2016 NFL Preview: Same old song for the Bengals

Shutdown Corner

Shutdown Corner is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, counting down the teams one per day in reverse order of our initial 2016 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on Aug. 6, the day before the Hall of Fame Game kicks off the preseason.

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There’s no historical comparison for the Cincinnati Bengals.

In January of 2015, the Bengals set an NFL record by losing their fourth straight opening-round playoff game. Then this past January, they made it five in a row. If you go back to 2009, the Bengals have gone one-and-done in six of the last seven postseasons. That’s incredible and I’m not sure it will ever be matched. And the Bengals could always extend the streak this season.

I hate judging a team solely on what happens in the playoffs. There’s too much randomness in a single-elimination format to draw sweeping conclusions. It’s hard to make the playoffs five straight years, and six of seven. In a fair world, the Bengals and coach Marvin Lewis would be praised for this run of success, especially in a tough division with two great organizations like the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens. Lewis has turned the Bengals into consistent winners, something the franchise couldn’t dream about two decades ago.

At some point, however, the playoff drought is too much to ignore. It also reached a new, strange level last season.

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How did the Bengals lose their most recent playoff game to the Steelers? With 1:36 left and the Bengals leading 16-15, linebacker Vontaze Burfict picked off Pittsburgh’s Landry Jones. At that point the Bengals’ win probability was 95.9 percent, according to pro-football-reference.

Then Jeremy Hill fumbled. And Ben Roethlisberger came back in the game. The Steelers converted a third down and a fourth down. Then it got weird. Burfict inexplicably delivered a cheap shot to Antonio Brown’s head as he went for a catch. That was one 15-yard penalty. Adam Jones got into it with Steelers assistant coach Joey Porter. Another 15-yard penalty. After that crazy meltdown the Steelers hit a chip-shot 35-yard field goal and the Bengals — who were playing without Andy Dalton, whose MVP-level season was cut short with a thumb injury, coincidentally against the Steelers — were sent into another unhappy offseason. Everything had to go wrong for the Bengals to lose. Everything went wrong.

It seems like an endless cycle. My 2015 Bengals preview doesn’t sound much different than this one, because the same themes apply year after year.

I respect the Bengals for not overreacting this offseason. A lot of teams would. Many teams make moves based on tiny results-based sample sizes without asking a key question: Does this make us a better team? Teams make crazy moves because they think that’s what they’re supposed to do. The Bengals figure that they won’t be better off shipping out Lewis or turning over the roster, and that’s probably right.

The Bengals’ offseason looked like most others in the Lewis era. They didn’t make any big free-agent investments. They lost some free agents who they deemed too pricey. They lost offensive coordinator Hue Jackson, which is a tough loss but the Bengals have said goodbye to other good coordinators and have kept rolling. They pretty much decided to run it back with roughly the same squad.

Cincinnati is banking on its core and the law of averages. Take enough swings at the piñata and it’ll break eventually. It might have last year had Dalton not suffered a broken thumb trying to make a tackle. They’ll play that “What if?” game with Dalton’s injury forever.

The Bengals have been unlucky. They also deserve blame for some awful performances in those playoff losses. They have been a good team and will be again this season. But at this point you expect the anvil to fall on their head in January, just like it did last season. And the season before that. And the season before that. And …

Marvin Lewis’ record in the playoffs is 0-7 (AP)
Marvin Lewis’ record in the playoffs is 0-7 (AP)

Losing two of your top three receivers in one offseason isn’t ideal. Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu were both overpaid in free agency and the Bengals were smart to let them walk, but it still leaves a mark. Brandon LaFell was signed and the Bengals drafted Tyler Boyd in the second round to replace Jones and Sanu. It remains to be seen how the turnover affects Andy Dalton after his career year. The Bengals also lost right tackle Andre Smith, but they prepared for that. Safety Reggie Nelson is also gone after tying for the NFL lead with eight interceptions last season. Cornerback William Jackson was the first pick of a strong draft class and veteran addition Karlos Dansby helps the depth at linebacker. Grade: D+

Even with AJ McCarron playing quarterback, the Bengals had basically a 24-in-25 shot to beat the Steelers in the playoffs before Jeremy Hill fumbled. The fact that the Bengals stayed at a high level despite losing a quarterback who played at a top-five level last season reflects how good they were. The Bengals were 2-2 with McCarron starting, with a three-point overtime loss at the eventual champion Denver Broncos and that insane Steelers loss. If Dalton picks up where he left off, not many teams can match the Bengals’ overall talent.

The Bengals had arguably the best passing game in the NFL last season. It finished first in Football Outsiders’ DVOA per-play metric. That’s with AJ McCarron playing almost a quarter of the regular season. But since last season ended, offensive coordinator Hue Jackson took the head coaching job with the Cleveland Browns, No. 2 receiver Marvin Jones signed with the Detroit Lions, No. 3 receiver Mohamed Sanu signed with the Atlanta Falcons and tight end Tyler Eifert had ankle surgery because his Pro Bowl injury never fully healed. The Bengals’ passing game was one of their biggest strengths last season and the question is not if it will regress, but how much.

