At 3-6, it should be obvious by now that the Bengals have plenty of problems—ones that are likely, in the end, to cost Marvin Lewis his job as head coach.
But a lot of the recent downturn in the team’s fortunes can be traced in part to draft day. After an extraordinary stretch of drafting impact players up and down the draft board (netting both Marvin Jones and George Iloka in the 2012 fifth round, for example), the last three drafts have been much worse. And that fallow haul of fresh talent is dooming the team to mediocrity.
Lewis’ shaming of 2016 top choice John Ross from the press podium on Wednesday only highlights this. Sure, you got a bunch of other wideouts who can’t separate, or even make the active roster, but they don’t get called out publicly for it. Ross did, deserving or not. (He took the blame for not getting to a bomb from Andy Dalton on Sunday, though it appeared he was held).
Much of the issue stems, of course, from that 2015 draft, when the Bengals were loaded with talent and got cute, preparing ahead of time for their good offensive linemen to leave via free agency. Alas, the pair of spread tackles they took, Cedric Ogbuehi and Jake Fisher, have been pretty bad, not to mention injured and ill (get well soon, Jake).
While you can’t blame the bad luck soley on the decision makers, the entire decision tree that resulted in allowing Andrew Whitworth and Kevin Zeitler to walk away, despite their proven excellence, in favor of unproven and questionable players has crippled the franchise. Toss in third-rounder Paul Dawson, a bust now gone from the team, and sixth-rounder Derron Smith, a safety who impressed onlookers but was so jerked around by the team that he preferred to be cut and picked up by Cleveland (!), and that 2015 draft will be looked back upon by us Bengals historians alongside the star-crossed 2005 draft, fronted by David Pollack (broken neck), Odell Thurman (drunken buffoon), and Chris Henry (RIP).
OK, all teams have bad drafts here and there. But Cincy is in danger of stacking them, a death knell for franchises—especially ones built on a free-agent averse, develop-and-retain strategy. If it weren’t for 2015, 2014 would be looking even worse. Four years in, we still aren’t sure about Darqueze Dennard, but at least he’s finally showing some promise this eason. Jeremy Hill has played his last snap in stripes—his miss-the-hole-and-plow-for-two yards style won’t be sorely missed (but we will always have his rookie year, I guess. Thanks Jeremy!). Will Clarke never did a thing, and fourth-rounder Russell Bodine has sabotaged the line from within for a quartet of seasons now. As for fifth-rounder A.J. McCarron? Ah, what might have been…
The 2016 haul included two defenders who missed their entire rookie season with injury, William Jackson and Andrew Billings. Both are working their way into becoming quality players, with WJ3 especially showing flashes, but they remain behind the eight ball in terms of development. Then there is wideout Tyler Boyd, a healthy(ish) scratch on Sunday, and Nick Vigil, a decent enough player but hardly a guy other teams worry about. Now throw in this past April, including the Ross debacle and fifth-round choice of Jake Elliott, a kicker now wowing Philly after the Bengals cut him after training camp, and it becomes clear why the team is spiraling into the ground.
Ordinarily, this is the part where we shift the blame to the front office and absolve the coaching staff, but since the Bengals coaches are so heavily involved in scouting and selecting players, Lewis & Co. don’t get a pass here. More to the point, it seems the problem isn’t so much which player is taken, but rather what the team does with him when he arrives at Paul Brown Stadium.
This is where the coaching brain-drain of the last few years is coming back to bite the club. To be sure, there wasn’t much that could be done to keep Mike Zimmer, Jay Gruden, Hue Jackson, Vance Joseph, Matt Burke, and, yes, even Ken Zampese (fine so long as he stuck to tutoring quarterbacks), in their roles as teachers and guiding forces under Lewis. Zimmer, a coach the Bengals players compared to Michael Jordan for his acumen, seems particularly missed. Meanwhile, offensive line coach Paul Alexander is much beloved, and has put up a good track record, but the team has drafted a lot of guys who failed to develop in recent seasons, even beyond the tackles. It’s getting near time to move on from him, too.
Lewis is an old-school guy. It shows in every press conference, interaction caught by NFL Films microphones, and personnel usage. Mainly, he doesn’t like to play rookies, far preferring vets who may not have the skills but “know the system.” This was okay when the players were being properly developed in depth, but now that there is far less margin for error, the team’s malpractice in developing Ross, or keeping Jackson on IR last year in favor of Cedric Peerman, or consistently burying the likes of Rex Burkhead to stubbornly play Hill, stands out much more.
Changes are undoubtedly coming. One would hope it includes investing more in player development and usage of young players. But if I seem pessimistic about that, well, I’ve been watching the Bengals for far too long.
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.