As the curtain falls on the Cincinnati Bengals 2011 season, it’s hard to know quite how to feel.
To be sure, the Bengals exceeded expectations. Even an optimist like I am, didn’t expect nine wins and a playoffs appearance. You had to like the development of AJ Green and Andy Dalton as a dynamic passing duo. Other young players like Carlos Dunlap, Geno Atkins, Andre Smith, and Rey Maualuga appeared to grow into the types of guys who make the future look promising. And, of course, there is the fleecing of the Oakland Raiders in the Carson Palmer trade that will net the Bengals two first-round picks in April’s draft and at least another second-rounder in 2013.
Given the way such a young team won and the large number of draft picks in the next two seasons, the future certainly looks bright.
And yet . . .
These Bengals lost the same way the old Bengals did — they wilted in big games. Cincinnati’s final record was 9-8, and every one of those eight losses was to a team with a winning record. The Bengals played seven of the NFL’s top-10 defenses, and the only one they beat was Cleveland, which finished 4-12 overall. They didn’t beat a team that went to the playoffs. They lost twice to three playoffs teams — Baltimore, Pittsburgh, and Houston.
To be sure, these Bengals didn’t have Carson Palmer throwing game-changing interceptions or Chad Ochocinco pouting on the sidelines or Shayne Graham missing game-winning field goals and game-tying extra points as time expired. (Mike Nugent did miss a field goal against the Texans, but it ended up not really mattering.)
But Cedric Benson nearly fumbled away the Cardinals game. The defense let Baltimore’s Ray Rice rush for 121 yards and two touchdowns on just two carries. And, with Cincinnati trailing 17-10, Chris Crocker first dropped an interception, then missed a sack, and then took a bad angle, allowing Andre Johnson to score a touchdown for the knockout punch.
That’s not championship football. The Texans advanced because they made plays when it mattered, and the Bengals didn’t.
It is good that the Bengals have hope for the future and that they have faith in themselves. But after they were knocked out of the 2005 playoffs, they said many of the same things I read on the Bengals’ website following Saturday’s loss. They were so certain they had arrived and that they were going to be contenders for years. Instead, they underachieved three seasons in a row, posting records of 8-8, 7-9, and 4-11-1.
What the Bengals need going forward is poise. Prior to this year, I wasn’t sure that was something you could draft. But Dalton and Green both proved me wrong. Dalton has been largely unflappable in both victory and defeat, and Green is so humble you’d think he was picked in the seventh round, not the fourth overall selection. Both put up numbers all season and look to have bright futures.
The Bengals need more. They need a couple more guys who just don’t flinch no matter what the situation and can inspire their teammates to do the same. As much as they grew this year, they need to mature a little more.
If they can do that, the future is definitely bright in Cincinnati. Many of the pieces are falling into place.
That hasn’t been their modus operandi, though. For the past nine years under Marvin Lewis they have been talented but mentally weak. When it really matters, they find ways to lose. I’d like to expect something different from them, but, like I wrote here a few weeks ago, I need to see it to believe it.
Then again, I didn’t expect them to make the playoffs this year. So there is a glimmer of hope they can exceed my expectations again.