The biggest issue miring the Cincinnati Bengals during the string of disgraceful football and NFL cellar dwelling of the ’90s was the infuriatingly static nature of the organization. Nothing ever got better, because little if any measures were ever taken to improve things. You know that Einstein quote about insanity? It’s as if the Bengals were on a mission to prove the man’s contention infallibly true.
Yet since Marvin Lewis’ arrival back in 2003, the stagnant nature employed by the club for so long began to dissolve away. It wasn’t an immediate or smooth transition; the past ten seasons have laid witness to a handful of potholes, the old ways striking with a vengeance just often enough to prevent full evolution beyond a past desperately in need of being left behind. But the evidence of improvement is there: Cincinnati has made the postseason four times in the last eight seasons and three times in the last four, twice as AFC North champs. The lack of stasis has been the overwhelming catalyst in this, headlined by Marvin Lewis transforming the culture and Mike Brown relinquishing some operative powers, investing more and more in scouting and talent evaluation. Mike Zimmer and Jay Gruden have pitched in quite a bit in more recent seasons, as well. Granted, there remain plenty of hurdles to clear (Brian-Leonard-leaping-a-wannabe-tackler style) before the franchise is esteemed amongst NFL royalty. Despite more frequent visits to the postseason of late, the opportunities have proven fruitless in each of Lewis’ three at-bats.
The good news is that things are continuing to change for the better, never more evident than the progression of this season.
Earning a Wild Card spot and repeat matchup with the Houston Texans this Saturday broke the painfully epic 30-year drought of consecutive playoff berths. The team finally won a pivotal matchup against the dreaded Pittsburgh Steelers, a scenario that has been far from kind in the past. Josh Brown has instilled confidence (and clutchness) in the kicking game, something Shayne Graham “conveniently” avoided during his tenure. And most importantly, the team is finally entering the postseason upright, as opposed to dragging a fading star across the finish line.
In those three previous playoff appearances since 2005, the Bengals have closed the season with a Week 17 loss. The squad completely backed into a Wild Card spot last season after choking away their final regular season game at home against Baltimore, the star-crossed Jets graciously losing to keep the team afloat as the 6-seed. Though it only seemed fair getting assistance from Rex Ryan & Co. after what transpired in 2009, with the Bengals half tanking/half collapsing in Week 17 against the Jets to the tune of a 37-0 defeat in primetime. New York followed that with another win over Cincinnati, 24-14, in the first round the following week. And despite clinching the division title in Week 15 of 2005, the 11-win AFC North champs entered the tourney with a sour taste, dropping their final two contests.
Not so this time around, with the team going all Robert Frost and venturing for the road less traveled by. The Bengals closed the season on a 7-1 run, a game-winning field goal by Dallas the only blemish on the last half of the schedule. The Texans, in the meantime, have boarded a southbound train, dropping three of their last four and what appeared to be a gift-wrapped 1-seed in the AFC. The Texans and Bengals are currently sitting at 11 and 12, respectively, in Football Outsiders DVOA rankings, but the weighted DVOA numbers (adjusted to how the team has played down the stretch) are colossally in favor of the Bengals (18%, 7th overall; Houston is 19th at -3%). Oh, and the current kicker for the Texans? Yeah, it’s Shayne Graham.
True, the stats indicate that peaking late does not necessarily provide a significant advantage in terms of playoff success (this ESPN Insider piece makes similar claims, if you’re a subscriber, and delves further into some of the DVOA figures as well). But for the Bengals specifically, a late-season hot streak is uncharted waters. We know only what the club has accomplished coming off defeat, which has simply been more of the same. Suffice to say that Cincy fans are plenty content to take their chance at bucking the statistical trend and begin a postseason run on an upswing. Plus, any coach or player would much rather enter this weekend with positive momentum rather than the contrary, which has to count for something. Just ask Connor Barwin.
Even the lead-up and preparation is preferable this year. After practicing outside in the elements prior to the playoff matchup last season, the Bengals spent the week indoors at the University of Cincinnati’s practice bubble, helping to simulate the noise and temperature conditions in the dome down in Houston. The roster is relatively healthy at the moment too, as opposed to the January 2012 contest when names like Kelly Jennings and Mike McGlynn were lodging on-field snaps. Heck, Chris Crocker even has the chance to avenge the embarrassment levied on him by Arian Foster the last go-round. Marvin Lewis and players alike are demanding and clamoring for more than just “making it this far.” The offense recognizes that it needs to step up and unleash some big plays to help out the defensive side of the ball, which has been incredible the past few months. It’s different this time. So far, everyone is saying and doing all the right stuff.
There’s only one thing left to change.