY bad at football). 2012: Justin Blackman (good at football, bad at being an upstanding citizen). 2013: Luke Joeckel (TBD).

Not a single one of those picks would be considered successful yet, and as a result, the team has suffered. Thankfully for the Bengals, they have drafted well recently and did so again in 2013. Tyler Eifert and Giovani Bernard both delivered exceptional performances and quickly became two of the most dangerous players on the field for the Bengals. I’ll dive into each more in depth in a much longer piece coming soon, but I liked what I saw.

Jay Gruden is now the coach of the Redskins
There may be some folks in Washington that will dispute this, but I didn’t think that Jay Gruden did a great job as a coordinator this season. Dalton tends to take the blame for his own offensive shortcomings, but Gruden deserves his share of it. His play calling seemed questionable at times, particularly his propensity for calling routes that had one primary target and little to no safety valves. But his biggest knock was his inability to integrate the aforementioned rookies into the game. Anyone with or without eyeballs can tell that Giovani Bernard was a far more dynamic playmaker than BenJarvus Green-Ellis. And while I understand worrying about Gio’s slight frame breaking down or getting injured, he was grossly underused in the beginning of the season. Same for Eifert, who showed early on that he was a far better tight end than the true waste of physical gifts that is Jermaine Gresham. Yet Gruden didn’t even entertain the notion of sitting Gresham in favor of Eifert, which would have been the move to make. Eifert and Gresham’s snaps (687 to 894 respectively) should have been flipped. Maybe with Gruden gone, they will be.

Carlos Dunlap is good enough to thrive without Geno
Last year, I was in favor of signing Dunlap to a long-term extension over Michael Johnson because of two reasons. One is that I thought he was a physically imposing player that had room to grow and become dominant. The second is that I thought his size would be helpful against the run and could provide mismatches in the pass rush. Meanwhile, I thought Johnson’s success came more as a result of playing next to Geno Atkins than anything else. Good players can turn into great players when placed next to them, and can be exposed when separated. After Geno Atkins went out in Week 9, Dunlap totaled 4 sacks, 12 QB hits and 30 QB hurries. Over that same stretch, Johnson totaled 2 sacks, 6 QB hits and 14 QB hurries. Match: Dunlap

Marvin Jones can be a No. 2 WR. Who knew?
I knew Marvin Jones existed this season in the way that I know an animal like the platypus exists. I know that the platypus is some webbed-footed animal (I think), but I have no idea where it lives, what sort of ecosystem it prefers, whether its an omni/herbi/carnivore, or whether it is a mammal or a marsupial or whether it’s endangered or not. I do know that the platypus exists. So to sum up, I knew that before this year Marvin Jones existed as a wide receiver. I wasn’t sure if he was particularly good, a speedster or a possession guy or even if he was a big target or not. I just had no idea what he brought to the table other than existing as a wide receiver.

I was quite surprised to see him rise from the role of fourth wide receiver to a legitimate No. 2 WR talent. Though the coaching staff seemed to prefer Mohamed Sanu’s versatility earlier this season, Jones earned his playing time and I think his potential is higher than Sanu’s. (And this is coming from someone who saw Sanu ruthlessly destroy his alma mater while at Rutgers.) He proved that he has great hands and a knack for catching touchdowns, two traits that are excellent to have because they tend to age well. I’ve seen at least one mock draft, of the dozens that suck me in, that has the Bengals take a wide receiver in the first round. But I think Jones, who will be just 24 years old next season, can and will complement A.J. Green well. He, Green, and Eifert create a potent troika.


Now for the other half of the coin…

Reasons to be discouraged

A.J. Green taking plays off
When he rises to catch a pass, it’s glorious. He seems to float, and you almost wonder if he is just going to keep soaring to the heavens. When he sprints down the seams, it is with the grace of a soaring eagle mixed with the power of a goddamn rhinoceros. But something I saw this year was disconcerting. Too often, there were routes that he rounded off, making his quarterback look bad. (And Dalton doesn’t need ANY help in that department.) He also showed little to no interest in blocking most of the time. The aversion to blocking is something that is often an unfortunate byproduct of wide receivers becoming stars. Little things that rookies and players fighting for rosters put all their effort into, like blocking and selling fakes, begin to fade. Watch Eifert and Jones block. They may not be strong enough to be great blockers yet, but they are pretty good, namely because of their effort.

Now I’m not saying that A.J. Green had a bad season. I mean, he had 98 receptions (6th in the league) 1,426 receiving yards (5th), and 11 TDs (t-8). But it could have been better. Here’s one number that is pretty startling. A.J. Green had 11 touchdowns this year, but the defense also had 12 interceptions on passes targeted to him. So more often than not, a pass intended for A.J. Green resulted in an interception rather than a touchdown. That’s obviously says a lot about Dalton, but it also says something about Green. He has to make a better effort to break up bad passes. Admittedly, when you are as talented as he is, it probably is difficult relying on someone who is not. But it is beginning to hurt his team significantly. (Those 12 INTs were the most thrown while targeting a certain receiver.)

Dre may be forgotten (See what I did there?)
Remember that whole spiel about not missing on first round picks? Well it may be a bit early, but all early signs point on the Bengals whiffing on their first round pick in 2012, Alabama cornerback Dre Kirkparick. I liked him coming out of college and was convinced he’d be able to step in from Week 1. But injuries derailed his rookie year and this year he seemed like he was a year behind everyone in class. Through the first 13 weeks of the season, he only saw more than 16 snaps twice, with most games totaling 10 or less. But then Terence Newman was injured against Indianapolis and Kirkpatrick was thrust into a starting role. Optimistic fans were hoping that Kirkpatrick would thrive in the trial by fire, but he was engulfed by the flames. He looked lost in coverage on multiple plays each game, allowing receivers to get behind him while staring off into nowhere. In 309 snaps, which includes plays that were nullified by penalties, Kirkpatrick had nine missed tackles. That may not sound like a lot, but consider that in 1,044 snaps, Vontaze Burfict, who admittedly is and should be a better tackler, had just eight missed tackles. Kirkpatrick’s nine missed tackles were fourth on the team, behind Adam Jones, George Iloka and, of course, Rey Maualuga, each of whom played at least twice as many snaps and had 13 missed tackles.
I’m not ready to rule Kirkpatrick a lost cause, and he did have that pick-six against the Ravens in Week 17, but I really thought we would have seen more by now.

Theres still one year left on Jermaine Greshams contract
It saddens me that one day on sports talk radio in Cincinnati, or more likely at some second-rate gala for the preservation of some trite cause, the Bengals tight end will be introduced as “former Pro Bowl tight end Jermaine Gresham!” and not “a guy who was supremely physically gifted but had an absurd way to consistently make stupid plays, Jermaine Gresham!” He is, mercifully, not needed very often in the pass blocking department. He is a huge liability in run blocking. And his receiving skills have rapidly diminished.

In 2013, Pro Football Focus rated Gresham as the worst tight end in football. He had a rating of -16.3, which is actually an improvement over his 2012 rating of -16.4, when he was also rated as the worst tight end in football. He is 46th in yards per reception (10.0), first in fumbles (3) and had a season-long reception of 30 yards. But maybe most maddening was that Gresham was tied for the third-most penalties in football with 10. And that’s not including one that was declined. Five of the penalties were for holding, four for false starts. (Side note: tied for the most penalties is Vontaze Burfict with 12. The two were responsible for 22 percent of the Bengals penalties this season.)

I understand that at one point Gresham was an exciting prospect. But now, he is just blocking Eifert’s progression.