Let’s start with a bummer on top of the other bummer…
For those of you hoping Bengals first round draft pick (and Cheesecake Factory patron) John Ross would make a second-half impact, the news that he is bound for Injured Reserve after an injury to his left shoulder (not his previously surgically repaired right shoulder) comes as a hammer blow. Worse, Marvin Lewis says Ross was hiding the injury in order to try and get on the field, which of course didn’t work.
That means the ninth overall pick won’t contribute a thing this season beyond two targets and a 12-yard run, which ended in a lost fumble. Wideouts who do absolutely nothing as rookies, whether through injury or just being bad, have a very poor track record of suddenly becoming high quality players. Ross, apparently, has been both not good and always hurt this season, a devastating combo. He may be completely revivified in 2018, of course, but in the meantime we have to come to grips with the fact that the Bengals may have thoroughly wasted a top ten pick.
Okay, now on to the ongoing root canal that is the Bengals-Steelers series. Alas, I think we all pretty much saw this coming—I even called the game script last week in this space. Good play early, the hope rises, then it all dissipates in a miasma of blown coverages, third down ineptitude, and of course a little bit of the old ultraviolence.
Cincinnati scored all of three points in the second half in the two games against the Steelers this season. And in the game last year at PBS, Pittsburgh scored 15 unanswered points to win the game. In 2014 it was 32-7 over the final thirty minutes, in favor of the Steelers. Second-half collapses are so commonplace against the black and gold that they are barely worth mentioning anymore.
If the issue were limited to merely games against the Steelers, it would be simply excruciating, but alas the problem is far more systemic. Cincinnati has been outscored 115-71 in the second half this season, an ugly margin only exacerbated on Monday night. Despite all the well-documented offensive issues this season, the team has done pretty well in the opening stanza. The Bengals are averaging 13.2 points per game in the first half, good for 9th in the NFL. But they are dead friggin’ last in the league in second half points, averaging an anemic 5.9 PPG. They’ve managed only eight second-half touchdowns in twelve games—one of which came on defense (the Carlos Dunlap pick six that claimed the Colts game), and three of which came against the Browns. So four offensive touchdowns in twenty quarters against actual NFL competition. That, my friends, is putrid.
The inability to score in the second half isn’t just a current phenomenon. Last season the Bengals were 12th in first half points per game (11.9), but 27th in the second half (8.4). You have to go back to Andy Dalton’s rookie year, 2011, to find a season when the Bengals scored more points in the second half than in the first.
Defensively, the Bengals have been top ten or just outside in both halves over the last three seasons (in 2014 the team was 27th in the league in second half points allowed), and overall there is little obvious falloff. Clearly the issue is mainly with the offense, as you already suspected.
This trend spans four different offensive coordinators and any number of personnel combinations. You wanna blame it all on Dalton? Well, in 2009, a playoff year with Carson Palmer at the helm, the Bengals were 17th in first half scoring, 27th in second half. In 2006, when Palmer threw for over 4,000 yards (back when that still meant something) they were 5th/12th. In 2005, when the offense was among the best in football, they were the very best in the league in PPG in the first half, yet still slipped to 9th in the second.
The one common denominator, of course, is the head coach. None of us are inside those Bose headsets, or the halftime locker room. We can’t really know what sort of adjustments are being made—or not being made—by Lewis and his staff. But the numbers don’t lie. Cincinnati is consistently, year after year, being outplayed (and outcoached) in the second half.
At least lately, the reason could be less schematic than physical. The Bengals don’t have the roster depth they have had in recent seasons, and for a team that likes to rotate a bunch of guys, that can hurt. But even when pundits were praising the roster as the top-to-bottom best in the league, the Bengals were suffering second half woes. I remember Julian Edelman claiming that the key to the Patriots big Super Bowl comeback was weight room intensity, even throughout game week. Clearly the Bengals aren’t providing the right sort of “extra help” needed to compete for four quarters (I’m joking, I’m joking…kinda).
Or perhaps the issue is psychological. Surely when the Steelers are across the field, as I said last week, the Bengals are constantly waiting for the other shoe to drop. But while those games stick out, Cincy’s mental state is always a risk factor. Whereas teams like New England never feel they are out of any game, regardless of deficit, Cincinnati’s approach is “no lead is safe.” Momentum in sports is a nebulous creature, almost always used as an ex post facto explanation for on-field events. But was there anyone who expected the Bengals to hold on to the big halftime lead on Monday night, especially once Le’Veon Bell scored that fluky touchdown to get things close?
One of Marv’s favorite sayings is, “Keep playing.” Another is “Don’t flinch.” In other words, don’t let a single bad play or series get you down, and keep on slugging. Good advice, but it doesn’t seem to be imparted very well. This is especially true in the biggest of games. Encounters with Pittsburgh, primetime matchups, and of course, the postseason, where Lewis’s clubs have been outscored by an incredible 96-29 in the second halves of seven playoff games (and more than half of the Bengals’ total came in that crazy fourth-quarter almost-comeback against the Steelers in 2015). The winless mark in the postseason is one thing—not competing after halftime is just so much worse.
Maybe that’s the point, and the key to the bigger picture. Whatever else is happening with the team, Lewis’s message is not being heeded anymore, and hasn’t been for some time. The numbers suggest mid-game alterations have never been a strength. And all signs point to this being his last rodeo on the sideline. It’s long past time to bring in a coach whose words—be they in the form of halftime adjustments or locker room wall slogans—are received by the players.
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.