Going in, I knew a win was unlikely.
But as a sports fan—or a fan of life, really—there’s always a small sense of optimism that takes root, even in the most hopeless situations.
It was about as dire as winter in Siberia for the Bengals Sunday as they faced the Colts in the Wild Card round of the NFL playoffs: No A.J. Green. No Tyler Eifert. No Marvin Jones. No Jermaine Gresham. No Dane Sanzenbacher. No James Wright. No Andre Smith. No Vontaze Burfict.
“OK,” I thought to myself as I strode into a deafening Lucas Oil Stadium early Sunday afternoon. “The Bengals are REALLY shorthanded today—but stranger things have happened. The Colts aren’t the 2007 Patriots. Andrew Luck owns a brief but extensive history of turning the ball over in the playoffs. And the Bengals should be able to run the ball with confidence and effectiveness.”
Final: Colts 26, Bengals 10.
The Bengals never really had a chance. Turns out Greg Little, Cobi Hamilton, and Rex Burkhead weren’t quite good enough.
Initially, the first-half play calls for Burkhead were cute. The “Sanuuuuuu” chants from the pockets of Bengals fans were encouraging after Mohamed Sanu’s two first-quarter catches. Then the fact that the Bengals were totally screwed quickly surfaced.
Even after Mike Nugent’s historically-miraculous 57-yard field goal banked through the uprights like a Tim Duncan mid-range jumper, creeping the Bengals to within 13-10 at halftime, there was a sense of finality in the air regarding the ultimate result of the contest at hand. And when a franchise-changing drive from the supposed Franchise Quarterback could’ve stunned the Colts and their blue-clad advocates at any point during the third quarter, no Bengals fan in their right mind expected Andy Dalton to channel Joe Montana, Tom Brady, or even Frank Reich.
In the end, whether the Bengals abandoned the run or blitzed enough on defense was inconsequential. The least-talented and least-healthy of the Dalton-era playoff teams wasn’t winning this one.
If there’s anything worse to add to the latest installment of playoff suckitude by the Bengals, it’s that the city of Cincinnati’s drought without a postseason advancement—the spell will reach 20 years in October—continues to be the longest of any North American metropolitan area with at least two of the four major pro sports leagues, as noted by The Cincinnati Enquirer. There have been 10 total playoff one-and-dones from Cincinnati’s two major pro sports outfits in that span—six from Bengals (2005, 2009, 2011-14) and four from the Reds, who lost one-game playoff contests in 1999 and 2013, and failed to win a single home game during 3-0 and 3-2 National League Division Series defeats in 2010 and 2012.
For the Bengals, the spotlight now shifts to what Mike Brown will (or won’t) do and what the Bengals’ personnel department will (or won’t) do this offseason.
*In Brown’s case, will he lend Lewis another bizarre vote of confidence in the form of a one-year extension? If the longtime Bengals owner chooses to stand pat, Lewis will enter next season as a lame duck coach. A similar status could pertain to Andy Dalton—no matter how blindly delighted Brown and Lewis profess to be regarding their beleaguered signal-caller—because the Red Rifle is essentially in a contract year next fall.
*The Bengals biggest priority this offseason doesn’t concern an impending free agent; it’s the mindset of A.J. Green. Green—who is under contract through 2015—and Dalton have been attached at the hip since the duo’s drafting in April 2011. Obviously, even the frugal Bengals would break the bank to extend Green, but if you’re Green, wouldn’t you wait until after the 2015 campaign and see how the long-term QB situation plays out? (A franchise tag would likely be coming in 2016, but stick with me.) The other side of the coin for Green is that he fought through myriad injuries last year and produced an average season by his extremely lofty standards, so taking the money and security wouldn’t necessarily be a bad option.
*There are also contract situations to watch on the offensive line, where starting left guard Clint Boling is a free agent, and three other starters—left tackle Andrew Whitworth, right guard Kevin Zeitler and right tackle Andre Smith—are entering the final years of their deals.
*Defensive coordinator Paul Guenther wasted no time in addressing his unit’s deplorable pass rush earlier this week—the Bengals were last in the league in sacks—by calling out Geno Atkins and hinting at significant changes. It’s time for 2013 second-round pick Margus Hunt and 2013 third-round selection Will Clarke to take steps forward, too.
*Linebacker could actually be the position group facing the most upheaval. With Vontaze Burfict’s on-field spontaneous combustion from excessive injuries looming and a pair of normal starters (Emmanuel Lamur, Rey Maualuga) facing free agency, the unit could look radically different in 2015.
*The Bengals own the No. 21 selection in the first round of the April draft for the third time in the last five years. They’ve gone with tight ends on both occasions, selecting Jermaine Gresham in 2010 (vom) and Tyler Eifert in 2013 (jury still out). I’d be stunned if offensive line, defensive line (a speed rusher would be nice), and linebacker were not addressed in the first four rounds.
With all of that said, if the Bengals went mostly status quo for 2015 and added full health (or close to it) for key players—Green, Atkins, Eifert, Smith, Burfict, Marvin Jones—they are likely an 8-11 win team. At first glance, the schedule is more difficult by playing the AFC and NFC West in place of the AFC and NFC South, but by finishing second in the AFC North in 2014, the Bengals will play Houston and Buffalo (runners-up in the AFC South and East) instead of Indianapolis and New England (champions of AFC South and East). That counts for something, too.
This offseason feels a lot like the last one. Some pieces will come in; some pieces will go. But the question will remain the same: when is the breakthrough playoff win coming?