Cue Etta James: “At laaaaaaaaasssssstttttt…..”
I’m still having a hard time believing the news that Marvin Lewis is finally off the striped sideline. I mean, I’ve been ready for it since about 2014 or even 2008, if you want to go back to the pre-Dalton/Green era, but it was the sort of event you prepare for intellectually without ever becoming reality, like winning the lottery or a flash flood. Whether the effect of his departure will be as enriching as the former or devastating as the latter depends on who succeeds Lewis, and that choice hasn’t been determined as I write this 2018 season wrapup and look ahead to 2019.
You all know the contenders. I listed a bunch of them a few weeks ago, when Lewis’ departure was still conjecture. We all know Mike Brown massively favors the devil he knows, which means a Hue Jackson or Vance Joseph resuscitation is by far the most likely result. He probably would have already pulled the trigger, but even Brown is fearful of the immense fan blowback, especially if the choice is Hue. Brown generally places things like “fan concern” low on his list of priorities, but after Jackson’s debacle along Lake Erie, the deer antler spray purveyor by be too toxic even for the Bengals. Special teams coach Darrin Simmons would be a much more interesting in-house hire, and I think he’d actually have a good chance of success, but there are no indications the Bengals are considering him seriously.
I’m hoping they go a different route altogether. If actually hiring a left-field but imaginative choice like Kliff Kingsbury is beyond the pale, Kansas City offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy checks two big boxes. He’s a former Bengal, thus part of the extended family, and he’s African-American, which (to Brown’s everlasting credit) seems to be an actual consideration with the team as opposed to most other franchises, which view the Rooney Rule as an inconvenience when they aren’t ignoring it altogether. I don’t know if “Public” Bieniemy is the “Next Nagy” or “Next McVay” that everyone wants, but he gets top marks from players and other coaches who would know best. Another coordinator, Baltimore defensive guru Matt “Wink” Martindale, matches Bieniemy in both reputation and classic nicknames, plus there would be the added bonus of screwing the Ravens.
There is something to be said for having head coaching experience, but the Bengals are in desperate need of some shakabooku, a swift kick to the head that triggers enlightenment. The Browns got this by firing Jackson and Todd Haley and setting Baker Mayfield free. Cincinnati doesn’t have that sort of quarterback, but they do have plenty of talent that, if healthy, can immediately contend in the AFC North.
In order to break those shackles, however, a fresh approach and voice is mandatory. We know what Hue and Vance can do, which is mainly help steer a supremely talented roster as underlings—the big job has proven beyond them. Can Bieniemy do the million and one little things that, for all the criticism levied his way, Marvin was able to do, often having to fight ownership to make it happen? Maybe, maybe not, but we don’t know he can’t either. I believe in second chances and learning from prior mistakes, but nothing I’ve seen from Hue or Vance leads me to think some massive improvement is possible.
Meanwhile, there is a roster to construct. Fortunately, the Bengals found a way to both make the Steelers sweat it out and not gift wrap them the division title while also keeping their draft slot as high as possible. Sunday was a tricky watch, as I found myself congenitally unable to root for Cincinnati to lose to the hated Steelers but not really wanting them to win either, while simultaneously hate-rooting for the Ravens. It was exhausting. I should have just watched Jack Ryan instead. The Bengals will now pick 11th, and there are really only two possibilities: Pick one of the defensive studs that are legion in this draft, or trade up and grab Ohio State quarterback Dwayne Haskins, for my money the lone passer worthy of such a move (assuming he comes out, which he’s expected to do).
Generally the chance the Bengals would actually move mountains to grab a quarterback would be infinitesimal, and it likely still is, but the fact that Haskins matriculated in Columbus and thus comes with the in-state seal of approval raises the potential to “slight” (though in Billy Price somehow Cincinnati managed to grab the lone Buckeye in recent memory to turn pro and not make an instant impact). We all know the Bengals will never win big with Andy Dalton, but they can win medium, and there aren’t any other great options besides Haskins apparent for 2019. You want some Eli Manning or Blake Bortles or Joe Flacco, do ya? Hard pass. Drew Lock? Daniel Jones? I’d prefer to wait for the likes of Tua Tagoavailoa or even another year for Trevor Lawrence. Kyler Murray would be an intriguing option, especially in the second round or as a late first round trade-up, but only if he actually foregoes baseball.
Who will the Bengals actually target at 11? It’s still ultra-early, of course, but it’s hard not to covet the speedy and instinctive linebacker they haven’t had since Vontaze Burfict was at his best. There isn’t a Roquan Smith in this draft, but LSU’s Devin White is pretty close—he’s bigger than Roquan but doesn’t have Smith’s uncanny ability to sort through traffic and eliminate ballcarriers. White is the total package, though. Speedy, smart, ultra-physical, and a leader, his presence would bring a sorely needed element to the Bengals front seven. He’s my January wish for the choice—though I retain the right to change my mind in the coming months.
This draft is lousy with defensive linemen, which Cincinnati could certainly use. If Ed Oliver from Houston slips due to his rocky optics to close 2018, or any of the Clemson guys (Clelin Ferrell, Christian Wilkins, Dexter Lawrence) or Jeffery Simmons of Mississippi State or Derrick Brown from Auburn are around, Cincinnati can’t go wrong with any of them. Perhaps a linebacker like Mack Wilson from Alabama would then be the choice in round two (if he declares and lasts that long, both of which are maybes). A good lineman is likely to be around when Cincinnati picks at 42, too, so they could fill that void after taking White.
Offensive line isn’t as deep, and consensus top prospect Jonah Williams of Alabama doesn’t figure to drop to 11th. Greg Little of Ole Miss and Cody Ford of Oklahoma are potential selects, especially if one falls or the Bengals trade down. One name to watch, a player who could slip due to position, is NC State guard Terronne Presscod.
Then there is the annual tragicomedy that is the free-agent market. I know, I know, it’s folly to even consider it. But let’s dream, shall we? The big names (Grady Jarrett, DeMarcus Lawrence, Jadaveon Clowney) aren’t likely to hit the open market. But how well would C.J. Mosley fit in Cincinnati? Or his teammate Za’Darius Smith, also a free agent but more of an edge threat? The Ravens probably can’t keep both, with even a released Flacco costing them $16 million in dead money. Nothing like handicapping a division rival while improving your team. Or what about Anthony Barr of Minnesota? Kirk Cousins’ rich deal makes it tougher to pay him and fellow free agent Sheldon Richardson.
More offensive line help should be explored as well, though as with the draft the options aren’t great. Rodger Saffold isn’t likely to leave the Rams, but tackle George Fant helped lead Seattle’s run renaissance and guard Mark Glowinski of Indy had a productive year inside. Pittsburgh guard Ramon Foster has some mileage on him but would also hurt a key rival if he left.
We’re in uncharted waters for the first time since 2003. Say it aloud, and it sounds even more amazing. It’s a time for excitement, for fear, for hope. And while it’s hard to believe the Bengals will do the right thing, as they did 16 seasons ago, in the meantime why not accentuate the positive?
As a line later in Etta’s classic song goes, “I found a dream that I could speak to / A dream that I can call my own.” That dream is the Bengals actually being a championship contender, not merely once a decade but regularly. It may not last long, but for the moment, that dream is alive.
See you next 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.