Something interesting happened late in the first half of the eventual 24-17 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers two Sundays ago. The Bengals (3-4) jumped out to an early lead after an initial touchdown drive that was essentially a work of art, marching down the field with a balanced attack and even going for it on a gutsy fourth down call by Marvin Lewis, despite being in field goal range. It was exactly the type of thing Bengals fans wanted to see in a primetime, nationally televised rivalry game. The offensive unit thrived in an up-tempo approach, throwing out different blocking packages, running out of the shotgun, mixing in new receiver groupings and doing whatever it could to keep the defense off-balance. The drive was paced by a heavy dose of the run game, but not in a stagnant, predictable manner—conventional results achieved through unconventional methods.
A few Pittsburgh missteps (ex: their receivers forgetting how to use their hands) helped the Bengals jump ahead even further. But with a 14-6 lead and the first half winding down, something changed. Lewis, offensive coordinator Jay Gruden, and the entire offense seemed to tense up. They began playing “not to lose” the game instead of to win, veering away from an inventive gameplan to an ostensibly safer mix of handoffs and conservative pass plays, which generally resulted in a pile of bodies around the line of scrimmage.
We’ve seen this before. Coach Lewis gets trapped in his old-school mindset too often, assuming the only way to pull out tough and gritty wins in the AFC North is by pounding the rock on the ground and having your defense hold a lead. The mental state of this franchise and its fans, for the better part of the past two decades, has always shaded toward the assumption that something will go wrong, that an eight-point lead over the mighty Steelers on Sunday Night Football is reason to slow things down and hold that margin for as long as possible, as opposed to turning the throttle and trying to put the game out of reach. When activated, Jay Gruden has proven he possesses one of the more inventive offensive minds in the league, constantly keeping defenses on their heels and catering not only to his team’s strengths—moving A.J. Green around the field and throwing to him deep; getting Andrew Hawkins in space; lining up Jermaine Gresham on the outside or sending him down the seam—but also taking advantage of how the NFL rules and style of play benefit the passing game. So why aren’t we seeing that on a consistent basis every week?
There’s more. The website Pro Football Focus (which utilizes a grading system for every position on the field to track how a player performs) recently released their offensive line rankings, grading the Bengals eighth-best in the league and tops in terms of pass blocking. With preseason signing Jeff Faine receiving marks as the lowest-rated center of the year so far, the site also acknowledged that the frontline could be even better if and when starter Kyle Cook returns from his foot injury. Joe Reedy then went further in-depth with the site’s premium stats on his Enquirer blog, fleshing out how proficient the unit has been individually on passing plays and at avoiding penalties.
Beyond that, all three of the team’s wins this season came in games where they got creative and aired it out a little more, making the vanilla play-calling during the month of October beyond perplexing. It makes the solution to the Bengals recent woes seem almost too simple, despite the fact that the team keeps drifting away from it: Throw the damn ball.
The forward pass is the straw that stirs the drink in the NFL. When you couple that notion with a team like the Bengals that excels in the area of pass blocking, has a young and developing yet talented quarterback, a bend-but-don’t-break defense (save for Rey Maualuga, who is completely broken), and whose best player may very well have been created in some scientific lab purely for the purpose of catching footballs…why wouldn’t you embrace the new-school style of play?
It wouldn’t be without growing pains. Andy Dalton might rack up a few more interceptions, and yes, the team needs to find stability and consistency at receiver from someone other than A.J. But it’s the passing teams that are making waves in the today’s NFL, and running BenJarvus Green-Ellis off-tackle on first and second down won’t get you anywhere but third place in the AFC North and sitting at home on Sundays in late January.
So let it fly, boys. It probably won’t guarantee victories or championships or long-term success, but it could at least make us believe those outcomes are possible. And we’ve spent far too long assuming otherwise.