Dec 7, 2014; Cincinnati, OH, USA; Cincinnati Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis during warmups prior to the game against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Paul Brown Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports
Sunday’s loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers left Bengals fans speechless and frustrated yet again this year. It’s been a familiar trend for this team over the past few years: a team that offers hope and promise only to then remind fans of a more abject time. This characteristic has become what this team is known for, along with having one of the league’s best rosters. Underachievers is how many would describe the Bengals.
Yet through all this trouble and disappointment, the Bengals remain atop the AFC North, however slightly. They’ve been impressive over these past three years. Essentially starting over in 2011, the Bengals, with a rookie quarterback and star rookie receiver, went to the playoffs three straight years. Obviously impressive, but it’s this maturation from the troubled team that existed prior to 2011 to today’s perennial playoff participant that now leaves the Bengals at a crossroads.
With three games left in 2014 and the team on the brink of a possible fourth straight playoff appearance, making the post-season won’t be enough for fans. When this reality is coupled with this year’s Bengals, fans are left feeling undeniably hopeless. A team this inconsistent and incompetent when facing the league’s best simply can’t engender confidence when considering their involvement in playoff football.
Marvin Lewis has three games to find an answer to this inconsistency because, amazingly, this team still controls its own destiny.
If the Bengals falter down the stretch, Andy Dalton may find himself being scrutinized by the Bengals as closely as he has been by fans in recent years. Mandatory Credit: Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports
The head coach often talks about “moving on” from these games and finding a better performance in the coming week. But maybe now the Bengals should focus on what has happened over these past few years, or even simply this season. Inconsistency and fortitude aren’t things that can be taught, you simply must have the fight in you. Yet what can be learned is the response you have to familiar situations. The Bengals have been in this position before. They’ve been desperate and have faltered when faced with challenges. Can the Bengals find a way to take these familiarities and use them as a way to mitigate any obstacles they are faced with in the coming weeks? Can they use them to overcome the inevitable unforced errors that will come? Most importantly, can Marvin Lewis use the obvious frustration both he and his team are feeling and turn it into the motivating factor the Bengals need?
If he is somehow able to, Bengals fans wouldn’t hesitate to bask in the glory of his accomplishment. But being a realist first, the likelihood of this becoming reality is highly unlikely. The Bengals have experienced Marvin Lewis for 13 years now. They know his capabilities and his weaknesses, and unfortunately, overcoming self-induced errors isn’t a strong point. The same goes for Andy Dalton, who despite a fumble that he’s taken great heat for–one that, mind you, could’ve happened to anyone–had a great game yesterday. After this year, the Bengals will have experienced Andy Dalton and his impact on this team for the entirety of his rookie contract. I mention these two because leadership comes from the top, so when the team fails, the leadership must own it.
If the Bengals miss the playoffs this year, or even if they make it and suffer yet another early exit, Katie Blackburn and the Bengals’ front office must begin to evaluate their leadership options going forward. An sweeping oust of the team’s leadership isn’t necessarily the correct move, but changes will need to be made and there will be options. At the coaching ranks, Jim Harbaugh and the fight and determination he brings to the field might be an enticing option. Todd Bowles, the defensive coordinator for the Arizona Cardinals, will also be an enticing option considering the success he’s had with his defense despite it’s rash of injuries. And there will be the in-house option of giving Hue Jackson consideration; Jackson has done well with the offense in his first year as it’s coordinator. He also did well as the head man in Oakland, but was undeservedly fired when the team was going through some serious organizational changes.
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The Bengals have three guaranteed games left in the 2014 season. They’ll face three tough and meaningful opponents in the Browns, Broncos, and Steelers. All hope is not lost as the Bengals could respond to all the adversity with wins on the road against two divisional opponents; with a 4-2 record on the road, the Bengals possess the league’s second best road record (Dallas is an impressive 6-0). They’ll also have one more shot in prime time when the Broncos come to Cincinnati for Monday Night Football in Week 16. But should the Bengals falter, they must move towards change.
It isn’t something Mike Brown has been comfortable with historically, but with his self-proclaimed relinquishment of power to daughter Katie Blackburn, new approaches could be found in the near future. Mrs. Blackburn will be forced to take a different approach to running this team than did her father. With all that pressure approaching rapidly, let’s hope this team finds some motivation in desperation quickly.