Is this the year Marvin Lewis and the Bengals break through with a postseason win?
Josh Kirkendall is the original editor-in-chief at Cincy Jungle, an SB Nation website dedicated to the Cincinnati Bengals, launching six years ago as a site for the Bengals fans written and run by the fans. Josh has been writing and blogging about the Cincinnati Bengals overall for nearly 10 years, dating back to the Marvin Lewis press conference.
If there's one thing that Marvin Lewis deserves credit for, it's taking teams and rebuilding them into competitive winners. Just three years after finishing 2-14 in 2002, Lewis led the Bengals to their first playoff berth in 15 years with one of the league's most prolific offenses and opportunistic defenses. After a four-win season in 2008 captained by backup quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, Lewis retooled the team into a classic run-the-ball-and-play-great-defense AFC North squad. That team would sweep division rivals Pittsburgh and Baltimore on their way to a 10-win season and Lewis's second playoff berth the following year.
It's amazing when you think about it, uniting players who continually buy into the same program only months after a tough ending to a season. Yet Lewis's remarkable rah-rah mentality simply works when the Bengals aren't expected to make much noise.
The 2006 Bengals had an opportunity to become the first squad to make the postseason in consecutive years since the 1981-82 teams, but ended the season on a sour three-game losing streak, falling victim to a bad snap during an extra point in Denver and a game-winning Santonio Holmes touchdown reception in overtime. Luck? Who can say, but the result was the same.
After their surprising run in 2009, expectations were enormous – and became even more so after the team added Mr. Popcorn himself, Terrell Owens, in a bid to rejuvenate the passing game. But despite the presence of Batman and his sidekick Chad "Robin" Ochocinco, and the retention of most of the 2009 squad, the 2010 Bengals couldn't get back to the postseason. True, they played well enough to ring the moral victory bell, always within a tiger's whisker of winning more games than they lost. But in the end all they managed was a four-win season.
Yet Lewis brought the Bengals back again, all the while swatting inquiries regarding their franchise quarterback. A new offensive coordinator injected a tired offense with energy, a rookie quarterback demonstrated unexpected adaptability, intelligence and fearlessness, and the first round of the 2011 draft produced a wide receiver who will someday be mentioned with superstars like Calvin Johnson and Larry Fitzgerald. They combined with another classic, though entirely expected, Mike Zimmer defense that ranked seventh in the league, to produce Lewis's third playoff appearance in nine seasons.
Lewis's time in Cincinnati still lacks a playoff win sure, but if the Bengals reach the playoffs again in 2012, it will be a milestone for a franchise that's lacked postseason story-telling for so long. And you get the feeling that the Bengals could upset that long-standing trend thanks to better drafting. For years, the draft was an annual source of disappointment for fans, but more recently the players selected have quickly begun making significant contributions.
Following the tough-pill-to-swallow disappointment in 2006, the team found a foundation-level player in Leon Hall during the ensuing NFL draft, and paired him with Johnathan Joseph to become arguably one of the league's top cornerback tandems. Safety Chinedum Ndukwe established a solid four-year career, starting 31 games as a hard-nosed, power-hitting safety; though the Bengals didn't bring him back after his four-year rookie contract expired.
Unfortunately when it was all said and done, those were the successes from the 2007 NFL draft, with a second-round running back suffering a career-ending knee injury during the preseason and a handful of players that were, at best, journeymen, who are currently out of the NFL.
Gradually prospects improved, especially beyond the first round. Players like Rey Maualuga, Pat Sims, Michael Johnson, Bernard Scott, Anthony Collins, Andre Caldwell and Jerome Simpson were non-first-round selections. Granted we're not talking about household superstars, but that's not the point. Remember that all but two players from the '07 draft class failed to survive a third season with the team.
Still it's not enough to claim a playoff berth in consecutive seasons, and win the elusive postseason game.
