“As far as I can tell, the Cincinnati Bengals will not be a very good football team this year.”
That was how I began my previous post on this blog about a month ago, just before the start of the NFL season. Since then, the Bengals have gone 3-2 to open the year, a quantity of victories that many football fans were doubtful this squad could reach through a full slate of 16. All three of those wins have come with the team trailing in the final quarter—including a game-winning field goal against Buffalo as time expired, and a dramatic triumph over the in-state rival Browns in Week 1. The men in stripes have exhibited resiliency, moxie, and calmness in each contest. But even after all of that, despite hanging tough in every game they have played and clawing their way to a winning record, I still stand by my original statement. The Bengals are not a very good football team. They’re just better than everyone thought they would be.
You can attribute the early success to a number of things: an easy schedule, lockout hangover around the league, the massive quantity of weed one of their starting receivers allegedly has delivered to his house, etc. But the truth is, the Bengals have become quite proficient at defying expectations over the past few years, regardless of whether those predictions were positive or negative. Time and time again, Cincinnati has proven that the experts and public sentiment are misguided. They zig when they are predicted to zag and vice versa. They are to rationality what Mozart is to MTV.
It goes back to 2005. The team had been slowly on the rise during the first few years of Marvin Lewis’s tenure, but no one expected them to take off in the manner they did. Carson, Chad, Housh, Rudi—everyone was clicking on all cylinders. The team went 11-5, winning the AFC North, and breaking a 15-year playoff drought. Higher expectations ensued, but were soon shattered by a late-season collapse in ’06, with the team narrowly missing the playoffs after blowing two games to end the year. The spiral continued until 2008, when Cincinnati hit rock bottom with a 4-11-1 record. Same old Bungals. Start the rebuilding process.
At that point, the trend became obvious. The Bengals stunned everyone by going 10-6 in 2009, sweeping their AFC North opponents and winning the division. No, they couldn’t quite overcome the low-bar that is their playoff expectations (baby steps people; it’s still the Bengals). But the fact-remained: No one saw this team coming. The preseason predictions of doom and gloom got thrown out with the bath water.
Naturally, the 2010 season brought heaps of attention (and Terrell Owens). Cincy received noticeable buzz as a Super Bowl sleeper and/or contender heading into the year, and anticipation among NFL fans and the Cincinnati community was higher than I can recall it being in my (reasonably brief) lifetime. The Bengals, it was decided, had arrived. Things were finally going to be different. The curse was broken.
Or maybe not. The team stumbled to a 4-12 finish in 2010, including a string of 10 consecutive losses during the heart of the season. Carson, Chad, TO—they all stunk. Things never change. Mike Brown is still the villain. The team is still a laughing stock. The future is still bleak.
The 2011 season was sure to be dreadful. Just about every prominent football analyst, website, or publication had the squad ranked dead last in preseason prognostications and power rankings. ESPN the Magazine deemed them the worst franchise in major North American professional sports. Three to four wins was closer to wishful thinking than a conservative forecast. Dalton was going to be terrible, tossed into the fire far too early. A.J. Green would have no impact with a rookie QB and no one else to attract coverage. The defense was a bunch of no-names and castoffs that would get bludgeoned in the AFC North. Hell, Carson Palmer—the team’s “franchise” player—thought things were so ghastly that he was willing to give up $50 million just to avoid putting on the black and orange jersey again. Expectations could not have been lower. Dead and buried.
In case you recently emerged from under a rock and then skipped right past the previous paragraphs, that’s not exactly how things have gone down. The Bengals aren’t setting the league on fire, but they are far from the putrid picture of futility that everyone—seriously, just about everyone—expected them to be. A 3-2 record won’t draw comparisons to the ’85 Bears or ’72 Dolphins, but it will keep you out of the NFL cellar. Right now, the Bengals have a record better than or equal to 22 of the other 31 teams in the league—same as the Giants and Steelers, better than the Jets, Eagles, or Cowboys. There probably about a dozen general managers slamming their heads against the wall for passing on Andy Dalton. A.J. Green makes one or two holy sh— plays a game. The defense, a revolving door of recycled hand-me-downs and home-grown unknowns, is currently ranked as the best in the entire league, continually making plays to keep opponents from pulling away. You could easily make the case that the entire roster is nothing more than a collection of role players. The two most notable personalities, in a national sense, are probably a pair of rookies.
And yet, they find a way to win. They find a way to keep things close. They bounce back from the inevitable dumb plays. They stay calm, cool, and collected, regardless of the situation. They are consistently contradictory. The Cincinnati Bengals haven’t lived up to their expectations, or even surpassed them. They’ve completely disregarded them. And it’s something they’re getting pretty good at.
Jerry Seinfeld once said to George Costanza, “If every instinct you have is wrong, then the opposite would have to be right.” The Bengals, illogically, are currently wrong in all the right ways. So enjoy it while you can. Because in today’s never-ending sports cycle of pontificating judgment, opinion can shift in no time at all.
Until then, I’ll keep hoping the Cincinnati Bengals can win…by expecting them to lose.