For years - decades, really - the Cincinnati Bengals wallowed in mediocrity. They spent the 90s and early 00s putting up sub-.500 records, and since have had flash-in-the-pan type years like in 2005 (11-5, lost in the wild card round). It seems as though, however, that they're finally getting it together. They're now consistently putting a quality product on the field every year, and they're now among the teams that seem to be missing just one piece, somewhere, to take them to that proverbial next step.
Looking back at 2013, the Cincinnati Bengals had a pretty stinkin’ good year. They finished their 11-5 campaign as AFC North Champions, but saw their season end by way of a 27-10 loss to the Chargers in the Wild-Card round. An impressive season overall, really, even if it does sound a lot like 2005. The difference now? Consistency.
As a whole, this is a great up-and-coming organization. The consistency I speak of comes from the fact that they have improved their season record and made the playoffs each of the last three years. The main drawback being that they have hit a wall in the first round of the playoffs each time. Now let’s take a look at what went right, what went wrong, and what they should do to keep this upward trend going into 2014.
First and foremost, this team is loaded with young talent. Wide receiver A.J. Green is one of the best receivers in the league. Running back Giovani Bernard is arguably the best back in his rookie class despite splitting touches with veteran BenJarvus Green-Ellis at nearly an exact 50/50 ratio. They also have potential rich players like Tyler Eifert, Mohamed Sanu, Marvin Jones, and Andrew Hawkins. Not to mention a top-five unit on the other side of the ball.
Breaking down these players, let's start with A.J. Green. He posted the fourth-highest Reception Net Expected Points among wide receivers this season, behind fellow studs Calvin Johnson, Josh Gordon and Demaryius Thomas. In other words, only the three previously named receivers did more when they actually caught the football. Like the rest of this Bengals' team, Green has improved within this metric in each of his first three season.
At running back, rookie Gio Bernard put up better Total NEP than big names such as Marshawn Lynch, Adrian Peterson, numberFire darling Ryan Mathews, and fellow rookies Eddie Lacy and Le’Veon Bell. Much of that value comes from his effectiveness in the passing game: Out of running backs with over 170 rushes, Bernard had the fifth-highest Reception NEP, one spot better than Shady himself, LeSean McCoy. Given Green-Ellis' effectiveness (ninth-worst in the NFL) and a new offensive coordinator in Cincinnati, it will be interesting to see how Bernard is used next year.
The offense is young and fun, but the defense is the reason the Bengals won football games. Mike Zimmer's unit ranked second in the entire league in total defense, coming through with a -61.29 Adjusted Defensive Net Expected Points total. This was led by their second-ranked pass defense, one that was without its top cornerback, Leon Hall, for most of the season.
There can’t be too much "bad" going on when a team goes 11-5, right? Well, when you consider how far this team could've actually gone this season, there is. And it starts with the ginger himself, Andy Dalton.
On the whole, Dalton hasn’t been all that bad. He just hasn’t been all that great either. Dalton comes up as a very middle-of-the-road passer in almost every statistical category (13th in Passing NEP, 13th on a per drop back basis), doing just enough for him to keep his job, but not enough for the fan base to be crying for his head at the same time. Our own numberFire Editor-in-Chief JJ Zachariason did a great piece on Dalton here, documenting his up-and-down journey in 2013.
The article depicts Dalton from a game-to-game perspective, rather than looking at his cumulative, middle-of-the-pack ranking. When he faced top-half defenses this year, Dalton added 13.53 NEP per game. When facing bottom-half defenses, his -3.78 per game NEP was Geno Smith-esque. These are two extremes that we don't see from other quarterbacks of his talent level.
He looks great against poor defenses, but horrid against quality defenses. This must change for the Bengals to get deeper into the playoffs where the competition only gets tougher.
What should they do?
The Bengals must address this quarterback play whether it be by drafting competition to simply push Dalton, or to outright draft a likely replacement. This is all coming in a big time of upheaval for Cincy too. Jay Gruden is gone. Mike Zimmer is interviewing for every coaching vacancy. In comes Hue Jackson to replace Gruden. He is publicly supporting Dalton 100%, but is also putting a new emphasis on the run game going forward. Maybe a more productive rushing attack could open things up a bit more for Dalton, but for the time being, it's a clear need for this team given its offensive weapons.
If the quarterback play doesn't change, this team could very well take another step forward in 2014.