There’s nothing quite like the dilemma of the Bengals fan, where optimism is always tinged with cynicism born of years of false hope, false idols and false promise. Once again, things should be looking up and yet there’s the lingering memories of false starts in the past.
Saturday’s playoff loss shouldn’t matter — the fact the team was in the position to begin with should have been a bonus. In most cities, this would be a celebration, the heralding of a new era. There’s a bit of that here, but that’s overwhelmed by the defeatism that comes with being a Bengals fan, of watching the same story over and over and always coming up short.
This, of course, is the franchise that hasn’t had back-to-back winning seasons since the strike-shortened 1982 season. Doom is the default setting. And for good reason. We’ve seen this all before.
It wasn’t that long ago that the Bengals featured an unstoppable offense, which, like a high-priced car, took one ding and never quite ran the same, culminating in the Carson Palmer hold-out and eventual trade.
There was also the mirage of 2009, when somehow the team swept their divisional games only to flop in the playoffs and return to mediocrity in 2010.
This is a franchise whose winningest coach has a losing record, a franchise without a playoff victory in the last 20 years, a franchise with just one representative in the Hall of Fame. You don’t have to look far for negativity when it comes to the Bengals — the scouting staff is the smallest in the NFL and the Wall Street Journal called the team’s lease with the city the worst in the United States -— but there are reasons for optimism.
First, the biggest winner of the 2011 season was the Bengals fan — you stayed away, you caused blackouts and you caused ownership to take notice. Because of the blackouts and wide swaths of empty green seats at Paul Brown Stadium even as the team was on a winning streak, the Bengals decreased their season ticket prices for next season and offered a buy-one-get-one-free deal for the last game of the season. Mike Brown showed the ability to change, acquiescing to Palmer’s demands and ultimately making the decision that was best for the team instead of sticking to some ideal.
With the trade of Palmer, the Bengals have two first-round draft picks in April’s draft, something they need to address their needs on the offensive line and secondary.
Secondly, the team needs to develop around the talents of its core of A.J. Green and Andy Dalton. Dalton became the first rookie quarterback to lead his team to nine wins and throw 20 touchdown passes in the same season. He was also the 10th rookie quarterback since the merger to lead his team to the playoffs. However, even that list has warning signs — while Dan Marino, Ben Roethlisberger and Bernie Kosar are on that list, so are Shaun King, Todd Marinovich and Mark Sanchez. Just because a quarterback succeeds as a rookie doesn’t mean he will automatically get better in year two and beyond.
Third, the team needs an influx of talent at key positions. The Bengals weren’t able to replace cornerback Jonathan Joseph, who left during free agency, a problem that was compounded with the loss of Leon Hall to injury. Green also needs some help, which could come from Jordan Shipley’s return or another receiving threat from the draft or free agency. And then there’s the running game, as Cedric Benson has probably played his last game in stripes, and both guard spots need to be filled. This isn’t a finished product, not even close.
As many good things as this team achieved, it would be folly to overlook the role of a fourth-place schedule in 2011’s success. The Bengals finished with just one of their nine victories coming against a winning team (9-7 Tennessee), while failing to beat any of the teams in the playoffs. A third-place finish in the division this season ensures a third-place schedule in 2012, which is another reason for optimism. By finishing behind the Ravens and Steelers, next year’s schedule will feature games against the Dolphins and Jaguars — two teams that will have new head coaches and uncertainty at quarterback. The divisional rotation brings games against the NFC East and AFC West, two divisions that were limited to one playoff spot each in 2011.
So it is with cautious optimism we look ahead, as if there’s any other kind of optimism when we talk about the Bengals.