Playoff Despair

A fourth consecutive effort resulted in more of the same for the Bengals in postseason play.



If the third time wasn’t the charm, the fourth won’t be either. Sunday certainly wasn’t. Sunday was a crystal clear reminder that they (Andy Dalton, Marvin Lewis, et al.) are who we thought they were. They are the Cincinnati Bengals—first-round playoff washouts.

With an uninspiring 26-10 loss to the Indianapolis Colts, both Dalton and Lewis made history for their consistent inability to succeed in the playoffs. Dalton joined Y.A. Tittle as the only quarterbacks in NFL history to lose their first four playoff starts. Lewis, not to be out-underdone, is now one of only two coaches, along with Jim Mora, to lose his first six career games in the playoffs.

But it’s not just the losses. The Colts were favored to win, especially with Pro Bowler A.J. Green sidelined and the Bengals linebacker and receiver units already thoroughly depleted. The issue is that—for the fourth consecutive year—the Bengals looked completely outclassed, unprepared, and offensively sterile. While there’s certainly more at play than the performance of one player or coach, there’s no denying that Dalton and Lewis are the focus of the Bengals continued playoff woes.

Lewis shares one other notorious distinction with Mora: they are the only coaches with 100 wins as an NFL head coach (125 for Mora, 100 for Marvin) and zero playoff wins, which more or less means that they were retained longer than any other coaches who failed to produce wins in January. Worse yet, Lewis is the only coach in NFL history to be with the same team for 12 years (the second longest current tenure in the NFL behind three-time Super Bowl winner Bill Belichick in New England) without producing a playoff victory. How much longer can that possibly be the case for Lewis, whose teams have shown no visible improvements in four consecutive playoff losses?

It’s a murky situation, in part because Mike Brown has shown Lewis unwavering support during his 12-year tenure, and because Lewis added longevity and, comparatively, massive success. Lest not we forget that the average Bengals fan would’ve killed to be losing first-round games in the dismal years before Lewis’s arrival. (In 2002, the year before he took over, Dick LeBeau led the Bengals to a franchise worst 2-14 record.) But the fact remains that Lewis’s teams in Cincinnati haven’t played well in big games and have looked like non-contenders in the playoffs. Only once in six games—in 2005, with Jon Kitna taking over for an injured Carson Palmer—has a Lewis-coached Bengals team scored more than 14 points in a playoff game (17). Only one of the last four Bengals playoff squads have scored more than 10, which is where NFL history, in the form of ineptitude, continues to stack up against Lewis.

Lewis made himself a hot commodity in the coaching ranks by engineering the Ravens defense that dominated the 2002 postseason en route to a Super Bowl victory, despite its offense being quarterbacked by Trent Dilfer. In Cincinnati, Lewis has failed—with three different offensive coordinators and, for all intents and purposes, two different quarterbacks—to oversee an offense capable of winning a playoff game in six tries. Lewis’s Bengals playoff teams have been outgained by nearly 500 total yards (2,259 to 1,799), with an egregious turnover margin of -11 (13 turnovers, only two takeaways). And for it being his alleged area of expertise, the Bengals defense has been inconsistent at best, giving up more than 140 rushing yards in five of the six Lewis-era playoff losses—although the Bengals offense maintaining possession for nearly 40 less minutes than their opponents collectively over the six-game streak certainly put the defense at a disadvantage. The majority of that possession discrepancy came with Dalton at the helm of the offense, which comes as no surprise given his propensity for turning the ball over in the playoffs.

Of the 13 Bengals turnovers during the current playoff losing streak, Dalton is responsible for eight, six interceptions and a fumble in his first three playoff starts, and the fourth quarter fumble that sealed Sunday’s loss to the Colts for good.

While Sunday certainly wasn’t Dalton’s worst playoff performance (he didn’t throw an interception, which is a miracle in comparison to his three previous playoff starts), what did he really do with his 35 pass attempts? Well, he threw 155-yards worth of what felt like inconsequential swing passes and five-yard outs in real time, resulting in zero touchdowns, a lackluster 51.4 completion percentage and a QBR of 20.0. The divide between Dalton’s career regular season and postseason stats continues to grow more astonishing after each playoff failure.

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Considering just how dreadful Dalton’s playoff performances have been makes it all the more alarming that the eye-test might be even worse. There wasn’t a single moment on Sunday where Andy Dalton turned a head. Yet my biggest take away from the game, and of Andy Dalton’s performance and overall ability, came when he was standing on the sideline, while Andrew Luck was making yet another elite play for the Colts offense.

By a show of hands, who out there has any faith that Andy Dalton will ever make a play like that, with or without the pressure of a playoff game? Longtime Cincinnati Post columnist Tim Sullivan, who now plies his trade at the Louisville Courier-Journal, said it best.

“The most obvious takeaway from the Indianapolis Colts’ 26-10 playoff victory over the Cincinnati Bengals Sunday is that one team has a clear-cut, bona fide, top-drawer franchise quarterback and the other has Andy Dalton. The truth is more nuanced than that—the Bengals played Sunday’s game without their top two receivers and lost middle linebacker Rey Maualuga in the second quarter—but the trend lines continue to show the Colts climbing and the Bengals stagnating.”

That’s the most frustrating thing. It’s not that the Bengals continue to lose in the first round, it’s that the manner in which they’ve lost inspires no reason to believe or even hope that the result could be any different next season. For the last four years, we’ve known that the personnel and the quarterback would be the same the next year. And worse, nothing that transpired in Indianapolis instills any faith that the 2015 season won’t end with a 14-point first-round playoff loss to a team with a better quarterback and a better gameplan.

But 2015 has to be different, at least for Dalton and Lewis. Essentially all of Dalton’s guaranteed money on the $100-million contract that everyone has cursed all season is paid out after next year, and Lewis’ contract extension expires then as well. Dalton won’t survive another season as inconsistent as this one, and Lewis may indeed be the first coach to helm a franchise for 13 seasons and never win a playoff game. You’d have to believe he wouldn’t see a 14th if that’s the case.


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