As teams get mathematically eliminated from the NFL playoffs, we’ll give you a jump on their offseason by examining what went right, what went wrong and what needs to change before next season.
We always used to make fun of the Bengals for losing in the playoffs, but at least they were making the playoffs. Cincinnati was shut out of the playoffs for the second straight season. They never recovered from a horrendous 0-3 start, which included scoring nine points in their first two games, which led to the firing of offensive coordinator Ken Zampese. Near the end of the season, news broke that coach Marvin Lewis wouldn’t be back with the team next season.
What went right: After that awful start, the Bengals were on a 5-3 run and led the Steelers 17-0 on a Monday night. When the Bengals blew that lead the season was over, but over that time the Bengals looked competent. A.J. Green had another fine season, rookie running back Joe Mixon played well in spurts and the defensive line led by Geno Atkins had its moments.
What went wrong: The offensive line was as bad as advertised early on (though it did get better by midseason), and the team needs to spend some money to fix it this offseason. Losing guard Kevin Zeitler and tackle Andrew Whitworth was brutal. Injuries caught up to the team late. One very troubling sign was that receiver John Ross, the ninth pick of the draft, had one touch all season … and he fumbled on a 12-yard run. Ross, who was a healthy scratch by the end of the season, dealt with some injuries but you have to assume he’ll be helped more than anyone by the coaching change. This staff clearly could not figure out how to use his talent.
Will the coach be back?: No, and for all the jokes about Lewis, that might not be a great thing. Let’s not forget that for the first 35 years of Bengals football, they made the playoffs seven times. Then they made the playoffs seven times in Lewis’ 15 years. This is not the type of team that spends freely (see the mass exodus of blue-chip free agents) and had a poor history before Lewis, so it’s not a job that will be among the top openings. We’ll see who they hire. It’s very possible Bengals fans look back at the Lewis era, even without the playoff wins, as not being so bad.
Do they have a quarterback?: Andy Dalton had about the most Andy Dalton season ever. When the Bengals were eliminated, he had 2,860 yards, 21 touchdowns and 11 interceptions with an 87 rating in 14 games. None of those numbers stand out. He wasn’t great, but he wasn’t bad. He also had a suspect offensive line and a receiver the Bengals drafted No. 9 overall didn’t catch one pass, so he deserves some credit for playing OK through adversity. There are plenty of teams in the NFL who have quarterbacks way worse than Dalton, and a lot of teams that are way better off than the Bengals in that category.
Quick free agent fix: The problem is the Bengals rarely spend in free agency. But if I was in charge, I’d spend on the offensive line. They probably should have just paid Andrew Whitworth and Kevin Zeitler, but what’s done is done. There’s are very few stud offensive linemen who will hit free agency, but the Bengals need a tackle or three. It would make sense to sign a serviceable starter and draft someone who can be an anchor for the line. With tight end Tyler Eifert set to hit free agency, that position could also become a position of need too.
Quick draft fix: The Bengals will probably be drafting in the top 10. There are a few tackles projected to go in the top 10, and if someone like Texas’ Connor Williams falls to Cincinnati, it should be a no brainer. I’m not about drafting for need, but it’s really hard to fix an offensive line in free agency anymore, so I’m totally fine with the Bengals drafting the top tackle available. That’s especially true when you consider that Andy Dalton is a much better quarterback with good protection.
Give it to me straight, can my team make the playoffs in 2018?: Had the Bengals held on to that big lead against the Steelers they would have been in the playoff race this season, so it’s hard to say they can’t make it in 2018. They’ll need to hire the right coach, of course. And they have to improve their offensive line. But perhaps Joe Mixon and John Ross take big steps forward and the Bengals follow that up with another good draft. They have the core that can get back to the postseason, and maybe finally even get a win.