After Carson Palmer bailed on the team in early 2011, the Bengals were forced to look to the April draft for a new starting quarterback. They found their man in the second round, TCU quarterback Andy Dalton. Though a proven winner in college and highly thought-of by the draftniks, fan expectations were low. The track record of rookie starting QBs was bad enough. Add to that a lockout, a new offensive coordinator and a team portrayed in the media as doomed, and most fans would have been happy with four or five wins.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the preseason basement. The rookie quarterback didn't play like a rookie. Dalton finished the season with the fifth-best third down passer rating (84.4) in the AFC, throwing more third-down touchdowns (10) than Tom Brady (9), Aaron Rodgers (9) and Ben Roethlisberger (7). He also wiped out many of Greg Cook's rookie quarterback records and thanks to Tom Brady's Super Bowl appearance, earned himself a spot in the 2012 NFL Pro Bowl. Dalton wasn't the only youngster forming Cincinnati's foundation that provided significant contributions.
Consider for a moment Cincinnati's two most recent draft classes: the Bengals acquired a franchise-level quarterback, a superstar wide receiver in A.J. Green and a progressively growing tight end in Jermaine Gresham, all three of whom made the 2012 NFL Pro Bowl; though Dalton and Gresham were alternates, they were All Stars nonetheless. Jordan Shipley, selected in the third round of the 2010 NFL draft and leading all AFC rookies in receptions during his rookie campaign, will make his return after missing 14 games in 2011 due to a season-ending knee injury. That alone will be like an additional Christmas toy that wasn't available last season.
Carlos Dunlap and Geno Atkins, products of the 2010 NFL draft, have developed into a fearsome duo, with Atkins disrupting the quarterback's line of sight over the middle while Dunlap awaits shifty quarterbacks that Atkins freaks out. Each has led the Bengals in quarterback sacks in each of the past two seasons (Dunlap with 9.5 in 2010, Atkins with 7.5 in 2011). Both are entering their third season and look to be the foundation for the defense going forward. And the future yet to be decided includes players like guard Clint Boling, safety Robert Sands, wide receiver Ryan Whalen and linebackers Roddrick Muckelroy and Dontay Moch.
The growing foundation of character, promise, talent and overwhelming camaraderie is a staple for these players. They are young, hungry and capable of moving beyond the one-and-done trend, improving off a postseason rather than the recently-predictable one-step-back that summarized 2006 and 2010.
Now if the Cincinnati Bengals draft purely on need, then logic suggests a wide receiver, where a vacancy remains opposite A.J. Green. It would be the first time in more than 25 years that the Bengals took first-round wide receivers in consecutive drafts. Dislike the idea of another first-round wide receiver? I'm sure any old-school fan will tell you—while strumming an acoustic guitar and sitting beside a campfire—that Tim McGee and Eddie Brown were well worth it, both becoming significant contributors on a top-five offense for four straight seasons.
There's cornerback, a position recently stacked with free agent talent but, aside from Hall, signed to short-term deals. At safety, Reggie Nelson is sealed on a four-year contract while youngsters like Robert Sands and Taylor Mays foam at the mouth for their opportunity to make their respective teeth-rattling statements. Offensive guard is a popular pick among fans now that Bobbie Williams, Nate Livings and Mike McGlynn have either departed or remain unsigned in free agency. Historically the Bengals have never selected an offensive guard in the first round. Ever.
It's a luxury we're unsure has been experienced recently: the countless directions that the Bengals could take in this year's draft. Sure, there are needs. There will always be needs. But the team can also let the draft fall to them, rather than reaching for needs.
By drafting talent-rich players and transforming them into a rock-steady foundation, this team is steadily raising the ceiling of what it can and will do. If the Bengals continue to get the same kind of production from this year's draft picks that they have from the last couple of drafts, they will have a very real chance of breaking another streak, a trend that developed last year.
So Marvin Lewis's legacy continues. Three postseason appearances in nine seasons, with differing character from the previous iterations of what he's built. At first it was the potent offense of '05, followed by the run-heavy-strong-defense philosophy in '09 and the youth gone wild movement of '11. The difference this year, unlike in the past, is that the Cincinnati Bengals have developed a core of young players, starving for success and abundant in character that believe in what they're buying into. Now instead of rebuilding the Cincinnati Bengals, Marvin Lewis can take the next step. Win the elusive postseason game.