Hobson's Choice: Floor Is Open

QB Ryan Finley
Ryan Finley: part of the plan is to see if he can play and win.

I hear the same question from every fan I talk to. What is the direction of this team as it sits at 0-9? What’s the plan to get me to buy tickets again? Maybe more than just a drive by on this topic would go along way with your fans. Nate W., Dayton, OH

NATE: From what I can see, the plan has been in place since the day after last season and it matched the fans’ hue and cry for a new direction. The organization undertook an extensive coaching search and, in the process, changed everything that impacted the football side of the operation.

The biggest off-season overhaul in Bengals history yielded the largest coaching staff the team has ever had and ushered in a new offensive scheme, a new defensive scheme, and a new strength and conditioning approach, as well as a new culture.

There’s no question the plan is taking time to gain traction. No one thought they’d be 0-9 and it’s frustrating to not just the fans, but everyone involved. Unfortunately the very definition of a plan takes time. If you’ve ever seen a house rehabbed, you know some of the process doesn’t look pretty. The Marvin Lewis Era took three years to get into the postseason. Just look at this regular season. The 49ers’ Kyle Shanahan is being heralded as the NFL Coach of the Year after going 10-22 the previous two seasons.

Re-building the offense and re-setting its direction around the team’s best player (A.J. Green), it seems to me, is at the center of the plan. They made that clear Draft Weekend. Four of the first six picks were on offense and for the second straight year they made an offensive lineman (Alabama left tackle Jonah Williams) their No. 1 pick.

They traded up twice in the fourth round to bolster the offense. They felt the drafting of North Carolina State quarterback Ryan Finley added talent and depth at a spot many fans wanted to see both and the selection of Ohio State guard Michael Jordan seems to give them the left side of the future.

Listening to head coach Zac Taylor, it seems to me they want to marry the off-field plan with on-field momentum. According to Taylor, the idea is to build a bridge to the future by playing better now. I buy the momentum thing coming into an offseason. I think that stuff matters. They won the last two in ’17 and started 4-1 in ’18. They lost seven out of the last eight last year and are 0-9 now. The 2015 run of 12-4 was set up by winning five of the last seven in ’14. And if you want to dust it off, that 7-9 season in 2007 came in the wake of losing three straight in ’06. So, yeah, you’ve got to win some games.

(And, look, when Green lines up with John Ross and Tyler Boyd at wide receiver and maybe Williams comes back to take a few snaps at left tackle, it can look very different rather quickly.)

Build a program. Build momentum. And find guys that fit what the coaches are trying to do. It seems pretty clear that if Finley wins a fair share of the last seven games, the Bengals can take a look at a range of positions in the draft. If they end up with a record that nets a top three pick, that probably answers the question.

Cutting linebacker Preston Brown is another future move, although looking at his dwindling snaps that was also related to winning games. They want to find out if rookie middle linebacker Germaine Pratt can play. More young guys? Personally I’d love to see massive rookie right tackle Fred Johnson and rookie running back Trayveon Williams get some snaps. Can safety Trayvon Henderson play some linebacker? But that’s just me.

Everyone knows this team believes the draft is always the best way to build a team and free agency isn’t. And it’s going to be hard to sway them on that the year after Antonio Brown blew up and Kwon Alexander suffered his second season-ending injury of his career As always, quarterbacks play a pivotal role, and the next month is as huge as it gets for the plan.

Everyone, including everyone I talk to with the team, is looking for a quick fix. But if it’s a good plan, it’s going to take time. Certainly longer than the rest of this season, but hopefully picking up steam as 2020 rolls into September.

That’s my sense of where they’re headed and how they hope to get there. Sorry for the buffet table of an answer, but you said you didn’t want drive-thru.

What should the Bengals do going forward in order to prepare for the Raiders? Patrick Foulke, Springfield, OH

PATRICK: It looked to me like the first move was making sure Finley was supported by a running game that was used often and well and that’s what happened last Sunday against Baltimore. They’ll need that in Finley’s first road start. You throw it 40 times on Paulie G. and he’ll put you on your back, I don’t care if all he has is a bunch of kids.

And the second move appeared to be the release of Preston Brown. You know the things the Bengals haven’t been able to do are stop the run and cover tight ends and here comes Raiders running back Josh Jacobs, less than 200 yards from 1,000 and even closer to Offensive Rookie of the Year, and here comes Oakland tight end Darren Waller, already with 51 catches. They’ve got to clean up the middle of the field. The Bengals believe they have a guy in the rookie Pratt that is fast and physical against the run. Now he needs reps defending the pass.

