I have had a draft of this post saved for months, but life kept getting in the way of things getting restarted. However, with training camps opening up across the league there can be no more delays so I’m going to kick things off properly with a look at the Bengals.
I have been enjoying my break, and whilst there were lots of things I could have been writing about, the amount of coverage the offseason gets these days seems to be getting somewhat out of hand. That is not to say that this is not an important time of year, but every offseason we have winners declared for free agency that go on to have rotten seasons (see the 2014 Buccaneers) and draft grades handed out to teams before their new charges have even taken a snap. It is not so much the quantity, as the certainty of conclusions about the upcoming season and the topics that just will not die (deflate gate, and Tom Brady’s ongoing appeals), that gets me down.
I’m not going to be exhaustive about the Bengals offseason, but will take a look at the general shape and pick out some key points.
“It’s hard to be a Bengals fan… How do you find hope in that situation?”
This is a quote was from a podcast discussing the state of the Bengals franchise, and in fairness the hosts were in the middle of making positive points about what a good job Marvin Lewis had done given the situation that he is working in. But there was a questioning of the lack of aggression in free agency, and how could you get excited about the changes for the upcoming season. This comment was also made before the draft, but I’ll cover that in more detail in a bit.
I understand the fans who think that Marvin Lewis should have lost his job, or been moved to general manager before last season so that Mike Zimmer could have been made head coach, not have his contract extended by another year despite not winning a playoff game in twelve seasons.
The problem with that is I think there is something of a double standard here. The Bengals may have the longest playoff win drought in the NFL, but they have just been to the playoffs for the fourth straight season, and this resurgence has been built through the draft. Gone are the days when the team would reach for need, and they have been consistently recognised as a very talented team who draft well. There are still flaws, as all teams have flaws, but their focus in recent offseasons has been holding onto their own and drafting well. This is how they have gone from the national joke Bungles to a respectable team, usually in the hunt for a playoff place in one of the toughest divisions in football.
This is also the team that let Michael Johnsons go last year as they didn’t want to compete with the contract that the Buccaneers were offering, received a third round compensatory pick this offseason, as well as resigning Johnson after he was cut by the Buccaneers. Between this move and the signing of a couple defensive tackles, the Bengals have improved the defensive-line rotation enough that they didn’t have to reach for a pass rusher in the draft, although they have to improve on the disaster that was the pass rush last year but making Wallace Gilberry a situations pass rusher again can only help.
This for me is the key point, the Bengals’ free agent moves weren’t designed to fix everything, but were designed so that going into the draft they can stick to the mantra of recent years, which is to pick the best player responsible. I’m not saying that the resigning of Rey Maualuga, and the acquisition of AJ Hawk have solved the linebacker problems the team had last year, but they mean the Bengals have enough depth that they can pick at the right point. Plus, if you saw the difference in the way the defence stopped the run with and without Maualuga last season, you would be happy he’s back with your team. There are only so many Luke Kuechlys to go round.
However, I am now about to contradict myself a bit as I found the Bengals draft a little confusing. I understand the need to draft a tackle with both starters Andrew Whitworth and Andre Smith coming to the end of their contracts, and Whitworth coming towards the end of a great career, but there doesn’t seem to be any sign of Whitworth slowing down yet, so picking tackles with their first two picks seems a little odd given the problems with the pass rush and depth at receiver last year. However, it doesn’t look like the team reached, they picked up a linebacker and have really made a real effort to resolve the problems a tight ends with two draft picks and a couple of rookie free agents signed at that position. At the end of the day, you can only judge a draft three or four seasons later so I’m not going to pass judgement here.
Nonetheless, the lack of an early pass rusher pick would indicate to me that they really are happy with the depth they have on the d-line and are expecting more out of recent picks Margus Hunt and Will Clarke. However, there is one of other topic I have to mention before we get back to football as much of the talk at the beginning of the offseason was the Bengals’ anaemic pass rush, and one name was repeatedly mentioned as a possible solution was Greg Hardy.
“He looked me in my eyes and he told me he was going to kill me. I was so scared I wanted to die. When he loosened his grip slightly, I said, ‘Just do it. Kill me.’ At that point I accepted I was going to die.”
That is a quote from Hardy’s ex-girlfriend during his trial where it was also revealed that he threw her onto a sofa covered in loaded assault rifles. The conviction has been wiped away as part of North Carolina law due to the court not being able to find the woman for Hardy’s appeal to be heard in front of a jury, and it is believed there has been a financial settlement between them. This has cleared the way for Hardy’s return to the NFL, and what’s more he has had his suspension for this season reduced from ten games to four.
