Today, we say goodbye to the 2011/2012 Cincinnati Bengals, a team that was way better than they had any business being.
Before the season, most projections for the Bengals had them finishing somewhere in the Andrew Luck sweepstakes. The orange-striped warriors had said goodbye to Carson Palmer and Chad Ochocinco, replacing them with two daisy-fresh rookies.
They were moves that needed to be made (Palmer, in particular, left them no choice and the simple act of saying goodbye to The Ocho was probably worth two wins by itself), but they weren't moves that anyone thought would result in short-term success. And yet, here we are, not saying goodbye to the Bengals until playoff time.
A lot of things went right for this team.
The selection and performance of quarterback Andy Dalton is the most obvious thing, but that may not have been possible without another major addition — Jay Gruden as offensive coordinator. The Bengals were looking at an offense with a rookie quarterback, a rookie wide receiver (a position where rookies typically don't see a lot of success) and Cedric Benson anchoring the run game. That's what Bill Walsh would see in his nightmares.
As it turned out, it wasn't so bad. Ranking 20th in the league in total offense isn't anything that will erase the memory of Boomer Esiason and Ickey Woods, but given the talent there, the odds against them and the defenses they face in their division, it's not too shabby.
A.J. Green was a revelation at receiver. The fourth overall pick in the draft proved to be worthy of his draft position, and while I may be jumping the gun here, it doesn't feel crazy to say that he could eventually turn into one of the game's premier wide receivers. His numbers weren't at that level this year, but glimpses of the ability were. Green can go up and get the ball in traffic with the best of them.
The defense was spectacular, too, despite losing star cornerback Jonathan Joseph in free agency. Nate Clements stepped in and played well for them opposite Leon Hall, and the Bengals spent early portions of the season ranked as the top defense in the league.
In the end, the defense finished ranked seventh in the league, which is outstanding, but also indicative of the biggest problem the Bengals face going forward — the Steelers and Ravens both ranked ahead of them. The Bengals are young and talented, but they lack the experience and bonafide stars of their divisional competition. That, and not anything that's wrong with the Bengals, will be the biggest obstacle in their path on the way to a repeat playoff performance.
Still, things look way better for the Bengals right now than they have at any point in the recent past. The attitude is right and the talent appears to be in place. If they can keep Jay Gruden on their sidelines, make some upgrades on the offensive line and maybe experiment with a running back who can get more than 4 yards per carry, the AFC North could be a three-team race in 2012.