Watching the Bengals slip from controlling the #6 seed for the playoffs to being one of the teams that are “in the hunt” and needing help has been a bitter pill. With one exception, they feasted on the teams in the bottom half of the league that made up the first half of the schedule. And our hearts soared with the possibilities.
But the Bengals have struggled against the playoff caliber teams, playing all but one of those games close, coming up a little short each time. It is easy to forget that five losses have come by a combined total of 22 points. But losing four out of five games will overshadow that. It is hard to revel in “moral victories” for that long.
Call me a homer if you want, but I won’t allow the disappointment of the moment to detract from the hope I feel for the future. With the Bengals, hope has been in short supply over the past few years. Here is why I look to the future and smile.
The Young Nucleus. On each side of the ball, there is a solid core of players to build around now. You know who they are. We will spend a lot of time from January to April studying the upgrades that need to happen through the draft and free agency, but there is a lot of talent already in place. I would say that the Bengals are probably 3 players away from being a top 5 AFC team, and maybe 7 guys away from being a top 5 NFL team. For the first time as HC, Marvin Lewis will be filling gaps rather than completely retooling at least one side of the ball.
Two First Round Picks. I almost feel bad for getting the Raiders first round pick. Almost. With the Denver Tebows poised to win the AFC West, and with Carson Claus still passing out INTs like candy (flushing the likelihood of the Bengals getting their top pick in 2013 with each one), it is time to root for the total collapse of the Raiders so that their pick is as high as possible. Having picks #14 and #19 (or so) will go a long way toward landing a pair of those key players that will set up the Bengals to contend for the next few years.
Jay Gruden: Year 2. Jay has been floated as a candidate for teams needing a head coach. I say it is a long shot that he leaves. First, other teams will have to get Mike Brown’s permission to interview him. Good luck there, boys. Next, I think Jay is smart enough to know that one year as an OC is a good idea before jumping to HC. Most importantly, taking an HC job involves moving his family again, something Jay said he didn’t want to do this year but had to since his old team was relocating anyway.
With a full season under the collective belt of Jay, Andy and A.J., plus a full offseason coming up, I expect the offense to take a step forward next year. I look forward to the new wrinkles he will add as he makes Sideshow Bob a distant memory.
Free Agency. I have long lamented that Cincinnati was a place that good free agents dismissed and that only aging guys who wouldn’t retire when they should would consider. With the surprising success of the Bengals this year, combined with the other factors above, that shouldn’t be the case this year. For perhaps the first time in Mike Brown’s tenure as owner, free agents will not snicker when they see PBS on their caller ID.
So don’t let your melancholy over the 2011 get too deep, WhoDey fans. We might not have gotten what we ultimately wanted out of this season, but we have gotten far more than we dared hope a few months ago, and we have reason to go into 2012 with playoff expectations.