It is worth repeating that this man was still found guilty by a judge of assaulting a female and communicating threats.
Unfortunately, he can also rush the passer.
This meant that he was mentioned by the media as one solution to the Bengals defensive problem. I understand why, but I hated the way it was always couched in a way where the non-football issues would be acknowledged tacitly, but skirted over to get to the football part. I’m sorry, not good enough. I did not, and do not want him on my team. And I am not sure how many players would. You often hear of the sanctity of locker room and how disagreements there should not get out, yet the one team who did see fit to sign Hardy began to have rumblings at the start of their conditioning programme.
There is a genuine discussion to be had about rehabilitation of people, and it is something we have seen in the UK sport world with the case of unrepentant convicted rapist Ched Evans looking for a team to take him on again. He has the backing of the Professional Footballers’ Association that he should be allowed to play, but every team that has been linked to him has been besieged by objection and has eventually backed away from actually signing the player. One defence of signing Evans that has been offered is that he has a right to make a living, but I would not say he should be stopped from getting a job, but I don’t see that he has a divine right to play a sport and be held up us a role model whilst earning multiples of the average wage.
The sickening thing in both cases is that there seems to be an equation that revolves around talent versus disruption. Getting back to the NFL, someone like Hardy or Ray Rice are talented enough that teams have tried to work their way round the issue and are keen to let due process play out, where as a less talented player will simply be cut straight away. With Ray Rice, it was only when the video of him punching his then girlfriend now wife emerged that the NFL re-evaluated their punishment of him, but only after the public outcry and pressure from their sponsors got to a level that had to be dealt with. Of course they couldn’t make the new punishment stick as they had already handed down a ban so Rice is clear to play again, but so far he is still too toxic for a team to sign.
The way the NFL tries to make up rules/discipline on the fly is likely a subject I shall touch on again, as Roger Goodell has repeatedly made a mess of this, but it seems that whilst the league continues to massively profitable that the owners have no interest in replacing him. There is not an easy answer on this one, and it is not up to a sporting league to fix societal problems like domestic violence, but even with the league’s increased focus and funding of programs both within the league and externally, it would be nice if teams focussed more on the moral matter than if we think we can get away with it because of their talent.
Getting back to on the field matters, the big question to me this year is will the team finally get the playoff win that will finally get people off Marin Lewis and Andy Dalton’s back. I hope so, not only as I’m desperate for them to break this streak, but as much as I’d like to see Lewis and Dalton succeed, there is a lot of talent on this team so I really don’t want to go through a rebuild with a new coach.
Looking at Dalton’s career so far, there are questions about his ability in high pressure games, but he was so limited last season in the weapons he had to throw to that I don’t think the playoff loss can as easily be put at his feet. However, there is no doubt that he does have a wide variance in the quality of his play, but if the line continues to be one of the best in the league, and the Bengals have more health in the receiving corp along side a running back rotation that they finally sorted towards the end of the season then hopefully the Bengals can look more like the team that started so strong last year rather than be the broken one last season. It is also worth mentioning that quarterbacks used to be given a lot more time to develop in previous years, and Dalton has gone to the playoffs in every one of his four seasons in the league.
One of the other things that is also worth remembering about last season, is that the Bengals were working with two new coordinators having lost the previous offensive and defensive coordinators to head coaching positions, so making the playoffs again was a pretty good effort.
If things can be seen as looking hopeful on offence, there are more questions on the defence. The pass rush was just bad last year, so I really hope that they manage to get back to a deep rotation like the one that caused so much trouble under Mike Zimmer. It would also be brilliant to see Geno Atkins look more like himself another year from his knee injury as when fit, watching Atkins rush the passer is one of my favourite sights in the NFL. Additionally, whilst we still seem to have enough talent in the secondary, everyone is waiting nervously to see how Vontaze Burfict will come back from microfracture surgery on his knee. Hopefully the offseason signings, and the drafting of Paul Dawson will improve things this season, but the defence really missed Burfict last year.
If the team can be seen to be heading in the right direction, I am a little worried about the schedule. I don’t pay too much attention to the strength of schedule conversations as we don’t know a lot about how certain teams will play, or how healthy they will be, but I would rather not be facing the AFC or NFC west divisions as we are this year. Yet I’m still hopeful as football starts to get closer, and I do think this is the year the Bengals will get that playoff win.
That said, the offseason is always a time for optimism so lets see how things go when the season actually starts. I can’t wait!