What Happened to the Cincinnati Bengals in 2016?

The Bengals followed up their impressive 2015 campaign with a disappointing 6-9-1 record just a year later. What caused this to happen? Should the Bengals move on from Andy Dalton?

A year removed from being 12-4, the Cincinnati Bengals finished the 2016 season with a disappointing 6-9-1 record and failed to make the playoffs for the first time since 2010 -- the year prior to quarterback Andy Dalton being drafted with the 35th overall pick in 2011.

What the heck happened?

Let’s review the Bengals' offensive stats this from past season and compare Dalton's metrics against his previous years in the league, while observing how the team's inability to stop the run ultimately led to less points being scored this season.

Dalton Was Not (as) Efficient

The Bengals posted one of their worst offensively ranked seasons in recent memory, scoring just 20.3 points per game in 2016. Since Andy Dalton and Pro Bowl wide receiver A.J. Green were drafted in 2011, this was the lowest per game average the Bengals scored, ranking 24th. This has a lot to do with only managing to score touchdowns on 53.70% of red zone trips -- coming in at a below-average ranking of 18th in the league.

If you compare this to just a year ago, the Bengals were ranked fifth in both categories and gave way to them claiming their 10th division title in franchise history. In 2016, their lack of touchdowns in the red zone and outright inability to score points caught up to them and ultimately led to missing out on the playoffs. The departure of offensive coordinator Hue Jackson to the Cleveland Browns certainly played a role -- the Bengals were the ninth-worst scoring team this season.

Year Points per Game (Rank) Red Zone TD Scoring % (Rank)
2011 20.8 (19th) 44.44% (25th)
2012 23.8 (13th) 53.45 (17th)
2013 25.9 (7th) 71.43% (2nd)
2014 22.1 (T-15th) 58.00% (10th)
2015 25.6 (5th) 65.00% (T-5th)
2016 20.3 (24th) 53.70% (18th)

Another cause for the decline in scoring touchdowns when Cincinnati reached red zone can be attributed to the injury of A.J. Green -- he was responsible for 30.14% of red zone targets in 2015, resulting in 12 catches for 7 touchdowns. When a player of his caliber leaves, it's not something that can be easily replaced. Once he was sidelined, the Bengals scored an average of 19.7 points per game (PPG) in Week 11 through 16.

At first glance, this difference doesn't appear to be a big deal considering the Bengals averaged 20.3 PPG across all games in 2016. However, if Cincinnati finished the entire season with an average of 19.7 PPG, this would rank them 26th in the league -- slightly behind the Jacksonville Jaguars (19.9) and ahead of the San Francisco 49ers (19.3).

A second injury that drastically affected the Bengals' efficiency was a red zone threat that was held out for the first six games. Tight end Tyler Eifert didn't make an impact until Week 8 when he registered his first touchdown of the 2016 campaign -- where at the same point in time last season, he had already caught six touchdowns. The fact that Dalton only had one game with both Green and Eifert healthy and active (Week 10 against the New York Giants) was a significant reason why the Bengals' passing numbers rapidly declined.

As we've seen using traditional statistics above, we found that the Bengals had one of the least efficient passing offenses since Dalton's rookie season, but what about if we dive deeper into comparing the offensive stats using numberFire's metrics?

Year Passing NEP (Rank) Passing NEP per Drop Back (Rank) Success Rate (Rank) Qualifying QBs
2011 12.64 (15th) 0.02 (15th) 43.33% (19th) 24
2012 10.69 (20th) 0.02 (21st) 46.61% (16th) 27
2013 54.69 (10th) 0.09 (10th) 47.32% (8th) 25
2014 24.54 (16th) 0.05 (17th) 47.02% (15th) 26
2015 140.47 (5th) 0.35 (1st) 52.84% (4th) 27
2016 90.7 (12th) 0.15 (13th) 49.34% (10th) 29
* qualifying quarterbacks had a minimum of 350 drop backs each season

Dalton earned one of the highest Passing Net Expected Points (NEP) per drop back the league has ever seen in 2015 (0.35) -- tied for seventh highest in the past 16 years. On a per drop back basis, Dalton added 0.35 points to the Bengals' expected total, which was ranked first in 2015 and exceeded the next ranked quarterbacks Carson Palmer (0.33), Russell Wilson (0.30) and Tom Brady (0.25).

