The NFL is back, so please join us in giving thanks for the return of football. Sportsnet will be breaking down everything you need to know about each of the 32 teams—including why you should or shouldn’t be rooting for them this season—in the month leading up to kickoff on Sept. 4. Today, the Cincinnati Bengals.
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Last year’s record: 11-5
Coach: Marvin Lewis
2014 is about… Winning a playoff game. They’ve made the playoffs three years in a row (and four of the last five years, and five of the last nine years), but they didn’t see the second weekend in any of those appearances. In fact, the last time they won a playoff game was 1990. The good news is that the team has one of the best defences in the league, and they’ve got one of the game’s greatest receivers in A.J. Green. But here’s the rub: Andy Dalton has proven capable of leading the team and looking good in spurts—and also is one of few QBs to start a playoff game in each of his first three seasons—but hasn’t done anything of note in the post-season. Changes are coming if he can’t change that—and change it this year.
Core players: Andy Dalton (QB), A.J. Green (WR), Geno Atkins (DT), Vontaze Burfict (LB)
But they lost… Michael Johnson (DE). Even for a defence as deep as the Bengals’, this one hurts—he recorded 15 sacks the last two years, and formed one of the league’s dyanmic D-line duos with Atkins over that period. It hurts doubly because Atkins missed the second half of last season and is currently on the PUP list. Cincinnati also lost James Harrison (LB), who has seen his production dip for years, but he’ll be missed if any drunk fans rush the field.
Yeah, but they got… Danieal Manning (S). Cut by the Texans because he spent most of last year on the injured reserve and the team couldn’t justify his dollar figure, the 32-year-old actually provides more value to a secondary replete with recent draftees, including 2014 first rounder Darqueze Dennard (CB), a guy they got at No. 24 even though many thought he was the best corner prospect in the draft.
Growing from within: Giovani Bernard (RB) was second on the team in yards from scrimmage last year (behind only Green), and he was first among running backs. He showed himself to be a big-play threat and a great check-down target out of the backfield, and both he and the team will benefit from his installation in the RB1 role, supplanting the solid-if-boring BenJarvus “Law Firm” Green-Ellis. The Bengals also get Emmanuel Lamur (LB) back after he missed all of last season with a shoulder injury, and he could find himself playing a lot of downs opposite Burfict.
Why this team? Because you know how Saints fans say “Who dat”? Bengals fans say “Who dey,” and there’s a years-long debate over who said their version first. Or because the “Cincinnatica Bengals” are a thing of the past. Or because of the helmets. Look at those things! They’re gorgeous!
Why not? Because after all these years, the closest the team has come to a Super Bowl win are two losses to the 49ers in 1982 and 1989, and, as mentioned above, they haven’t won a playoff game in 24 years. Or because owner and GM Mike Brown has been known in the past to be… stingy… with team funds. (Currently the Bengals are as much as $23,000,000 under the salary cap despite their wide-open window to contend.)
Perfect for fans of… Reclamation projects. In past seasons the Bengals have employed a strategy to snap up talented players other teams don’t want because of perceived “character issues.” Marvin Lewis’s would-be motto: “If you can play, you can play here.” Guys like Adam Jones and Cedric Benson have found new life in Cincinnati after washing out elsewhere.
How much hope? 7/10. This team is young. It’s athletic and skilled. It’s got legit playmakers with room to grow on both sides of the ball. By all rights this is a team with AFC Championship Game upside. Only… it’s got Dalton at quarterback. Without doubt, Dalton played well last season, passing for over 4,200 yards and putting up a Pro Football Reference approximate value score of 14 (better than guys like Brady, Romo and Ryan). But his post-season stats put him on a par with guys who have no business being in the league. He’s completed 56.9 percent of his passes and thrown just one touchdown versus six interceptions in three playoff games. When it comes to the playoffs, the Bengals will go as he goes, and so far he’s gone down in flames three times—at this point it’s safest not to get too excited too soon.
Will you be mocked for front-running? Probably not. It wouldn’t seem possible to make three straight playoffs and fly under the radar, but the Bengals are doing it.
A Meme To Remember: Ripping on cheapskate owners never goes out of style.