2017 NFL Preview: Bengals might be able to save Marvin Lewis' job
Shutdown Corner is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, counting down the teams one per weekday in reverse order of our initial 2017 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on Aug. 2, the day before the Hall of Fame Game kicks off the preseason.
This will be the Cincinnati Bengals’ 50th anniversary season, with the obligatory celebrations and commemorations of the past.
And, if we’re being honest, it’s a reminder of how bad the Bengals’ history has been. That’s a perfect transition to the 2017 Bengals’ season.
Cincinnati, once an NFL laughingstock, actually became one of the most reliable teams in the NFL under Marvin Lewis. They made the playoffs seven times in an 11-season stretch, and five of six. Not many teams can claim that level of consistency. Of course, part of the reliability is that we could always depend on Lewis and the Bengals going one-and-done once the playoffs started. Lewis’ 0-7 postseason record has been talked about ad nauseam. But keep in mind when we talk about Bengals history, they had just seven playoff appearances before Lewis arrived, and they’ve had seven with him. He doesn’t get his proper due for turning around a bad franchise.
However, we didn’t get the old reliable Bengals last season. They were 3-4-1 going into the bye, and then a three-game losing streak after the bye wrecked their season. The Bengals weren’t as bad as their 6-9-1 record. But they were pretty quickly forgotten about this offseason. Even though the Bengals’ recent track record is pretty strong, we’ve just been conditioned to thinking about the Bengals as a 6-9-1 type team. Or worse.
That makes it a bit difficult to buy into a Bengals’ rebound this season, but I think they’ll be good again. If not, we’re probably (finally) looking at a coaching change in Cincinnati.
Lewis enters the last year of his contract, and told ESPN earlier this year he doesn’t expect an extension before the season. We speak often about someone coaching for his job during a season, but that’s legitimately true for Lewis this season. Lewis has saved his job in the final year of his contract before, in 2010, so it’s not new territory.
There are many reasons to believe the Bengals will be right back in playoff contention (and one big reason – the offensive line – to believe they will not). The draft added a couple of potentially dynamic playmakers in receiver John Ross and running back Joe Mixon. For a team that seemed thin on targets last season, that could be a huge boost. So will the return to health of superstar receiver A.J. Green, who played in just nine full games last season. The defense was given some help, too.
The pieces are in place and, even though the Bengals aren’t exactly a blue-blood NFL franchise, their recent success should give them a benefit of the doubt. And if there’s no improvement in the record, the Bengals’ patience with Lewis (which has been wholly justified, considering the job he has done) will probably run out. Either way, this 50th Bengals season will be an important one in their history.
I liked their draft a lot. Ross is more than just a straight-line speed receiver, though he gained fame by setting the official combine record for fastest 40 time (Greg Cosell of NFL Films broke down Ross’ all-around game here). If you dislike Joe Mixon because he punched a female student at Oklahoma, it’s understandable. But if we’re talking about Mixon solely as a football player, he might have been the best running back in the draft, including fourth overall pick Leonard Fournette. By ignoring off-field concerns, the Bengals might have gotten two top-10 prospects. That’s why teams sometimes overlook ugly history and take those gambles. The Bengals made a nice signing with inside linebacker Kevin Minter, who is just 26, for just $4.25 million over one year. Now for the bad news. The offensive line is a mess. Guard Kevin Zeitler and tackle Andrew Whitworth left in free agency, signing enormous deals with the Browns and Rams, respectively. Not much was done to fix the line, other than a dubious signing of bringing Andre Smith back after he failed in Minnesota. I’d like to give the Bengals a better grade, but that O-line is troubling. Grade: C+
The Bengals weren’t that bad on offense last season (11th in Football Outsiders’ DVOA per-play metric), which is amazing considering the holes in the lineup. Now imagine a lineup of Andy Dalton, Joe Mixon, A.J. Green, John Ross, Tyler Boyd and Tyler Eifert, with veterans like Jeremy Hill, Giovani Bernard and Brandon LaFell in reserve roles. Great! But wait. Mixon is a rookie. Green needs to stay healthy. Ross needs to stay healthy, and is a rookie. Eifert needs to stay healthy, something he has rarely done. Bernard needs to prove he’s healthy after ACL surgery. There are many, many “ifs” that need to come through. And then there’s …
In 2015, the Bengals did a prudent thing and prepared to eventually replace tackles Andrew Whitworth and Andre Smith. They drafted offensive linemen Cedric Ogbuehi in the first round and Jake Fisher in the second. The problem? Ogbuehi and Fisher have not shown they are capable of being NFL starters. That doesn’t mean they won’t become good starters. But there’s a lot of concern in Cincinnati about the two young, shaky tackles. On a positive note, if those two play up to their draft position, the Bengals offense should be one of the NFL’s best.