Andy Dalton turned a corner last year. He has been maligned for a long time, though he hasn’t always deserved it. Nobody could criticize him after his 2015 season. He had 3,250 yards, 25 touchdowns and seven interceptions in what amounts to 12 games. He broke his thumb early in the 13th game trying to make a tackle. The Bengals were 10-2 when Dalton suffered that injury. Dalton should have been on everyone’s top-five list of MVP candidates before the injury. Because he’s Dalton there’s a lot of skepticism that he can repeat that season, especially without offensive coordinator Hue Jackson. If he plays at that level again this season, it might be time to permanently change our perception of Dalton.

Linebacker Vontaze Burfict has a bad reputation. He’s a fantastic player who routinely crosses the line with dirty plays. That’s why Burfict will be serving a three-game suspension to start this season. Burfict knows the NFL will be keeping a very close eye on him this season and he has to change his style. In an ESPN interview this offseason Burfict said, “My style of play is aggressive, and [the game has] changed, and I have to change with it.” Can Burfict play a cleaner game and still be as effective? That’s a big question for the Bengals. Love him or hate him, the Bengals wouldn’t be the same team without Burfict.

Cosell: “To me, a major factor for this team is the running game. Last year I think they wanted to line up and run the ball with Jeremy Hill as their foundation back, and it didn’t work. I thought there were stretches where Hill didn’t look like he did as a rookie. I thought his feet didn’t look as quick. I thought one of his strengths coming out of LSU is that for a 235-pound back he had really quick feet. But he didn’t run like that last year. I think they need to get back to running the football.”

[Click here for Greg Cosell’s podcast previewing the Bengals and the rest of the AFC North.]

From Yahoo’s Liz Loza: “Over 140 targets have opened up with Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu gone from the Bengals’ passing attack. While Brandon LaFell appears likely to draw a large portion of those looks (especially given Tyler Eifert’s ankle woes), the most undervalued fantasy commodity in Cincy is running back Giovani Bernard. The RB21 overall in standard scoring leagues and RB17 overall in PPR formats, Bernard averaged 4.7 yards per carry and caught 49 balls (the ninth-most of any player at the position) in 2015. Currently being drafted between the sixth and seventh rounds, Bernard figures to be a target hog in 2016 and could easily finish as a high-end RB2 regardless of format, well outperforming his average draft position.

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A.J. Green had 132 targets last year. That was tied for 16th in the NFL. Guys like Michael Crabtree and Delanie Walker had more targets, and Julio Jones had 71 more. With the Bengals losing two of their top targets from last year, and Tyler Eifert possibly missing some time after ankle surgery, Green’s targets will go up. It might skyrocket. The Bengals might be better off, too. Getting the ball to Green more often doesn’t sound like a bad idea. Green’s efficiency might dip a bit with more targets, but he also might put together an All-Pro season.

WHAT WILL CINCINNATI’S RUN GAME LOOK LIKE THIS SEASON?

Jeremy Hill was one of the NFL’s bigger disappointments last season. Expectations were high after a good rookie season, but his second season didn’t produce a single 100-yard game and it ended with a devastating fumble against the Steelers in the playoffs. His average went from 5.1 yards per carry as a rookie to 3.6 last season. Hill’s regression was good news for Giovani Bernard, who had his own sophomore slump in 2014. Bernard looked like the better back all season and had 1,202 yards from scrimmage. Bernard had 628 snaps last season and Hill had 506, according to Pro Football Focus.

In a perfect world, the Bengals would get both backs going in the same season. Hill could be the between-the-tackles grinder and Bernard could be his big-play complement. But that depends on Hill. If he looks as sluggish as he did in 2015, the Bengals will probably just see how much more playing time Bernard can handle.

It’s hard to project a team that hasn’t won a playoff game since Jan. 6, 1991 to win a Super Bowl, but the Bengals have the talent to do it. If Andy Dalton never broke his thumb last season, we’d be having a lot different conversation about the Bengals now.

It’s hard to go to the playoffs five straight seasons and it’s even harder to do it six times in a row. The Bengals are due for one of those years in which everything goes wrong. Last season they had the fewest injuries in the NFL, based on Football Outsiders’ adjusted games lost. That won’t repeat. And if the Bengals miss the playoffs, that would give ownership an excuse to make major changes. That’s something it could end up regretting.

In these initial rankings, I have the Steelers as the highest-ranked AFC North team. That was before everyone knew Le’Veon Bell was facing a four-game suspension. It’s easy to be smitten with the Steelers’ offensive potential, but the Bengals are the more balanced team. I worry about their passing game coming back to earth after losing a lot of key pieces this offseason. And the playoff failures are hard to shake. The Bengals will make the postseason and I hope they win a playoff game this time around just so I have something new to write about in next year’s Bengals preview.

32. Cleveland Browns
31. San Francisco 49ers
30. Tennessee Titans
29. San Diego Chargers
28. New Orleans Saints
27. Philadelphia Eagles
26. Atlanta Falcons
25. Miami Dolphins
24. Los Angeles Rams
23. Chicago Bears
22. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
21. Detroit Lions
20. Indianapolis Colts
19. Jacksonville Jaguars
18. Washington Redskins
17. Buffalo Bills
16. Baltimore Ravens
15. Oakland Raiders
14. New York Jets
13. New York Giants
12. Houston Texans
11. Dallas Cowboys
10. Minnesota Vikings
9. Kansas City Chiefs
8. Denver Broncos

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Frank Schwab is the editor of Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at shutdown.corner@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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