Cincinnati won the NFC North in 2015 and finished the season a heartbreaking couple minutes from advancing to the divisional playoffs. That fell apart in 2016, as injuries and inconsistency dropped the Bengals to 6-9-1.
That means after 14 seasons, Marvin Lewis has a solid winning percentage, but the team still has not advanced in the postseason under his leadership. Can the Bengals rebound and make another postseason run? And even if they do, what will it take to get the team’s first playoff victory in the 21st century?
Larry Spicer, a contributing writer for Stripe Hype, joined us to share some thoughts.
Zoneblitz: The Bengals fell from 12-4 to 6-9-1 and missed the playoffs for the first time since 2010. What went wrong?
Spicer: The loss of Hue Jackson was a major one for the offense and cannot be understated. The offensive line struggled mightily last season. Although Brandon LaFell and Tyler Boyd did an admirable job, with the injuries of A.J. Green and Tyler Eifert, the offense lacked playmakers that opposing defenses really feared. Add to that inconsistency in the running game. I felt that though the defense struggled early, they really picked up as the year went on.
Zoneblitz: Marvin Lewis has won four divisions and made seven playoff appearances since becoming coach in 2003, but has never won a playoff game. Was retaining him the right move? Is he on the hot seat entering 2017?
Spicer: Mike Brown likes consistency within the staff. Marvin Lewis has done an amazing job with turning this organization around from where they were before he arrived. However, I do believe the lack of an extension this year says the front office could feel he has tapped out his potential as a head coach. The seat is definitely very warm this season and Lewis will need to make the playoffs, and make some noise if they get there. It will probably be year to year prove it deals, unless they win a championship.
Zoneblitz: Andy Dalton’s last two seasons have been solid, but still no postseason wins to show for it – is he the guy to take Cincy deep in the playoffs?
Spicer: I believe Andy Dalton is underrated to be honest. I wouldn’t put him in the same category as Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers, but you absolutely can win with him. That being said, I do believe Dalton needs weapons to succeed. He is a “game manager.” However, he’s one of the best in the league at it and, with a solid cast around him, can be a winner in the playoffs.
Zoneblitz: A.J. Green, Tyler Eifert and Gio Bernard are coming off injury-plagued seasons, and Jeremy Hill has put up two disappointing. How would you assess the skill talent on offense heading into 2017?
Spicer: Injuries raise question marks but there is talent for sure. Green is a top five receiver and Eifert is a top 5 TE when healthy. Unfortunately, there is a big “if” there. The running game needs help, Hill isn’t a feature back, in my opinion, and Gio, though talented and explosive, isn’t a three down back.
Zoneblitz: What’s the plan for the run game, with Hill disappointing, Bernard coming off injury and Rex Burkhead gone? Was Burkhead another potential Bill Belichick gem or was he cast correctly as a little used player in Cincy?
Spicer: I firmly believe the Bengals will address RB in the draft, and possibly earlier rather than later. Don’t be surprised if the team’s next feature back comes out of this draft. I really like Burkhead. He probably should have gotten carries a lot sooner. He will do a good job in New England, but this is a deep running back class so the Bengals should be able to find someone with the same ability, if not more at a much cheaper price.
Zoneblitz: Andrew Whitworth and Kevin Zeitler left. Andre Smith returned, but how will the Bengals address those free agency losses?
Spicer: To be honest, look for them to draft some depth in the later rounds of the draft, but they are going to roll the dice on the guys they already have. They invested some high picks in this area and I don’t think they ready to give up on those guys yet.
Zoneblitz: On defense, Domata Peko took off in free agency and Rey Maualuga was released off a unit that already lacked pass rush and backslid overall in 2016. What’s the plan for improving on that side of the ball?
Spicer: The signing of Kevin Minter will help at LB. They got younger and more athletic in that area. Edge rusher will be a top priority in the draft. You have a lot of young talent in the defensive backfield. I believe DT Andrew Billings could have a major impact if he comes back healthy. There is some good, young, yet unproven talent on that side of the ball. The defense is really only a piece or two from being a pretty solid unit. The draft will be crucial.
Zoneblitz: How would you assess where this team is at heading into 2017? Is there a chance for another postseason appearance soon or is this offseason signaling a rebuild?
Spicer: I believe this team isn’t as bad as its record was last year. Injuries were a major factor. I don’t believe the team is in rebuild mode but it needs some serious tweaking in spots. They are definitely going younger. They are going to need some payoff from the last couple of draft classes.
Zoneblitz: What would you like to see the Bengals do through the rest of free agency and the draft?
Spicer: I am actually pretty happy with what they did in free agency. I thought once they got going, they did a solid job. As far as the draft. They have to get a quality running back, a deep threat at receiver and help in the pass rush. If they can hit on these, they could be back in the mix.
Zoneblitz: Is there anything else you would like to add?
Spicer: I just want to thank you for the opportunity. Not to be overly optimistic but this team still has a solid core. If things can roll the right way for the Bengals in the draft and can solidify a few holes this team can get back in the mix in the AFC North again.