It’s hard to get away from talk about Cincinnati’s offensive line, because that’s the key to the Bengals’ season. It’s especially important for Andy Dalton. According to Pro Football Focus, Dalton posted a 91.8 passer rating last season (which isn’t bad when you consider the patchwork skill-position talent he was working with at times) but that dropped to 57.1 when he was under pressure. Dalton has always been known as that type of quarterback, who can very efficiently run an offense when everything around him is in good shape. However, Dalton can’t overcome a terrible line in front of him. Dalton could have a phenomenal season or a brutal one, and it probably depends on how well the Bengals protect him.
Linebacker Vontaze Burfict is one of the two biggest difference-makers the Bengals have on defense (defensive tackle Geno Atkins being the other). Unlike Atkins, Burfict is a constant wild card. We all know about his questionable hits and various other issues. Since a phenomenal 2013 Pro Bowl season, Burfict has played just 26 of 48 possible games due to suspension or injury. Burfict has spent this offseason without injury or discipline concern. He’s still just 26 years old and capable of being one of the best linebackers in football. Burfict repeating his 2013 season could push Cincinnati back to the playoffs. Burfict is in a contract year, which gives him plenty of motivation.
From Yahoo’s Liz Loza: “Don’t sleep on Jeremy Hill. Yes, he’s been woefully inefficient for two years straight (averaging 3.6 and 3.8 YPC respectively), but the burn factor felt by fantasy owners has drastically reduced his price. Instead, they’ve turned their attention to tyro Joe Mixon. And while the rookie is a dynamic talent, Hill’s nose for the end zone remains uncontested. Currently available in the double-digit rounds of twelve-team exercises, Hill is an excellent value for managers looking to add depth at a volatile position.” [Check out Yahoo Sports’ Pressing Questions for the fantasy outlook on the Bengals.]
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Because A.J. Green’s season came to an end early in Cincinnati’s 10th game, his brilliance last season has been mostly forgotten. He was fantastic. In nine games, Green had 66 catches, 964 yards and four touchdowns. That’s a cool 117-1,714-7 line if you prorate it over 16 games. Green wanted to return from a groin injury late in the season but the team held him out, which caused some hard feelings. But it was the right call. Green had a healthy offseason and he should get right back to putting up monster numbers, especially with rookie John Ross on the other side to take some defensive pressure.
DOES JOE MIXON STEP RIGHT INTO THE LEAD BACK ROLE?
Jeremy Hill looked like a future star during the 2014 season. Over the next two seasons, Hill averaged well under 4 yards per carry. Hill has shown he’s a good goal-line back and below average in almost every other area. Giovani Bernard is a good role player as a change-of-pace receiving back, but it remains to be seen if an ACL injury saps some of his quickness. The Bengals don’t really need to worry about how to split time anymore, because Mixon can take over as an every-down back. The Bengals drafted Mixon in the second round, after many other teams took him totally off their draft board due to him punching a female student at Oklahoma, which indicates what the Bengals thought of his talent. The Bengals pushed any moral dilemma aside to take Mixon, and now they might as well give him a full workload. He could win offensive rookie of the year if that happens.
The Bengals were really good in 2015. Andy Dalton was in the MVP mix when he broke his thumb, and had he stayed healthy the Bengals were probably on their way to a big season. They almost beat the Steelers in the playoffs with AJ McCarron at quarterback – and it took an epic late-game collapse for Cincinnati to lose. Last season wasn’t good for the Bengals, but they can return to that 2015 level. John Ross and Joe Mixon could each make a major impact. The defense still has some top-end talent. Everyone will pick Pittsburgh to win the AFC North, and for good reason, but don’t sleep on the Bengals.
It’s hard to believe the Bengals have the overall talent to overcome a horrendous offensive line, like the Seahawks have done the past couple seasons. If the offensive line is among the worst in the NFL, which is possible, it could get ugly. Even though the Bengals weren’t as bad as their 6-9-1 record, they still did go 6-9-1 and a lot of the optimism for a turnaround rests on two rookie skill-position players, which is risky. Maybe last season was just the beginning of the end for the Bengals being competitive under Lewis.
I see last season’s losing record as a one-off for the Bengals, not the new norm. I like what the John Ross-Joe Mixon combination can do for the offense, and the defense should be good with Vontaze Burfict healthy and Kevin Minter an upgrade at inside linebacker. Marvin Lewis is like “The Terminator,” he is impossible to kill. I have a hunch Lewis is going to find a way to make the playoffs and save his job yet again.
32. New York Jets
31. Cleveland Browns
30. San Francisco 49ers
29. Chicago Bears
28. Los Angeles Rams
27. Jacksonville Jaguars
26. Detroit Lions
25. Houston Texans
24. Buffalo Bills
23. Indianapolis Colts
22. Baltimore Ravens
21. Los Angeles Chargers
20. Minnesota Vikings
19. New Orleans Saints
18. Washington Redskins
17. Philadelphia Eagles
16. Miami Dolphins
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Frank Schwab is the editor of Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter!