Beaten Down

How did the Bengals’ season go so wrong so fast?

The Bengals hit a new low on Sunday, humiliated on their home field by a team they’d owned for years. Falling behind 28-0 in the second quarter, they were dissed to their faces by a bunch of rookies and new Browns who are arrowing up as the Bengals spiral down, as I wrote last week, into ’90s-style incompetence. I may not be able to go on.

The Bengals had beaten Cleveland seven straight times. Check that: routed them seven straight times, with an average margin of victory of 21 points. It’s been the single most dominant form of division ownership over the past few years in all of football. And now it’s turned on its face. The abiding hope is that Cincinnati avoids a similar blowout loss in the return match on the shores of Lake Erie a couple of weeks hence. It’s hard to overstate how much that paradigm shift stings. Without our personal pigeons to the northeast as a guaranteed brace of wins each season, the Bengals will really be up against it.

Cleveland didn’t do much of anything fancy on Sunday. They ran it effectively; threw it short and medium to receivers “covered” by Bengals reserves; handled Cincinnati’s non-existent pass rush with ease, giving Baker Mayfield Snuggie-like comfort in the pocket; and took advantage of the GreenFree attack to double Tyler Boyd and dare Andy Dalton to make plays, which he did not. It wasn’t all that dissimilar to what the Bengals have done to the likes of DeShone Kizer, Austin Davis, Cody Kessler, and Johnny Manziel over the last few years. This time, the talent and coaching advantages were on the Browns’ sideline.

By the way, if you’re looking for a take on the whole Hue vs. Baker imbroglio, click elsewhere. The whole episode is idiotic. I’m more concerned about the idea, expressed in last week’s column, that Hue Jackson may wind up succeeding Lewis as head coach, be it next year, 2020, or when the rising seas swallow Greater CinciTucky whole a few years later. It’s a terrible idea, of course, beyond the optics of bringing in a guy with an 11-44-1 career coaching record who single-handedly was responsible for imploding a division rival from within. If ever there was a franchise in need of a total cleanse and reboot, it’s the Bengals. Hiring Hue is the opposite approach.

The maddening part is the team hasn’t been hapless from the opener. It seems like a million years, but actually it was scarcely six weeks ago when the Bengals were 4-1 and ahead of Pittsburgh by one point with a handful of seconds to play in the game. Of course, Cincinnati gave up a crushing long TD pass to lose the game—and apparently their minds. They have won just once since that latest kick in the nuts delivered by the black and gold. Instead of an impressive rebound, the death watch over Lewis’ coaching career has begun anew, a mere 11 games after his stunning Lazarus act a year ago. Alas, the likelihood he is canned during the season is essentially nil, and would anyone put real money on him not coming back to finish his contract in 2019?

The feeling of “so much for this season” permeated Paul Brown Stadium long before Dalton was injured chasing a wayward snap from center Billy Price. Correction: first-round draft pick Billy Price—you know, the guy who never missed a game at Ohio State and then promptly got injured once he donned the stripes. In his absence, it became clear that since Price has snapping issues dating back to training camp and gets beaten by lengthy defenders able to out-leverage him, his best position is probably going to be guard. Trey Hopkins was perfectly fine at center while Price was down, and certainly Price would be an upgrade over Alex Redmond at guard. But of course Cincinnati would never entertain that idea. Teams like the Patriots play the best players in their best spots, consistently putting them in positions to succeed. The Bengals say, “He was a first-round choice at that position, that’s where he stays!” And reap the whirlwind.

As for Andy D., once the team announced he was “undergoing tests” you knew he was done for the year—and sure enough we learned Monday that Dalton was headed for injured reserve. So the Jeff Driskel Era is upon us, and let’s hope we aren’t calling it the Jeff Driskel Error in a week or two.

I actually like Driskel’s athleticism, and for what it’s worth he was better than Dalton against the Browns, even factoring in the “let’s get this baby done with” nature of the contest when Driskel entered. His physical tools are much greater than those the Lord bestowed upon A.J. McCarron, for example, and his ability to run and throw on the move might catch the Broncos off guard this Sunday. Clearly, Driskel’s escapability will be put to the test by Von Miller, Bradley Chubb, et al, especially with Cincinnati tackles Cordy Glenn and Jake Fisher injured and unlikely to play. That means Miller will get to go against fellow Texas A&M alum Cedric Ogbuehi, a matchup that can only be described as cringeworthy.

A.J. Green is slated to return, at least, and when he’s playing any result is possible. Indeed, if he’d been in the lineup these past couple of weeks Cincinnati might have won two games and this column would instead be parsing the Bengals’ playoff hopes in detail. Green’s future (his contract is up after 2019) is a loud talking point at the moment, along with his coach and quarterback. All three will most likely still be together in Cincinnati this time next season, but it’s not impossible that one or more could be out the door and by 2020 none will be wearing black and orange.

Meanwhile, will anyone be watching on Sunday? Attendance at PBS is certain to be absurdly small. Before the season, I wrote in the Football Outsiders Almanac that Cincinnati’s campaign depended on a ton of “if”s—if Tyler Eifert stayed healthy, if the defense improved, if John Ross escaped bust status, etc. “You can’t spell terrific without ‘if,’ ” I noted. But I also wrote that without those “if”s coming through, the “dominant emotion in the Queen City is likely to be indifference, which also requires an ‘I’ and an ‘F.’ ”

Sure enough, here we are. Most of you can’t even summon the passion to be angry about the Bengals’ plight, I know. You’ve been beaten down into not caring. And that’s worse than a third straight losing season.

Robert Weintraub is a Fulcher 2 Stay contributor and has written for The New York Times, Grantland, Slate, Deadspin, and Football Outsiders. He is also the author of three books. You can follow him on Twitter at @robwein.

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