Did the end of the 2015 season carry over into 2016? Or were injuries the cause of the team winning six fewer games?
And does the 2016 season leave Marvin Lewis on the hot seat, coaching for his job in 2017? With several off-season changes, including an offensive line that has incurred a 60 percent turnover, can he lead another winning team?
Anthony Cosenza, an editor with Cincy Jungle, joined us to share his insights.
Zoneblitz: The Bengals fell from 12-4 to 6-9-1 and missed the playoffs for the first time since 2010. What went wrong?
Cosenza: It all depends on who you ask. Injuries to star players including Vontaze Burfict (plus a two-game suspension), A.J. Green and Tyler Eifert all played a role in the six-win drop-off. While I think that played a role, I think the Bengals’ frugal ways in free agency caught up to them last year, as did the lack of dividends in recent draft classes that once seemed promising.
Major turnover at the assistant coach ranks, including Hue Jackson (offensive coordinator) and secondary coach (Vance Joseph) also didn’t help matters, as the units often looked confused and/or stale — particularly at the end of the year. As far as on-field issues, the offensive line play may have been the most surprisingly egregious of any unit. That definitely caused problems for the offense.
However, while all of these factors contributed, I maintain the opinion that this team had a major problem getting over the heartbreaking playoff to the Steelers to end the 2015 season. After such an implosion, the team kept Marvin Lewis at the helm and one has to wonder if the message fell on deaf years after his 0-7 playoff record.
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?
Cosenza: I’m of the opinion that it wasn’t the right move to keep him around, but it also seems like he finally won’t be receiving one of those patented Mike Brown rental contracts he has signed three times since the 2011 offseason, so maybe this is finally a “prove-it year” for Lewis.
Whether or not that means he’s on “the hot seat” this year remains to be seen, but much of the fan base wants to see something more from Lewis, aside from his Marty Schottenheimer-like ability to make bad teams good, but not great. It seemed as if Lewis and the front office has built a very talented team since 2011, but the championship window may be closing.
Personally, I loathe the stance the team has seemed to take with Lewis. Even though he has rebuilt the team and brought them to respectability after the Bengals were one of the worst professional franchises in professional sports from 1992-2002, one is hard-pressed to find another NFL team who would retain a coach for 15 years with an 0-7 postseason record.
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?
Cosenza: Andy Dalton gets a bit of a bad rap. He has two of the franchise’s historically best passing seasons (2013, 2016), and his penchant for turning the ball over has greatly decreased over the past two seasons. His 2016 statistics are something to marvel at, given the above-mentioned coaching turnover and injuries to star players around him.
Still, much like the rest of the team, Dalton tends to play poorly on the biggest stages and against the better teams in the league. On Sunday afternoon at 1 p.m. ET, he resembles an NFL MVP candidate, but at night in must-win games, it’s a totally different story. I believe Dalton can take the Bengals far in the playoffs, but many of the chips have to fall his way. His star pass-catchers need to stay healthy and the rest of the team can’t play poorly around him in those big games though. In short, he’ll either need to take another leap as he did in 2015 to show he can elevate players around him, or the Bengals will need to have all hands on deck and performing ably.
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?
Cosenza: Most draftniks are mocking linebackers or defensive ends in the early rounds in the 2017 draft to the Bengals in the early rounds. While that makes sense, this team needs more sizzle on offense. Jeremy Hill hasn’t looked the same since his breakout rookie campaign in 2014, and Giovani Bernard is coming off of a torn ACL he suffered in Week 11 last year. If an exciting running back falls their way early in the draft, they need to mull it over.
After Green and Eifert went down with injuries last year, the offense lacked any big-play capability. Brandon LaFell had a nice 2016 season and was rewarded with a two-year deal this offseason, while Tyler Boyd had a nice rookie year, but the deep speed left with Green on the sideline and Marvin Jones’ exodus to Detroit. That’s why I’m in the corner of the Bengals looking at an exciting wide receiver in the first couple of rounds this year. Even so, there is talent on that side of the ball, it’s just a matter of health, blocking up front and adding speed on the outside.
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?
Cosenza: Lewis said this offseason that the team thinks they can “fix” Hill, whatever that means. Bernard will still get carries and receptions, but questions remain if he’ll ever be “the guy”. Burkhead was a versatile player, but his draft status and athleticism just didn’t always seem to match that of Bernard, who had a similar skill set. Still, most people feel Belichick can get something out of him that the Bengals couldn’t while he was buried on the depth chart.
I think the plan for the run game this year is to grab another high-pick talent in the draft. They’ve been heavily linked to LSU’s Leonard Fournette and the troubled former Oklahoma Sooner back, Joe Mixon, in terms of visits and the like. It may seem like a bit of a waste, given the talent of Hill and Bernard, but inconsistencies in the run game have been prevalent since Dalton joined the team in 2011. Maybe it’s time to truly find a game-changer, regardless of who they think that may be in this year’s rookie class.
Zoneblitz: Andrew Whitworth and Kevin Zeitler left. Andre Smith returned, but how will the Bengals address those free agency losses?
Cosenza: Well, they seem to be addressing the losses with a couple of players they already have on the roster. Back in the 2015 offseason, the Bengals were prepping for life after some sort of combination of Andre Smith, Whitworth and Zeitler, and did so by drafting Cedric Ogbuehi and Jake Fisher in the top two rounds of that year’s draft. It turns out all three ended up leaving, but Smith returned this offseason after a one-year hiatus. For now, Ogbuehi is slated to be Whitworth’s replacement on the left side, Fisher is the right tackle, with Smith kicking inside for the first time in his career and playing Zeitler’s old position of right guard.
Cincinnati might add some ancillary help in the draft, but it appears that they are ready to live and die with that combination of starters in 2017. It’s not exactly a situation that makes Bengals fans comfortable after the entire unit struggled last year–particularly Ogbuehi at right tackle.
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?
Cosenza: So far, the Bengals replaced Maualuga with former Cardinals second round pick Kevin Minter in free agency, and it appears that last year’s fourth round pick, DT Andrew Billings will be replacing Peko next to Geno Atkins. Billings has immense talent and strength, but missed his entire rookie year with a torn meniscus, so he is a little bit of an unknown. They also traded for a speedy edge rusher in Chris Smith of Jacksonville, as a rotational player.
Really, it seems as if 2017 is about getting younger and faster, even though it might be by giving the reins over to some younger, unknown quantities. Getting edge rushing help, as well as other athletic players to plug in the middle level of the defense will also be priorities.
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?
Cosenza: As it currently stands, I think this team can be competitive, but will probably sniff mediocrity again in 2017. In order to avoid the trademark 8-8 Lewis type of season, the young players they will be relying on need to show early maturity, they’ll need to stay healthy at key spots and will also need to nail many of their 11 draft picks this year. If everything falls into place, this definitely could be a double-digit win team. Pretty large “if”, though.
Zoneblitz: What would you like to see the Bengals do through the rest of free agency and the draft?
Cosenza: Really, it’s just about getting immediate impact players and having the trust to play them. Lewis has shown a penchant to not play certain rookies, for whatever reason, and this team needs reliable talent now to keep that championship window open a little longer. With three picks in the top 75 this year, Cincinnati has an opportunity to add some very exciting young players. This might include an acceptance of talents with off-field issues, but we’ll see.