When the Going Gets Tough for the Bengals…

They stand pat at the trade deadline, bench Andy Dalton, and enjoy a bye week.
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I made the mistake of writing the first draft of this week’s column on Tuesday morning. So when the news came down around lunchtime that the Bengals were at long last benching Andy Dalton, my first reaction was, “Now you do it?!”

 

Dalton has lost 11 straight games as a starter, including last Sunday’s frustrating 24-10 loss to the Rams. He’s been wildly inaccurate this season, at the bottom of the league in catchable throws as well as efficiency. Take out the opening day stunner in Seattle when he put up 400-plus yards on the Seahawks, and Dalton has been woeful this season, down from the slightly above-average status he’s held since his excellent 2015. This season’s disaster is hardly all his fault, but there have been several winnable games that became losses thanks to spotty throws from Andy D. It was past time to give someone else a chance, especially at 0-8.

Ryan Finley is the new starter, a rookie from quarterback factory N.C. State—with Philip Rivers, Jacoby Brissett, Mike Glennon, and Russell Wilson as former Wolfpack signal callers already in the league. Finley’s positive attributes include smarts, pocket awareness, and poise, as shown during a successful run in the preseason. His weakness, also on display in August, is arm strength. He makes Dalton look like Brett Favre.

An argument could made that the new starter should be third-stringer Jake Dolegala, the cannon-armed but extremely raw nobody from Central Connecticut State. He has a much lower floor than Finley, but also a higher ceiling. Dolegala would have the team in dire straits through confusion on two plays but then be able to bail them out with a perfectly placed bomb (to A.J. Green?) on the third. That’s not a chance you’d take with a contender, but at this point with the Bengals, why not? It certainly would give us all a reason to tune in Sundays at 1 p.m.

Dalton’s failures inside the red zone were once again a major hindrance to what otherwise was a very winnable game against the defending NFC champions Sunday. I was personally glad I hadn’t bet the Bengals to cover the 13-point spread, because the sequence of events at the end, when Cincinnati twice had the ball inside the five-yard line and didn’t score, including an apparent TD overturned by replay, would have driven me to leap from the nearest rooftop.

The Bengals did do some good things under the spires at Wembley Stadium, London’s iconic sporting ground. They actually moved the ball on the ground for once, thanks to finally using some “12” personnel groups (two tight ends); with some better fortune (like not dropping two easy interceptions, one of which hit three different Bengals defenders’ hands before landing on the turf) the game was there for the taking. Outside of Cooper Kupp, feasting as expected on Cincinnati backups over the middle, the Rams weren’t especially impressive on offense. Perhaps Sean McVay was taking it easy on his old colleague Zac Taylor.

So now the Bengals are 0-8, and the “Lost Decade” stench that was wafting around Paul Brown Stadium has started to reek. Everyone is comparing Taylor with Dave Shula, while making plans for Sunday afternoons that don’t include three-plus hours of horrendous football.

Some hope for the future might have come by amassing extra picks in next spring’s draft, but of course, this being a Mike Brown Operation, nothing was done. The NFL trade deadline was Tuesday afternoon, and there was no action in the Queen City.

That’s not exactly a surprise. The organization feels—and to be fair, I can see the point—that making some other team better by handing over A.J. Green for what would almost certainly be less than an equitable return doesn’t make a ton of sense. I would have been fine with dealing Carlos Dunlap or Tyler Eifert or even Geno Atkins, but clearly they didn’t get decent (or what they felt was decent) offers for them. Yes, the Bengals overevaluate their own players, which gets them in trouble in so many ways. But dumping an established player for a future Day Three pick isn’t going to turn around the team’s fortunes. (Aside: I’m still mad about the A.J. McCarron trade screwup at the deadline two years ago. I’ll never get over it. OK, back to the business at hand.…)

In my opinion, the Bengals should have been more active, but in the other direction. This may sound like a hot take, but it’s true: Cincinnati should have been trade deadline buyers, not sellers.

This presumes a couple of factors. Obviously, the Bengals aren’t a franchise to actually go out and acquire talent except through the draft, so in real-world terms becoming deadline buyers would obviously never happen. Secondly, the Bengals’ front office (shouldn’t it be the “back office?”) clearly feels that Green, Atkins, Dunlap, and the other aging stars are worth keeping around, despite their advancing age and contracts, which I think from their words and actions it is safe to assume.

If you don’t want to strip the franchise down for future assets, then isn’t the prudent move to get some more veteran players who might help win some games once Green returns and the overall health of the roster improves? I’m not talking about sacrificing top picks, either. You’re telling me Genard Avery, a linebacker with more power and movement ability than anyone on Cincinnati’s roster at the moment, wouldn’t be useful? The Eagles snagged him from the Browns the other day. How about Leonard Williams? Ryan Kerrigan? De’Vondre Campbell?

Part of the reasoning here is that hoarding draft picks by dealing away all the good current players makes sense only if you can then turn those picks into studs. Is there really a player in college who is going to provide what Green does, even if it’s in a limited number of games? Duke Tobin & Co.’s recent track record of drafting doesn’t exactly fill one with confidence, either. OK, so you dump Atkins for a second-round pick, let’s say, being generous. Who out there would require the other team to game plan against, as Geno does, and will be available at that slot, and what makes anyone think the Bengals will be able to identify that player in the first place?

And remember, it’s not like Atkins himself was some hot-shot prospect. He was a too-short fourth-rounder. Yes, he was underrated by draft experts, but a lot of his excellence resulted from Mike Zimmer unlocking that talent hidden in an unusual frame. Based on recent evidence since Zim left, the Bengals haven’t been able to develop their drafted players in anything close to the same manner.

So it makes more sense to go get finished products. The current vanguard of thinking league-wide requires not merely speed and athleticism but brainpower, especially on defense. Look at the Patriots. They are virtually impossible to score upon, yet they have few highly drafted or expensive players on that side of the ball outside of cornerback Stephon Gilmore (who was a free agent signing himself). They have built the unit using smart, flexible veterans who mostly came from elsewhere for a low price. Clearly, the Bengals don’t have Bill Belichick designing their defense. But they could certainly use some guys who have been around and are able to better grasp Lou Anarumo’s concepts than newbies trying to get by merely on physical traits. It’s apparent that the current crop is failing to do so in many areas.

Somehow, smart teams like the Pats, the Seahawks, and the Eagles always manage to have it both ways: They have plenty of draft ammunition, yet are still more than willing to ship picks away to get specific veterans who can contribute. It’s likely asking too much for the Bengals to do likewise. Their big moves in the 2018 draft, for example, involved dealing down to get a left tackle who won’t play for them and a center who can’t play, period. What has B.W. Webb added, besides dropped interceptions? The less said about Preston Brown, the better.

But every team whiffs in the draft and in free agency—even the Patriots. The key is to give yourself multiple options in both young new talent and worthy veterans. So the Bengals should have been out there working the phones themselves, instead of reportedly hitting “decline” every time a call from another team’s GM came in. But this is Cincinnati we are talking about, so it’s all just theory.

See you in a fortnight after the bye, when the winning begins!

Robert Weintraub heads up Bengals coverage for Cincinnati Magazine and has written for The New York Times, Grantland, Slate, Deadspin, and Football Outsiders and authored three books. You can follow him on Twitter at @robwein.

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