In 2016 this number took a dive to 0.15 per drop back, however this was slightly above league average for a quarterback (0.12). Dalton's 2015 numbers regressed near the mean, and he ranked 12th in total Passing NEP, 13th in Passing NEP per drop back, and 10th in Success Rate. This season Dalton shared the same Passing NEP per drop back as Jameis Winston, and finished higher than the likes of Andrew Luck , Russell Wilson and Alex Smith who all held Passing NEP per drop back scores of 0.14.

The Run Defense Was Poor

You would think for a nine-loss team, the defense should be held accountable. This may be true in part, but traditional statistics show that from 2015 to 2016, the defense actually improved in passing yards per game, jumping from 19th to 11th. Points allowed per game did increase from 17.5 to 19.7, but the defense was still ranked as one of the 10 best.

The major challenge in 2016 was stopping the run. This was evident as the Bengals allowed the 12th-most rushing yards per game, which was negatively correlated to the scoring offense. Strong rushing teams had their way against the defense, giving up a 120-yard rusher 8 times this season, with 3 of those running backs going for over 180 yards.

Cincinnati Bengals Defense 2015 2016
Points per Game (Rank) 17.5 (2nd) 19.7 (8th)
Passing Yards per Game (Rank) 245.8 (19th) 237.5 (11th)
Rushing Yards per Game (Rank) 96.7 (7th) 113.2 (21st)

When opponents established the run, they were able to wind down the clock -- effectively reducing the number of drives Cincinnati had to score more points. As a result, the Bengals' offensive drives per game dropped slightly from 11.4 in 2015 to 11.0 and total offensive drives fell from 182 to 176.

When we look into our metrics, the defensive efficiencies against the pass and rush paint a similar picture.

Cincinnati Bengals Defense 2015 2016
Adjusted Defensive NEP per Play (Rank) 0.03 (T-10th) 0.07 (T-13th)
Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP per Drop Back (Rank) 0.08 (14th) 0.10 (T-13th)
Adjusted Defensive Rushing NEP per Play (Rank) -0.01 (T-15th) 0.05 (T-24th)

Adjusted Defensive Net Expected Points Per Play can be broken down against the pass and run, as shown above. Simply put, these metrics show how many points a team is taking away from an offense on a per play basis compared to another team in a similar situation, adjusted for strength of schedule. The smaller or "more negative" the number is, the better.

In 2015, the Bengals' defense, whether against the pass or the run, was fairly average. The defense in 2016, however, declined in both Adjusted Defensive NEP per pass and rush, more notably against the rush. Whether we look at traditional statistics or our metrics, all signs point to the same weakness -- stopping the rush. The Bengals' D was 0.06 points worse against the rush, while the pass defense dropped 0.02 points.

Going Forward

It has yet to be seen how the Bengals will bounce back from one of their worst statistical seasons since Dalton and Green were drafted -- and it won't get any easier. The power within the AFC North has shifted to the Pittsburgh Steelers, and while Le'Veon Bell, Antonio Brown, and Ben Roethlisberger continue to be healthy and dominate the league, Cincinnati needs players step up in a big way.

The Bengals have averaged 9.67 wins per season with Dalton under center, which most franchises and fans would be happy with (I'm looking at you, Cleveland Browns). However, if you can't even win a single playoff game, let alone a Super Bowl, change has to be made.

It's no secret Dalton has been nothing less than terrible in the playoffs. In four career postseason games, Dalton holds a 0-4 record and has only thrown one touchdown pass compared to six interceptions.

Talk about the exact opposite of what you're looking for in the playoffs. Rightfully so, this has led to many pundits asking if the Bengals need to move on from Dalton. With the competition in the AFC growing stronger every year, this may be a necessary step as they're currently looking from the outside in come playoff time, not only this season, but possibly for years to come.