For two weeks now I’ve held off writing this post—letting Bill and our young, punkish Brit do the heavy lifting on this blog—waiting for the Bengals to prove me wrong. At the onset of the season, I predicted six wins for this team, a reasonable mark considering a rookie quarterback and wide receiver and an easy schedule that seemed eerily similar to the one in 2007 when a very talented Bengals team put up all kinds of offensive statistics only to end up with the same record.
Following narrow losses to the Steelers and Ravens, I feared my prediction would come true. The Bengals would stumble from their 6-4 start, lose six straight games to finish with the mark I had foreseen. The folks at the NFL Network and ESPN would say, “Nice try,” patting them on the head, saying they’d played well but not well enough in the season’s second half. The Bills and the Bengals: What a run they had!
You must forgive me. As a person who’s devoted most of his life to this team, I’ve come to expect the worst. Indeed, the previous two games reminded me very much of the era of Jeff Blake and Carl Pickens, when Cincinnati would routinely fall behind Houston or Jacksonville or Green Bay or the junior varsity team from Talawanda only to make a near comeback at the end—giving us a feeling of hope, but not a win. A glimmering failure. An indication of things that might come.
Of course those teams never made good on that promise or fulfilled those dreams. Fearing the same course, the near misses against Baltimore and Pittsburgh led me to send out an email to fellow travelers asking whether these Bengals would actually win another game. Could Andy Dalton really be Jeff Blake? Did anyone else feel the season slip away, just as it had in 2003—Marvin’s first year—when Jon Kitna led the Bengals on an improbable playoff run only to lose to St. Louis and Cleveland? Could they finish with six straight losses? My friend Erik in response simply wrote, “No.”
And he was right. Regardless of what happens this season, they’ve eclipsed all expectations any of us—save our buoyant English lad—had for this team. They now control their own fate, slated, should everything come together, for a sixth-seed in the AFC playoffs. Playoffs? Playoffs? Yes, Jim Mora, playoffs.
You can’t point to one reason for this. Perhaps it’s because they’ve scrapped Bob Bratkowski’s overly complex offensive scheme in favor of Jay Gruden’s simple, fluid one. Perhaps it’s because they have receivers who (for the most part) run the right routes. Perhaps it’s because Marvin Lewis finally excised the “culture” (Read: No Chad, no Carson, no T.J.) of losing from the ranks. Perhaps they’re just beating some very bad teams.
But this much we know: Andy Dalton is not Jeff Blake or even Carson Palmer. He has full command and respect of those around him, including his offensive line. He never checks his wristband incessantly. He never stands helpless, calling for the ball in the shotgun, only to take a drive-killing delay of game penalty. Moreover, he never seems like he doesn’t know where he is or what he’s doing.
Dalton has drawn much praise from the national press this season and has earned it all. Everything he does—changing the play from the line of scrimmage, getting his entire team to the line, throwing the football away if no one’s open—happens with a speed that no one’s seen since Boomer Esiason ran the no huddle offense to the Super Bowl another lifetime ago. While other first-round choices continue to look good in defeat, he’s shown great poise in winning. He steps away from sacks. He lets A.J. Green be the best rookie Bengals wide receiver this franchise has ever seen. He throws short passes where only his other wide receivers can get to them. He wills his team to win.
Everything to be said about the defense has already been written. They’ve shown an inexplicable ability to begin the first half badly, only to play with intelligent intensity when it really counts. They make shrewd adjustments at halftime, if only to give Dalton one more drive to prove his prowess. They’ve given him the chance to be the Red Rifle, the quarterback who’s done the impossible—restore hope to a city and a team.
Such was evident in the last game. Down ten points to end the first half, we knew the Bengals would correct their early mistakes and win the game. We knew the defense would not let Peyton Hillis continue to run over them, that they’d find a way to batter Browns quarterback Colt McCoy. Of course, Dalton would find Jermaine Gresham in the endzone. Of course, A.J. would be, well, A.J. Mike Nugent would not miss that game-winning kick. It’s not just that this team plays well from behind. They do what Sam Wyche implored his 1988 AFC champion Bengals to do. They finish everything they start.
This season could still fall apart. But, at the very least, they’ve given me the chance to write a piece I never saw coming. Simply put I was wrong with my dire prediction at the season’s beginning. I was blissfully, wonderfully wrong.