How does a preseason super hero, catches everything first game starter (Willis) become a borderline practice squad member in three games? It makes you wonder about the talent evaluation process. Dave Wilson, Pittsburgh, PA

DAVE: Funny you should mention Damion Willis, just activated from the practice squad Friday. No matter how well he played in the preseason, the Bengals knew Willis was a rookie and he was going to be what a rookie is. Up and down. What he was turned out to be a place-holder for Auden Tate, a guy that was hurt in the late part of the preseason when Willis was coming on.

But Tate flat-out outplayed him when he got healthy and went into that spot in the third game. Tate was a seventh-round pick. I’d say that’s a pretty good evaluation. Remember how the Steelers moved James Harrison back-and-forth to the practice squad early in his career? So hold off on a Willis evaluation.

I asked Taylor your question after Friday’s practice and here’s what he said:

“The consistency with all our young players, they have to be more consistent is the best way to say it. He fits in that mold. He’s a young player we obviously see some traits in and when he’s at his best playing with great confidence he’s a good receiver in this league. So the decisions we made, we put him down, got Stanley (Morgan) up. We’ve seen ups and downs with all our receivers at this point. He shows us enough to where we know we can count on him if he has to play a game. So we’ll get him up and he’ll have some opportunities.”

Hey Geoff. Bengals fan since 1974. First time writer because I can’t hold it in any longer. My ? Is Doesn't this coaching staff resemble the same debacle when Shuler was hired? Same Miami roots and same old Bengals now. 2nd part. How can HC say he wants to win now when he doesn’t play the best players? Andy only lost by one score to Balt. So glad my 2nd favorite team is the Pats. Erik Whitaker, Lexington, NC

ERIK: Thank you for writing in. I hope you do it again and thanks for being here for 45 years. Couldn’t disagree more with you, though, and respectfully. First, and it’s a minor point because it’s three decades apart and irrelevant, but, yes, Shula had Miami roots through his father. But even though Taylor worked in Miami, his coaching roots are with the Rams and Sean McVay and not Joe Philbin’s Dolphins.

And, let’s be fair about the thing. David Shula had 71 games. You need to be in it a few years before you declare a coaching staff a dynasty or debacle. Plus, there’s a big structural difference in that long-ago staff and this one. Taylor is building his own offense and is hands-on in every way. His structure, his scheme, his play calls. (Shula, it will be recalled, basically inherited Sam Wyche’s offensive staff and gutted the defense.)

That was a big factor in going with an offensive play-caller as head coach. The move to Taylor came in the wake of the offense struggling with inconsistencies associated with four coordinators in six years. Jay Gruden, Hue Jackson, Ken Zampese, and Bill Lazor. Call it the Andy Reid model. The Bengals are looking to build winning offense on consistency from the top no matter the changes underneath. (Time for another Kyle Shanahan look-in.)

In terms of “best players”, that’s a good question. Like Zac says, all teams have to have a balance between now and the future. For the most part, he is playing the best players. Yes, he sat down Andy Dalton, but given the lack of scoring and the effort to trade up to acquire Finley, it seems like not working with Finley would be negligent. And it’s not like the Bengals were 2-6 with Dalton. I would imagine that’s the only one you’re talking about. Pratt over Preston Brown is certainly going with not only the better player, but one with a higher upside.

Is Zac Taylor to CIN what Josh McDaniels was to DEN? If he is, should the franchise get out of the contract now before he can put his fingerprints on the 2020 draft? I’m holding onto fleeting hope that 2021 will look more like 1981. Drew Bretz, Denver, CO

DREW: From what I have been able to gather from the scribes that covered the Broncos, McDaniels struggled with winning over people in the organization. He seemed to have a habit of souring people on every floor. Who knows? But that’s what people thought and has been reported.

Taylor is at the other end of the spectrum. He seems to have good buy-in from the coaches, players and organization. And while Taylor may not have that Belichick-Brady pedigree, he’s worked to get the respect in all corners of the building. He came out of McVay’s “value-everyone’s-job,” Super Bowl culture and he’s made a concerted effort to make himself accessible and comfortable to be around and easy to work with when it comes to personnel, marketing and everything else. The players have been behind the guy, so I don’t see this being a meltdown like that.

