After months of recapping the last 20-something Bengals seasons, we’ve finally reached the most recent one… and unfortunately it’s far from the most interesting. Much like 2016, the 2017 season was something of a test for most Bengal fans to get through. An offense that only two years prior was one of the most talented units in the league was a shell of its former self. Receivers Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones had departed following the 2015 season, and an already-deteriorating offensive line would lose left tackle Andrew Whitworth and right guard Kevin Zeitler after the 2016 season. Why do I make that point? Well, it was the dismal offense that really defined the Bengals in 2017.
Before we dive into that, let’s re-visit the oh so long ago year 2017 and some fun facts about it. We are all witness to a total solar eclipse on August 21, 2017, and it was the first time it had happened coast-to-coast in 99 years. Unbelievably, fidget spinners took the world by storm in 2017, and finally, the Star Wars franchise returns to theaters again to be the highest-grossing film of 2017 with Star Wars: The Last Jedi.
Again, like 2016, the 2017 Draft didn’t yield much in the way of immediate results, but is going to really shape the 2018 squad. In their first four picks, the Bengals selected wide receiver John Ross, controversial running back Joe Mixon, and defensive ends Jordan Willis and Carl Lawson. All stand to have big roles as we approach the 2018 season.
The criticism of this draft was that the team made no real effort to address a mediocre-at-best offensive line. Their lone move was a fifth-round draft pick named J.J. Dielman, a center out of Utah. Outside of that, the Bengals re-signed Eric Winston and Andre Smith, veteran tackles whose best days were largely behind them.
The Bengals kicked off at home against a division foe, the Baltimore Ravens in front of an excited Cincinnati crowd, ready to watch some football again. What they got was not exactly football, at least not from the Bengals – they were dismantled 20-0, complete with five turnovers from Andy Dalton.
Game two wasn’t much different, as a second straight horrible offensive performance saw the Bengals defeated by the Texans, 13-9. After consecutive horrible performances that yielded zero touchdowns from the offense, offensive coordinator Ken Zampese was fired, with quarterbacks coach Bill Lazor stepping in as his replacement.
There were some immediate results, as the Bengals came out firing at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, taking a 21-7 lead into halftime. Ultimately, however, the considerably-better culture that was the Packers took over, and in what seems to be vintage Bengals, they coughed up the large lead and lost the game, 27-24 in overtime. This sent Cincinnati to their first 0-3 start since 2008.
The Bengals would score victories over the Browns and Bills to enter their bye week at 2-3, and at least gave fans some semblance of hope, even sitting a game under .500. However, the Bengals came out of the bye week flat, dropping three of their next four games, and six of their next nine overall. Following a Week 15 thumping in Minnesota that sent them to a 5-9 record, it seemed that there could be no doubt that this would be the final season of the Marvin Lewis regime. The city began to ponder who would be at the helm in 2018.
And then the next two weeks happened. The Bengals stunned two fringe playoff teams, the Lions and Ravens, respectively, to finish 7-9 behind a strong final two games. Much to the dismay of probably 75% or better of the fanbase, Marvin Lewis was re-signed following the end of the season. It’s this writer’s belief that Weeks 16 and 17 of 2017 saved his job.
Despite a rocky start and the overall lower-tier offense in general, Andy Dalton actually didn’t have too bad of a season. He threw for 3,320 yards, 25 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. A.J. Green, as usual, benefited from Andy’s relative success, posting 1,078 yards and eight touchdowns.
Amidst another injury to Tyler Eifert that ended his season after two games, an unlikely ‘hero’ emerged at the tight end position, that being Tyler Kroft. Kroft notched only 404 yards, but had a solid seven touchdowns, being one of Dalton’s go-to guys in the red zone.
The big headline – or lack thereof – of the receiving corps was rookie John Ross, who had himself a forgettable first run in the NFL. Ross did not catch a pass, but did have one rushing attempt… which he fumbled. He ended up appearing in only three games.
On the rushing side of things, it seemed the loyalty to Jeremy Hill was in full effect at the beginning of the season, as he started seven games, though he only ran the ball 37 times for 116 yards. He wound up on IR to end the season, handing duties over to Giovani Bernard and rookie Joe Mixon.
