The 2011 Bengals were supposed to be bad. Like epically bad—even for an organization that has made bad a tradition. After all, the team was returning a losing coach, but not their top two wide receivers, or best cornerback. The team was to be a young one–laughably so–in a division with the AFC Champion Steelers, the always vicious Ravens, and the chic-pick Browns. And worst of all, they would be without their Heisman winning, All-American boy franchise quarterback: a guy who was willing to walk away from 50 million dollars, his teammates and his legacy rather than play another snap.
It was an offseason of comic calamity, and every pundit from ESPN, NFL Network, CBS, NBC, and Fox seemed to agree: The Bengals would fail in new and spectacular proportions.
But a funny thing happened on the way to Andrew Luck. This motley crew of 20-somethings are actually winning. Apparently no one told them they were supposed to be the Bad News Bears in tiger stripes.
As it turns out, five games into the season it looks like Carson Palmer’s “retirement” is the best thing that could have happened to the Bengals.
Now I fully realize that there are 11 games left in this season—plenty of time for the joy of a 3-2 start to turn into the agony of 6-10, 5-11, or worse. A collapse of that magnitude might happen (I doubt it), but you know what? Right now I don’t really care.
Why? Because I like watching this team, something I couldn’t say about last year’s boys. This year’s edition does not peacock for the cameras or bicker with each other on the sidelines. They don’t have reality TV careers or endorsements that take their attention off of winning football games. They don’t accept failure as a condition of employment or concede anything to opponents.
They show heart, are unflappable in adversity, keep a short memory and hold themselves and each other accountable for the team’s success. Things that, you know, good teams do—you’ve probably seen it before, just wearing different colored uniforms. As DT Domata Peko said after Sunday’s come-from-behind win, “Even though they made some good plays, I think our old team would have folded but this is a new squad and we have a lot of heart on this team.”
The Bengals are too young to know they don’t have to care this much or play this hard to earn their paychecks. Thank God for that. I hope it doesn’t change for a long time. If it doesn’t, we could be seeing the start of something very special.
The pieces suddenly appear to be there. A.J. Green has the talent of a young Randy Moss and the professionalism of an old Jerry Rice. Jermaine Gresham is a future star at tight end. The defense remains number 1 in the league, and the offense is quickly asserting itself under new coordinator Jay Gruden (even converting 3rd-and-longs! Can you believe it?). Leading them is Andy Dalton, the rookie quarterback who acts like a veteran; a guy who plays with passion and without fear. A guy others follow. Say what you want about Dalton’s height, arm strength, or experience; the kid is a winner and a leader. Two things Palmer didn’t exactly exude during last year’s debacle.
Had Palmer returned, I don’t think he would be doing better than Andy Dalton right now, despite his Heisman pedigree and years of experience, and I’m not convinced he would have the kind of effect on the team that Dalton seems to. If we try to compare apples to apples, statistically-speaking Dalton’s first 5 games are better than Palmer’s–our own Seubs confirmed it. Do you really think Palmer would have less than 5 picks or more than 6 touchdowns so far? I don’t.
Who knows what would have happened had number nine returned, but I imagine Bob Bratkowski would have stayed on, maybe Ocho too. Carson’s decision to bag the season forced Lewis to throw caution to the wind and rebuild with aggressive, time-sensitive abandon. Mike Brown’s 5-year rebuilding plan had to be a 5-month shot, and after 5 games its clearly much further along than any of us might have expected.
And now, they have a winning—and young—team. One I can certainly cheer for.
Thank you, Carson.