The hiring of Marvin Lewis marked the end of the Lost Decade. In the wake of an extended period of football futility, most of Lewis’ tenure as head coach has been spent trying to steady a team that has lurched and backfired and stalled like a stick-shift AMC Pacer with a 16-year-old behind the wheel.
In Lewis’ first two seasons, he lifted a team that had gone 55-137 in their 12 years under Mike Brown’s ownership and got them to repeat 8-8 records. Then in 2005, a high-flying offense and an opportunistic defense surged to become division champions for the first time since the demise of the AFC Central. And Bengals fans rejoiced.
But the following years exposed the team’s weaknesses. They had plenty of talent but lacked the fortitude to overcome in the face of adversity. Playing a division winner’s schedule was more than they could handle in 2006, and a collapse at the end of the season dashed more than just playoff hopes. Fan discontent and disillusion began to settle in again.
In 2009, the ‘Cardiac Cats’ began the season with a bang and managed to sweep the division on their way to winning the AFC North again. Again, the lurch to the top was followed by another stall the following year as the team stumbled to a 4-12 finish, back to last in the division.
Since then, however, the team been on a better, slow and steady building trajectory. Last year they climbed back over the Browns to finish third in the division. The team showed that they had flaws. Increasing the strength of their schedule only slightly gave them a better chance to sustain their success going forward.
Sustain they did. They will either match or improve their record from 2011 by one game this year. And they climbed over Pittsburgh to be second in the division, which will again increase the strength of their schedule for 2013. And while I would never wish away winning the division (which the Ravens secured for themselves this weekend by beating the Giants), taking second puts the Chargers and the Colts on the Bengals’ schedule in 2013 instead of the Broncos and the Texans.
This steady build is giving the young talent on this team the chance to grow while still tasting success. Dalton and Green have not had to face the level of fan frustration and criticism that learning while losing has brought upon players like Richardson and Weeden in Cleveland. That’s not an insignificant difference for the psyche of players who are used to winning all along the way on their paths to the NFL.
The Bengals are probably still about two years away from hitting their full stride. Andy Dalton still has room to grow as a signal caller, and most QBs don’t reach their full potential until around their fifth season anyway. Also, continued development on the O-line and secondary is necessary. But they are not so far away even now to finally get that elusive post-season win. So with continued steady growth, we should finally have something to be excited about for years to come.