For one week, at least, the Bengals we hoped to see this season emerged on Sunday. Playing against a borderline playoff team desperate for the victory, the running game clicked behind a young and improving (albeit makeshift) line, the passing game was efficient (if not explosive), and even a proficient kicking game was on display. If you didn’t know any better, you’d swear Cincinnati had a competent offense.
But we know better. This season has been excruciating to watch. And the numbers bear it out.
Warning—heavy statistical content ahead. And it isn’t pretty.
With one game remaining, Cincy is 24th in offensive DVOA, the Football Outsiders stat that measures efficiency and corrects for opponent. That’s as low as they’ve been since the 2008 disaster of a campaign. Since the Bengals’ last game is against the number one DVOA defense in Baltimore (Cincy has dropped to 18th in that realm, by the way), that number doesn’t figure to rise much, though I like to think the Bengals won’t bookend the season by getting shut out by the Ravens again.
Efficiency too milquetoast a measuring stick for ya? Okay, how about points? Sunday was the first time all season the Bengals cracked the 25-point barrier, save the two JV contests against the Browns. Overall, the Bengals remain at a measly 17.3 points per game. Only the Bears, Colts, Giants and Browns have been more punchless. Cincy is even down three points per game from last season, when the embattled Ken Zampese was in his rookie season as offensive coordinator, Cedric Ogbuehi was a full-fledged disaster at tackle, and the need for speed on that side of the ball led to the Bengals using their first two draft picks on potential game-breakers.
To say that didn’t work out is an understatement.
Meanwhile, the Bengals have been held to one touchdown or fewer in five different games, the most since 2010. They are averaging under two TDs per game (1.9), a far cry from two years ago, when they put it in the end zone three times per game.
Yards aren’t nearly as efficient a measure of productivity as points or DVOA, but they paint a picture nonetheless, and in Cincy’s case, it’s no Rembrandt. The 364 total yards rolled up against Detroit was the second-best outing of the season, after the 388 vs. Buffalo. Nevertheless, the Bengals are dead last in the NFL in yards, a statement of misery that has happened just once before in franchise history; in 2008, that decrepit season that featured an injured Carson Palmer, a clean-shaven Ryan Fitzpatrick, and an offensive line that made the current one look like the mid-90s Cowboys.
But for me, the most egregious stat is a simple one—plays per game. This measures the team’s ability to not only move the ball but to sustain drives, use the clock, and it factors in the defense’s ability to get off the field as well. A low number obviously hurts the defense by exhausting the unit. By this standard, Cincinnati has been god-awful. They are averaging just 56.8 offensive snaps per game, last in the league. By contrast, last year they ran 65.6 plays per game, good for 11th in the NFL. The 37 snaps run against Jacksonville (the fewest of the Marvin Lewis Era) was an extreme example of a problem that plagued the team all season.
Not only is this by far the worst pace the Bengals have managed since the NFL started tracking the stat in the 2003 season, it is the lowest in the league in nearly a decade. Only the 2010 Titans, the 2006 Bills, 2005 Jets and 49ers, and the 2003 Texans have run fewer plays per game in a season than this year’s Bengals. Concurrent with this stat are these horrific numbers: Cincy is dead last in time of possession, only Miami has fewer third down conversions, and no team has punted more often per play. They are also second from bottom in Drive Success Rate, which measures the percentage of series that accomplish either a first down or a touchdown. Again, there is one game left to play, but the Ravens aren’t the sort of defense to get healthy against. And no matter what happens, it won’t change the facts of how this season played out.
Of course, with nothing but draft order to play for, leave it to Cincy to come up with an excellent offensive performance when it matters least.
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.