This week, a bit of Bengals and a bit of Reds: Let’s start with the Bengals, the Strangest Team in Sports. You don’t know whether to love ’em or just wish they’d go away and stop torturing you.
OK, the former sentiment still prevails — they’re our NFL team, after all — but the road they’ve taken us down… well, let’s just say it’s been “trying.”
Forget last year’s 6-9-1 result. Just a garden-variety bad season, like tens of thousands of others across sports history. Plenty of reasons to believe it won’t be defining for 2017. But the real head-banger still active is 2011-15, when our Cats became the only team in league history to make the playoffs five straight seasons and lose the first playoff game each time.
The corollary head-banger is their seven straight one-and-dones between 2005 and 2015. Only two other franchises have had as many as seven straight playoff trips with immediate elimination, and both of those over much longer spans.
So it’s fair to say our concentration of anticipation-then-disappointment has been virtually unprecedented, and the emotional hangover of that for fans is significant. With just a couple playoff wins — or how about even one! — it would be possible to look back with some satisfaction on the truly stellar .652 winning percentage (52-27-1) that marked the 2011-15 regular seasons. Only four of the other 31 teams did so well.
The reality of the Big Playoff Zero is that while fans in other cities can feel unreservedly good about being 4-1 or 8-2 or 10-4 during a regular season, looking ahead to January, Bengals fans struggle, cringing at the seeming inevitability of the postseason angst to come.
No magic pills in this column. Nothing to do but try and work through it. And though national NFL analysts are not giving the squad much love in their 2017 forecasts, I’m here today to say the Bengals will be back in the playoffs again. Their overall talent level seems to me not so wildly different from 2011-15, a continuing credit to the organization, and at quarterback — the most crucial position by far in any team sport — they have a very good player who should not be finished getting better.
Head coach Marvin Lewis has called Andy Dalton’s 2016 season the best of his six-year career, and I call Dalton underrated. Last year, with 1) multiple injuries to key offensive performers, 2) a sacks-against total that equaled 2014-15 combined and 3) an absolute plague of crucial missed place kicks, Dalton had the team on his back most of the way. He wore the strain with no whining, burnishing his credentials as a team leader, and he has multiple years left before his physical ability will decline. (He’s 29.)
As for Lewis, entering his 15th season but presently unsigned beyond this year, take your pick. You can like him for making the Bengals a good team again after the excessively dark years of 1991-2002, or you can dismiss him for his unprecedented (for one coach) 0-7 playoff mark.
But I know from personal experience (2003-15 as Bengals public relations director) that Lewis will live in the moment each day, finding a way to plug on without energy-sapping concern about the past or future. As he once told me: “Every Sunday at 10 minutes to one when I leave (this office) to go to the field, I know that in the next three hours, either me or the other guy is about to get his butt kicked on national television. I’ve got no time to worry about the other stuff.”
That convinced me that coaches really do live in the moment, much more than the rest of us. And if you plan to follow the Bengals in ’17, that mindset is highly recommended.
• Now let’s move on to the Reds. Give ’em a little credit, as they are not totally in the tank. They opened this week’s home series against the Cubs having won seven of 12, and there were flickers of hope for the young starting pitchers. They won a dramatic 13-10 game at Wrigley Aug. 17 and then took the first two at Atlanta.
But enough of that. The Reds still are headed for a fourth-straight losing season, and a third straight with setbacks in the 90s. They are the One True Doormat of the five-team NL Central, needing a miracle to avoid a third straight last-place finish. As this week’s Cubs series began, they were as far behind from the fourth-place Pirates (seven games) as the Pirates were behind the first-place Cubs.
It’s sad, because the Reds are the most important positive thing ever to happen to Cincinnati. Because of the Reds, the first true pro sports franchise in U.S. history, Cincinnati has been viewed for 140-odd years as a “major league” city, even though many of our civic stats have now fallen to mid-major.
If not for the Reds, and Cincinnati’s status as a major league town, the Bengals likely wouldn’t be here, either. Cincy just wouldn’t have been the same sports town when the Brown family went looking for a spot for Paul Brown to return to pro football, and the team likely would have looked elsewhere.
But a deep history with some long-ago world championships will take you only so far, and I think the current-era Reds owe fans more acknowledgment that the rebuilding is, to be polite, “well behind schedule.” An honest bit of “Sorry, we’ve fumbled this, you have reason to be upset, please stay with us, we promise we’ll work even harder.”
It would be refreshing, because still lingering in the Queen City air are Bob Castellini’s many proclamations from 2006 onward about the glory in store on his ownership watch. It was all about “bringing championship baseball back to Cincinnati,” and Castellini was lionized in the media for being the “anti-” to the unceasingly noncommittal forecasts of Mike Brown.
But the Reds are bound for their ninth losing season in Castellini’s 12 years. And though Brown and Castellini are joined at the hip with no trips beyond the first round of postseason, Brown clearly has been the more successful owner during their dual era.
Not even counting this year, when the Reds are likely to add another minus-20 in win-loss differential, the Castellini regular-season record is 869-913, a winning percentage of .488.
The Bengals’ record in the same span is 91-82-3 (.526). And the Bengals have made the postseason six times, twice as many as the Reds. (Yes, it’s a tad harder to make postseason in baseball, but nowhere close to twice as hard.)
So maybe you’ll say it’s the former Bengals employee in me, but I just don’t buy the seemingly still prevalent sentiment in this town that Castellini “always has the backs of the fans” and Brown cares only about making money. The numbers just don’t back that up.
JACK BRENNAN’s column appears in this space biweekly. Contact him: [email protected]