Bernard was his usual effective self, as he averaged 4.4 yards per carry, had 458 rushing yards and two touchdowns, and added to those numbers with 43 catches for 389 yards and two scores there. Mixon was pedestrian overall in 2017 – he ran for 626 yards and four scores, though his yards per carry left a lot to be desired at only 3.5. He did catch 30 passes for 287 yards on top of the running game.
On defense, this unit was actually pretty good, but is largely overlooked as people remember the offensive struggles. William Jackson III emerged as a potential star in the NFL, particularly in Week 3 when he picked off Aaron Rodgers and ran it back 75 yards to pay dirt. It was his only interception of the season, but he did have 13 passes defended and found himself usually containing key wideouts in the league.
Rookie Carl Lawson was very impressive as he stepped into the NFL with an 8.5 sack season. Veterans Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap (newly extended!) had 9 and 7.5 sacks respectively, and cornerback Darqueze Dennard led the team in tackles with 83.
And there you have it folks! The NFL season begins this week, which means our journey down memory lane has come to an end! Thank you all for enjoying the journey with me, re-living the lowest of lows in the 90’s (and the end of 2015), as well as enjoying the highest of highs (Palmer’s 2005).
Don’t worry, you can still catch me on Locked on Bengals, beginning later this week as I give you five bold predictions for the Bengals in 2018. See you then!
The AFC North Power Vacuum
The AB shoe has dropped.
After a drama-filled start to the offseason, Antonio Brown got his wish: A new home and contract in the Bay Area. The Pittsburgh Steelers shipped their disgruntled star to the Oakland Raiders for a pair of third and sixth round picks in this year’s draft.
The Killer-B Era in the Steel City is over.
Le’veon Bell called the organizations bluff last year and sat the entire season after he was offered $14.5 million on another franchise tag. That decision left the Steelers with the fifth most unused cap space in the NFL last season and now the loss of Brown hamstrings them even more. The Steelers must now eat $21 million in dead cap money with Brown in the Silver and Black, ostensibly the largest hit of its kind in league history.
Sweet, sweet music for the rest of the AFC North.
While Pittsburgh holds on to a fading era the other three teams in the division have kickstarted themselves with new coaches, quarterbacks, and in the Cleveland Browns case, both.
Baker Mayfield‘s talents are now fully paired with Freddie Kitchens, the duo led Cleveland to a 5-2 record down the stretch and has injected a breadth of confidence the franchise hasn’t felt since returning to the shores of Lake Erie in 1999. The Lamar Jackson Era is in full swing after the Baltimore Ravens shipped Joe Flacco to Denver for a fourth-round pick. Jackson is a dynamic playmaker but struggled as a passer in year one, despite aerial issues the former Heisman winner notched six wins in seven starts with a 27-24 loss to Kansas City mixed in.
In Cincinnati all of the eggs now lie in the Zac Taylor basket, The entire coaching staff has been overhauled outside of special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons and after 16 seasons of Marvin Lewis, there is tepid optimism surrounding this young coaching staff.
For the first time since Ben Roethlisberger’s rookie season, the Steelers don’t seem like the go-to favorite to win the AFC North and stomp on another Marvin Lewis team. Taylor and offensive coordinator Brian Callahan are bringing fresh eyes and concepts to this roster and ideally Bengals fans will experience the 2018 LA Rams Offense: Midwest Edition when they roll into Paul Brown Stadium this Fall.
On the defensive side things can’t get much worse than last season with new coordinator Lou Anarumo taking the reins of a unit that ranked 32nd in total defense (413.6 yards allowed per game), 32nd against the pass (275.9 per game), 30th in points allowed (28.4 per game) and 29th against the run (137.8 yards per game).
Meanwhile, many of the draft experts have the Bengals selecting do-it-all LSU linebacker Devin White with the 11th pick. A massive value at that spot, White is as durable a player you’ll find at the linebacker position and is graded by Scouts Inc. as the fourth best prospect available in April. He would be a welcome addition to a defense that was the worst in the NFL defending tight ends last season.
A New Dey has arrived not only in Cincinnati but throughout the rest of the AFC North and with the Killer-B’s done in Pittsburgh the Bengals have their chance to fill the power void.