I’m with you on 2021 and 1981. That ’81 AFC title came in Forest Gregg’s second year on the job after a 3-9 start that first season. 2021 would be Taylor’s third season. Sam Wyche, the Bengals other Super Bowl coach, went to the postseason for the first time in his fifth season. Take away the three games of the ’87 strike and going into that ’88 season his record was 30-30.

Hi Geoff. Is it time for team ownership to admit that the front office structure isn't working? This team hasn't been successful for 3 decades. I include the division championships in that because the team never won a playoff game during that time.

When an organisation is unsuccessful, the buck must stop at the top. An unfortunate run of injuries to the top draft picks either early or late in their careers has not helped. However, all the successful franchises use quality pro bowl caliber free agents and intelligent trades to compliment the drafting strategy. This is something that is desperately lacking in the Bengals front office. As I diehard fan for over 3 decades, it is heartbreaking to see the same mistakes made over and over again.

A golden opportunity will more than likely present itself in the nest offseason when the Bengals will be odds on to secure a top 2 draft pick. Is it time to hire a quality general manager who can work without interference from ownership, attract pro bowl quality free agents, make intelligent trades, and maybe even bring a change of luck with a healthy first round draft pick? To finally be successful and win a playoff game, surely that is the way we must go. Andrew, Gold Coast, Australia

ANDREW: I appreciate the question, but I respectfully disagree with the premise. To say this team hasn’t been successful for three decades overlooks too many facts. Ask fans in Miami, Cleveland, Tennessee, Detroit, Washington, D.C., among others, if the Marvin Lewis Era was successful and you’ll get a much different answer.

Seven play-off appearances, five consecutive post-season trips, four division titles. Successful, yes. The ultimate? No.

Now, do you and everyone else want more? Of course. Absolutely. Need that post-season win. They know that. We know that. Everyone knows that. But I would argue the current structure has yielded quality teams and successful seasons. Yes, some of the post-season trips ended poorly: 2009, 2012 and 2013. And some were affected by injuries to quarterbacks like ’05 and ’15, Jeremy Hill notwithstanding. If you want to break down each of those seven play-off losses, I don’t think front office structure correlates. They had the talent to get there.

Look, you’re right. Until you’re hoisting the Lombardi Trophy, everyone is subject to criticism and looking at how they can do their job better. But I would also suggest that it’s hard to argue this “front office structure” hasn’t yielded quality rosters with talent highly regarded around the league. Until recently it has, when injuries and some struggles with high picks have dogged them the past few seasons.

Director of player personnel Duke Tobin and his scouts continue to expand their role with the new coaching staff and another year with Taylor’s coaches should smooth out some things. No question they whiffed on Texas A&M tackle Cedric Ogbuehi and Oregon tackle Jake Fisher in the first two rounds in 2015. But below the headlines and hidden behind the clicks is that for the past two Opening Days, this “front office structure,” has drafted the most players in the league.

Certainly this team needs more late-round draft picks like T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Marvin Jones, and Jonathan Fanene who spurred playoff runs. Yes, they need more franchise linchpins drafted in the fourth round like Geno Atkins and Domata Peko. So criticism is fair until those deep drafts return.

But same mistakes? The two franchise quarterbacks they’ve drafted in the last 17 years accounted for five Pro Bowls and seven playoff berths. Same mistakes? Yes they whiffed on Ogbuehi and Fisher in 2015, but they also hit on tackles Levi Jones (Pro Bowl alternate), Andrew Whitworth (Pro Bowl) and Andre Smith (right tackle on six play-off teams).

Be careful for what you wish. The only thing in this league that’s harder than chasing a quarterback is chasing a front office that can find one.

I give you the team up the road. During the Carson-Dalton stretch the Browns drafted seven quarterbacks in the third round and none panned out: (Charlie Frye 2005 third round, Brady Quinn 2007 first round, Colt McCoy 2010 third round, Brandon Weeden 2012 first round, Johnny Manziel 2014 first round, Cody Kessler 2016 third round), Deshone Kizer 2017 third round).

I understand the frustration. Join the club. But in my opinion, lack of talent hasn’t been the biggest problem since 2015. It’s been a problem in some areas, of course. But to me, the biggest problem has been finding schemes to fit the talent and that takes us back to where we began and the overhaul that started the day after last season.

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