The Monsters of Mediocrity

The deflated Bengals and the disorganized Ravens square off this Sunday with (gasp!) playoff implications.

Well, that was ugly. The Bengals were comprehensively pummeled by the New Orleans Saints in a game little different from those college matchups when Directional State U. takes a big paycheck to get crushed by Top 20 Power. Cincinnati was manhandled every which way, in all phases, in a contest that laid to rest any thought of the team being competitive this season beyond yet another one-and-done. And they managed to be worse after the bye week, which is hard to do in the NFL.

Sure, New Orleans is good. Very good, actually. In winning its seventh straight and scoring 51 on the Bengals’ downtrodden defense, the Saints topped 40 points for the fifth time already this season. The NFL record for 40-plus explosions is six, set by the 2013 Broncos. I’m not sure I’d take any squad in the league to beat the Saints at the moment, but a hint of resistance at home would have been nice.

Instead, for the second straight year, the Bengals have fired a coordinator during the season. Teryl Austin may have been a well-liked FOM (Friend of Marvin) and, remarkably enough, a hot future head coaching candidate, but he’s on the unemployment line today. Yes, there have been injuries, and the linebackers are simply incapable of coverage, but this unit still has Geno Atkins, Carlos Dunlap, William Jackson, and several other useful players. There is no excuse for becoming the first team in modern NFL history to get gashed for 500-plus yards of offense in three straight games. I’d run down the long list of awful numbers to elucidate, but you probably are aware of them and, anyway, it’s too depressing.

The most disturbing part of Sunday’s debacle wasn’t really the score so much as the lack of fight in the team on both sides of the ball. The Bengals have missed scores of tackles this season, but also are near the bottom of the league in breaking tackles. A lot of that comes down to simple toughness, physical and mental. The team is really lacking in the desire department. There simply aren’t many badasses (dawgs, roughriders, whatever euphemism you prefer) on the roster. Tons of good guys, but not many ultra-intense players. It’s an area where Andrew Whitworth is missed even more than for his stellar blocking and leadership. Adam Jones, too.

So now Marvin Lewis Himself is taking over as defensive coordinator, which would be great if this were 2002 and he could bring along vintage Ray Lewis. Marvin is unquestionably a defensive guru of the highest order, but the game has changed irrevocably and he faces a midseason course correction that will see him teaching basic fundamentals in mid-November. Not the ideal position for the head coach, who has plenty of things to correct on offense and special teams as well.

Ah, yes, the offense. It stinks, and it’s not just because A.J. Green is injured. If you want to point to an injury, actually, I’d say it was when Tyler Eifert went down (on the first series of the second half in Atlanta) that the offense got stuck in the mud. In the 14 quarters Eifert played, the Bengals scored 110 points, not counting the Clayton Fejedelem fumble return in the opener, or 7.9 points per quarter. Since then, Cincinnati’s offense managed nine second half points against Atlanta, scored 13 points against Miami (to go with two defensive scores), 21 against Pittsburgh, 10 against K.C., 30 against Tampa (plus a defensive score), and 14 against New Orleans, for a total of 97 points in 22 quarters, or 4.4 PPQ. And if you remove the 27-point explosion in the first half against Tampa, it gets worse: 3.5 PPQ. Remember, a major part of the big Bucs comeback was the inability of Cincinnati’s offense to get so much as a first down for long stretches of the second half.

It’s not that Eifert was his 2015 self yet, but it’s obvious a big time tight end is a weapon Andy Dalton desperately requires. He isn’t much different from most quarterbacks, but the effect of playing a third-stringer and a practice squadder at the position is clear.

I know what you’re thinking: What this offense needs is some Hue Jackson! As everyone predicted from the moment the Browns canned him, Hue is back in the comfy bosom of the Marvin Lewis Coaching Welfare Office. This time Jackson is Special Assistant to the Head Coach, a vague title that will only fuel nightmarish speculation that Jackson, with a 11-44-1 record as head coach, is in line to take over when Lewis at long last cleans out his corner office.

Lewis swore at Wednesday’s press conference that Jackson is not here to take part in any offensive game planning, but rather to be a second pair of eyes. He also said, with a straight face, that because Hue was “exposed to analytics” in Cleveland he will help bring some of that slide rule magic to Cincinnati. Never mind that Jackson trash-talked the metrics folks to his media pals from the moment he was hired by the Browns. Never mind that he never seemed to actually implement any of the analytical suggestions made by the front office. And never mind that he ran a talented team into the ground for two and a half years. In Marvin’s mind, Jackson is on the cutting edge. Compared to Lewis, that indeed may well be true. God help us all.

Beyond all the palace intrigue, there is the small matter of a crucial road contest in Baltimore this Sunday. Despite getting demolished by New Orleans, the Bengals remain the AFC’s current sixth seed and can essentially eliminate the hated Ravens from the playoff chase with a W. If there is one team the beleaguered defense would like to see line up across the scrimmage line, it’s Baltimore, particularly if our favorite pigeon, Joe Flacco, remains the quarterback.

That is only a maybe, however, as Flacco, who started the season well but is falling in the rankings (he’s currently 17th in DVOA, one behind Dalton), is battling a hip injury. Ravens coach John Harbaugh is throwing up smoke grenades in order to obscure who will actually start: Flacco; first round rookie Lamar Jackson, whose swervy speed will really stress Cincinnati’s defense; or maybe even Robert Griffin III, which would seem like a gift from the gods.

The Bengals have defeated Baltimore three of the last four times they’ve met, and eight of 10. Other than the Browns, it’s the one team we know can be beaten—and I’d much rather play the Ravens right now. The lads in purple are going through much bye-week drama themselves, with rumors swirling about this being the end of the line for Flacco, Harbaugh, and who knows who else. They’ve lost three straight games to turn a promising campaign into a major fork in the road. Despite their record, the Ravens remain seventh in overall DVOA (Cincinnati is 21st). They will be desperate and eager to get out there and take advantage of a team much worse than the troika they just faced. Remember, Baltimore dominated the Saints for three quarters before not only blowing a lead but wasting a comeback when Justin Tucker missed the first PAT of his career—a trauma from which they have yet to recover.

Two mediocrities in disarray clashing for the inside track to get crushed on the road in the wild-card round. It’ll be Must See TV!

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.

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