The Bengals fans guide to Super Bowl LIII
It’s been 30 years since the Cincinnati Bengals last played in a Super Bowl. A heartbreaking 20-16 loss to the San Francisco 49ers was the Bengals most recent shot at glory, and while Sunday’s matchup between the New England Patriots and the Los Angeles Rams showcases how far Cincinnati is to breaking that drought, there are plenty of things for Bengals fans to focus on inside of Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
Keep an Eye on the Incoming Head Coach
Zac Taylor is taking the reins from Marvin Lewis in what will be the first head coaching change since I started watching Bengals games during that magical 2005 season. The 35-year old Rams QB coach joins six other “young, offensive-minded” hires from this years coaching carousel. For Bengals fans, they are hoping he’s a cut above the rest, despite being the last to ink a deal. Bengals faithful should pay close attention any and every time the CBS production crew decides to show him in action on Sunday.
This is the biggest game Taylor has been a part of since entering the NFL coaching ranks with the Dolphins back in 2012 and it will be really interesting to see him handle a moment all Bengals fans hope he can relive sooner rather than later in Cincinnati. No one on the outside of the Rams organization really knows how involved Taylor is with setting up the gameplan, but he has clearly had a very positive effect on Jared Goff since taking over his tutelage in 2017.
How he interacts with Goff in between plays and coaches him through mistakes could go a long way in determining how he will help Andy Dalton (or Ryan Tannehill?) return to his 2015 form. Zac Taylor might not be the most experienced coach getting a chance this year but the results with Goff prove he deserves this opportunity.
Pre-snap and Play-Action
There are still questions as to who will call plays and control the 2019 Bengals offense, but in saying that fans should expect a lot of carryover from this Rams system that has willed their way to Atlanta with pre-snap communication and play-action passing. It’s no secret that Goff and Rams head coach Sean McVay communicate right up to the 15-second cutoff during every play.
McVay can read the defense, then call something to match their formation and he often times uses motion to accomplish that. Former Bengals offensive coordinator Bill Lazor was allergic to this kind of communication and the offense ranked 32nd and 26th in his two seasons because of it. Expect Taylor to have his voice in the Red Rifle’s ear plenty on Sundays.
In terms of play-action passing the Rams used these plays as the cornerstone of their offense, calling them 34 percent of the time with devastating effect. LA’s 9.0 yards per play on these calls ranked third in the NFL and they averaged 1.9 yards per play more than regular calls. On the flip side, Cincinnati ranked 13th in the league calling play-action on 24 percent for 1.5 yards per play more than all other calls. It’s not rocket science, play-action works wonders in today’s NFL and Taylor is expected to bring that mindset with him to the Queen City.
Todd Gurley: The Receiver
Player A: 55 targets, 43 receptions, 296 yards, 6.9 yards per catch, 1 TD
Player B: 81 targets, 59 receptions, 580 yards, 9.8 yards per catch, 4 TD
Yes, I know Joe Mixon had a stellar year running the ball (1,168 yards, 4.9 yards per carry) but he was totally mismanaged in the passing game and his Player A numbers reflect that. Player B, well I’d say he was used correctly and will continue to be used that way on Sunday. Despite his two costly drops in the NFC Championship Game, Todd Gurley is still one of the best receiving backs in the NFL.
A big reason why he’s so productive is the way LA puts him in an ideal position to make big plays, whether it’s a wheel route down the sideline or a throwback screen off of…. play action, this coaching staff does all they can to help him gash defenses. So far in Mixon’s career, I’ve barely seen any of that, it’s similar to putting a governor on a 66′ Cobra. Keep an eye on how the Rams use Gurley’s receiving skills to their advantage and imagine Mixon on the other end of those throws.
This One’s For Whit
Every Bengals fan should be rooting for the new head coach to bring a Super Bowl winning pedigree with him to his new digs in Cincinnati, but if that wasn’t enough, we should all be rooting for Andrew Whitworth.
Likely on his way to back-to-back All-Pro selections Whitworth is one of the best players to ever play the tackle position and was a consummate professional during his 11-year stint in a Bengals uniform. He notched his first playoff win 13 years into his career and why not knock down all of the playoff milestones in one run. I know who I’m rooting for come Super Bowl Sunday.
Enjoy the holiday.
