And then it was simply over. With one batted pass that became an interception and a touchdown, the 2011 Bengals season had ended. Of course there was some time left in the first half—with another to play—but the end of the Bengals’ playoff run was swatted away even before it could truly begin. The second half for me, even four days later, remains a cacophony of hopeless cries and missed chances, itself a failed season within a failed season.
In the immediate aftermath, people, even the understandably irascible Paul Daugherty, have said that this was merely a first dip into many post seasons to follow. Because of their youth, many have said, these Bengals would make playoff games not seem like historical anomalies—blips in what’s been a downward line of despair—but instead rites of annual passage, perhaps leading to Super Bowls to come. After all, we never expected this much at the season’s onset, why should we feel bad?
“We know we can win. We know we can win in the playoffs,” Domata Peko said afterwards. “We’ll have a good offseason, and we’ll be back again. But this time, we’re going to make a better run. It sucks that we lost, and it’s sad. But look around this locker room—there are a lot of young guys here. We just have to get better, and the sky is the limit.”
Hope, at least by some measure, is justifiable. Andy Dalton and A.J. Green in their rookie campaign have seemingly excised the dysfunction that provided the narrative subtext for the era of Chad and Carson—the latter of whom was beautifully traded for two high draft picks. There’s Jermaine Gresham, coming into his own as tight end, and Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap, both of whom showed glimpses as potentially great defensive stars. With a core of talented young players, an abundance of salary cap space and draft picks, local and national journalists alike have used words like “great nucleus” and “building blocks,” hinting that this first experience in the NFL’s Super Bowl tournament would serve the team well as it grows into a championship club.
Maybe so. But truth to tell, I just feel wary. Despite all the incredible acts this season—highlighted by Jerome Simpson’s touchdown flip against the Cardinals and Mike Brown’s decision to actually lower ticket prices—this team faces, at the very least, an uncertain future. The secondary, save the injured Leon Hall, showed its creakiness and age. Many on defense can potentially leave as free agents. The offense lacks both a running back who can consistently muster more than two yards from the line of scrimmage and a dependable wide receiver whose last name isn’t Green. If Dalton heaved the ball for A.J. a little too often, it’s simply because he just couldn’t find anyone else who could get open.
More troubling, though, is the Bengals’ inability to close out both games and the season—to finish strong. Even in leading his teams to division titles in 2005 and 2009, Marvin Lewis’s team showed a penchant for folding late, and the same was true this year. Despite managing a winning record, the team lost six of its last nine games, including four to division rivals Pittsburgh and Baltimore. There was the last-second, inexplicable regular season loss to Houston, when the Bengals simply stopped playing with a big lead and plenty of time left to play. A defense that prided itself on stopping the league’s best running backs seemed a hapless, beaten bunch when faced with Ray Rice and Arian Foster. Cedric Benson, who most likely will not be a Bengal next season, nearly fumbled the season away against Arizona. An offense that kept promising it would play a full game never really did.
Then there’s the question of Lewis himself. He might be a fine man, but has proved to be an undependable, terribly uneven head coach. Yes he took his team to the playoffs. But what happened once they got there? While Dalton’s interception perhaps sealed the Bengals’ fate, Lewis once again showed his ineptitude by challenging two clearly indisputable plays in the first half. Better coaches make key adjustments, helping their teams schematically and mentally recover from fluke plays. Instead, the team that Lewis led into free fall in the regular season’s last game kept falling against Houston.
More than anyone else, the fate of the future belongs to him. After 2010, Lewis wanted, and got, more input in personnel—chief among them the drafting of a smart, accurate, poised quarterback instead of Ryan Mallett, the troubled, strong-armed Arkansas product whom Mike Brown apparently loved. That the Bengals didn’t take the latter suggests Brown finally trusts someone besides members of his own family.
There’s no question this team has a talent base that will only continue to grow. What seems murkier is what Lewis will actually do with it. With a full offseason, he may better prepare them for a tougher schedule, always made harder by the fact they must play the Ravens and Steelers four times a year. But we’ve seen equally promising young, talented teams regress. With the upcoming Super Bowl, it will be 23 NFL championships since the Bengals last played in one, and over 7,000 days since the team won an actual postseason game. Patience and understanding ran out more than a decade ago.
In writing this blog with Bill and the Brit, I’ve spent a good deal of time looking back, writing of better days. I’ve longed for the quarterback play of Kenny and Boomer, for the offensive genius of Sam Wyche. But now I’m tired. I’m tired of both the gilded past and the hopeful but uncertain future. This time next year, I’d like to write about the present. The brilliant, shimmering present.