While the Bengals’ 34-13 victory over the Eagles on Thursday night might look great on paper, the way Cincy played the game reeked heavily of mediocrity. And that’s what the Bengals are right now, and have been for a while: a mediocre football team.
I’m not saying they don’t have talent. In fact they have loads of it, all over the field. From Defensive Player of the Year darkhorse Geno Atkins to Michael Johnson and Carlos Dunlap, the defensive front is stout and can rush the passer, and the linebackers are high-energy guys who fly to the ball. Their secondary features six players who were drafted no lower than 21st overall coming out of college.
Yes, they need another weapon opposite WR A.J. Green, but there are few other holes. The line struggled Thursday but is generally very solid, with two quality tackles and plenty of youth. They have a reliable running back, a budding tight end, a growing sophomore quarterback and the best young receiver in the game.
All together, the Bengals are one of just five teams to rank in the top 10 in points scored and points allowed, yet they sit at 8-6. So what’s holding this group back? Yes, their quarterback needs more time to mature, but it’s difficult not to point the finger at head coach Marvin Lewis when this collection of talent can’t put it together on the field.
Lewis, amazingly, is about to become (once Andy Reid is fired) the second-longest tenured head coach in the NFL, behind only Bill Belichick. He has recorded double-digit wins just twice in nine seasons, and has made the playoffs three times (his only three winning seasons in charge), going 0-3 in those appearances.
Even more discouraging than the lack of results is that the bouts of inconsistency and silly mistakes that plagued this club for years before Lewis’ arrival haven’t been cured. Yes, Lewis has mostly cleaned up the Bengals’ off-field immaturity. But they haven’t really matured on the gridiron.
The Bengals failed to step on the Cowboys’ throats at home in Week 14 because of poor red-zone execution — including dropped passes and a touchdown nullified by penalty — scoring one TD in four trips. Predictably, Dallas rallied to win with 10 points in the final seven minutes, leaving Cincy grasping at a wild-card spot when they could have pulled within a game of the division lead.
Thursday night’s victory had stretches of terrible and penalty-ridden play from the Bengals, who were gifted a turnover and a blocked punt early but needed four more turnovers from the bumbling Eagles in the second half to regain the lead and then pull away.
Also telling of their inconsistency, this team is perhaps the league’s streakiest, winning three straight early in the year before losing four in a row, before winning four of their last five.
Ultimately, the lack of steadiness and absence of a killer instinct reflects poorly on the head coach. Lewis couldn’t take the next step with Carson Palmer when Palmer was among the league’s best QBs, but the coach still received a new two-year contract after a 4-12 season in 2010, leading to two more years of mediocrity. After a 9-7 season and a quick playoff ouster in 2011, he received a two-year extension on that deal this past July, locking him up through the 2014 season and only complicating the Bengals' issues.
Sure, the team is young and growing once again, but few signs point to Cincy turning the corner anytime soon. And as they continue to underachieve, owner and GM Mike Brown isn't likely to eat Lewis' contract to hire a new coach, leaving the Bengals in a mess that could keep them from making significant strides until 2014 or even ’15.
There's something to be said for stability at the head-coaching position and Brown's loyalty to Lewis is admirable, but it isn't doing the Bengals any favors. Maybe Cincinnati wouldn’t dump Lewis' contract and spend for a big-name coach like Bill Cowher or Jon Gruden, but hiring a tough, disciplined coach that could clean up the sloppiness would be a tremendous step for this young team's development. They could even give defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer — who has been rumored as a candidate for other head-coaching jobs in recent years — a shot at harnessing the team’s talent.
Either way, it should be clear by now that Lewis is not the solution to earning the Bengals’ first playoff victory since 1990. By rewarding Lewis' mediocrity instead of finding a better option, Brown is only setting his young team back and limiting its lofty ceiling.