An Open Letter to Marvin Lewis
Dear Mr. Lewis,
I have been contemplating sending you this letter for quite some time, and I hope it finds you well. You don’t know me, but I am a loyal fan of the Cincinnati Bengals. The second Super Bowl loss to the San Francisco 49ers remains as the first time I can remember experiencing heartbreak. I have, quite literally, hated Joe Montana for what he did to my then 12 year old self, for 30 years now. That said, my fandom has endured. Admittedly, as I was in college in the late 90’s, I was not as honed in on every move my Bengals made. So many losses, so little time. Sure, I loved Jeff Blake, Corey Dillon, and Takeo Spikes, but I had finals to take and parties from which to recover. But then something happened. Something unexpected. Mike Brown hired you as the head coach of the Cincinnati Bengals in 2003. Marvin Lewis – the legendary architect of one of the greatest defenses in the history of the league – was coming to be our coach! The excitement was palpable, and you were brimming with confidence. It was a swagger not seen around here since the days of Sam Wyche.
As the years passed, you began to place your stamp on the team and the city. The Marvin Lewis community fund is an outstanding work of art, and a tribute to your dedication to the people of Cincinnati. Kudos. On the field, the likes of Carson Palmer, Chad Johnson, Rudi Johnson, Willie Anderson, and TJ Houshmandzadeh, made being a Bengals’ fan fun again. They became must see TV, if not in person appointment viewing. Cleveland was a guaranteed two wins. Baltimore was almost two. Pittsburgh was likely a couple of losses, but the wins were sweet, and the losses were respectable. I’d look forward to your post-game interviews, and your Monday press conferences. There was useful information to be gleaned from them. Things that the average fan would miss as they had long turned off the broadcast and moved on with their lives. Not me. I am a loyal fan, remember? I don’t break down tape or have some hot draft take, but I love my Bengals, and I follow them closely – you included.
I need to take a moment to give you some props on the transition from the Palmer-era to the Dalton-era. That entire thing was a mess, what with Carson forcing his way out, you hiring an unproven offensive coordinator in Jay Gruden, and then drafting/starting a rookie quarterback in Andy Dalton. And all during an NFL lockout. I still remember predictions of the team going 0-16 that year. Somehow, some way, you guided this team, not only to a winning record, but to the playoffs. I am not sure if I have ever been more impressed by an NFL coach. You completely rebooted the franchise, and had a whole new cast of characters for us to get to know. Dalton, AJ Green, Geno Atkins, Carlos Dunlap, Clint Boling, and Andrew Whitworth. Young talent, ready to take on the AFC North. Two wins versus Cleveland – check. Almost two wins versus Baltimore – check. Still two losses to Pittsburgh – yeah, most of the time, but division titles weren’t out of reach. The playoffs became an annual event. This is where I need to touch on the obvious…
I do not understand your philosophy when it comes to playoff games, and for that matter, night games, games against Pittsburgh, Monday Night Football games, and any other game not at 1 pm eastern. You seem to have think and preach that these games are just the same as any other. No need for extra emphasis. No need for extra hype. No need to bring an extra chin strap because it’s just another game. After watching 16 years of this approach from you, I humbly disagree. Your teams are consistently outplayed, out-coached, and seemingly unprepared for the spotlight of these match-ups. At some point, would it not make sense to try a different approach? Maybe call it Pittsburgh week? Maybe say this Sunday night game is going to be huge for us? Maybe say that your team is chomping at the bit to play on Monday Night Football? It’s got to be better than just another game – just another loss.
I know you love this city and this franchise. I genuinely believe you want to win – for Mike Brown, and for the fans. That said, I think that it is time to move on with your life’s work. You gave it your all. You got more out of Mr. Brown than anyone ever thought possible. You raised this franchise to a level of respectability that no one could have predicted. You have done good work. It’s just not enough. There is no shame in that. And if I am being honest, you just do not seem to enjoy this anymore. Your press conferences, that I used to look forward to hearing, are all the same. Short, full of disdain for the people asking questions, and random giggles that make no sense. The fire and energy after 16 years of being an NFL head coach have faded. Why not let someone else give it a shot? We both know Mike Brown isn’t going to fire you, so why not walk away? Do what’s best for the franchise, and make them look for a coach. Last time, it brought us you!
Thank you for reading, and I wish you all the best in your next adventure.
P. S. Please take Hue Jackson with you. Thanks