Agony of Improvement

The pain of watching that football plummet to the turf only a few mere steps beyond the lanky, outstretched arms of AJ Green has yet to fully dissipate. It’s not a deeply emotional or tragic pain; there are things in life far more important than losing an NFL playoff game. But it is a pain nonetheless, one brewed in the kettle of just-missed opportunities and trivial life moments you wish could provide a mulligan.

The Cincinnati Bengals lost in their Wild Card matchup with the Houston Texans for the second straight season, this time by a score of 19-13. It was an ugly, brutal game most of the way, but one the Bengals had plenty of chances to steal, the most obvious being that late fourth quarter overthrow by Andy Dalton, with AJ Green streaking clear of two trailing defenders. The fact that Cincinnati was even within a touchdown of taking the lead is remarkable, a testament to the defense’s fortitude and Houston’s own bout with futility.

But it was the offensive side of things for the Bengals that will have fans and prognosticators casting aspersions until the opening snaps of next season. Dalton, who crumbled down the final stretch of the season (along with the offense overall), turned in another disappointing playoff performance, mirroring the game he had last year. He now has an offseason of questioning to look forward to, with those locally and nationally already piling on the “Is Dalton a franchise QB?” rhetorical bandwagon.

More disheartening, however, may be the performance and gameplan by offensive coordinator Jay Gruden. Considered a hot prospect for the bevy of head coaching vacancies around the league (and set to interview with Arizona and Philadelphia), his play-calling left many things to be desired (points and yards, most notably), doing his damnedest to skirt any potential “offensive genius” labels that might be levied his way. All the dropped passes and missed assignments and bad sacks can’t be placed only on his shoulders, but lack of adjustments certainly can. Though it was the game’s most egregious infraction—ignoring AJ Green for the entire first half—that was valiantly shared by both Dalton and Gruden. Gruden was intent on involving others in the offense and exposing specific matchups; Dalton failed to overlook this curious gameplan and throw it to Green anyways.

This resulted in the defense being forced yet again to keep the game within reach. Leon Hall made an incredible pick-six interception to briefly vault the Bengals to a 7-6 lead, the stud corner separating himself from his teammates on the other side of the ball in his ability to reach the endzone. Geno Atkins played another All Pro-worthy contest in the trenches (don’t change the record) while the whole unit embodied the “bend but don’t break” persona, holding three separate redzone trips by the Texans to field goals. It wasn’t the squad’s best performance by any means: Rey Maualuga capped off an abysmal season with a wretched display of effort and ability, the pass rush was a tad too nonexistent, and Arian Foster racked up 140 yards on 32 carries. But when the offense manages only a pair of field goals, less than 200 yards, and goes 0-9 on third down, it’s tough to place too much blame anywhere else.

But with another season ending in disappointment and unmet expectations, the only thing the organization has left to do with these issues is address them. There are plenty of areas this team can improve, both through the draft and in free agency. There are a handful of key players that deserve to be re-signed or extended. No doubt, the Cincinnati Bengals have miles to go before they sleep. And yet…

The roster boasts legitimate game breakers on each side in AJ Green and Geno Atkins, and despite Dalton’s struggles, he is only 25 years old with a healthy rotation of encouraging moments in his first two seasons. And for all of the disappointment—dropping winnable games to inferior opponents, the offense flaming out late in the year, failing to rise to the occasion in the playoffs yet again—it comes blanketed in a much brighter outlook. The team made back-to-back postseasons for the first time in three decades, venturing beyond Week 17 three times in its last four attempts. Playoff football is the new normal in the Queen City. It’s expected, as opposed to a pleasant, far-off memory.

Suddenly, being there is no longer enough. Which, when you think about it, is a rather beautiful thing.

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