Thu. Dec 13th, 2018

Bengals poised to see if strange resurgence is legitimate

An offseason flooded with quarterback movement dispersed several new passers to the AFC North, with three of that division’s franchises making moves to install hopeful long-term successors.

The Browns added three new QBs. The Ravens invested in Lamar Jackson, hoping to inject some life into a stale situation. The Steelers made a lesser investment in the position, but they're still planning for the future.

In a similar spot to Baltimore — on the heels of two uninspiring seasons from a longtime quarterback — Cincinnati stayed the course, leaving the franchise without a possible future starter or a contingency plan in the event Andy Dalton’s swoon continued.

When more than a fourth of the league either added a veteran starter or drafted an heir apparent, the Bengals doing neither could've been interpreted as the team being content with mediocrity.

So their status as the AFC North leaders entering Week 6 becomes interesting on a few levels. Dalton having this rebuilt-but-not-really team at 4-1 also invites the legitimacy question.

Offseason apathy and a small-market identity had the Bengals well off the radar going into this season. Owner Mike Brown yet again retaining head coach Marvin Lewis generated headlines, but the consensus assumption categorized the Bengals’ call to cling to the cornerstones of the early and mid-2010s as irrelevant within the AFC's big picture. (Only five teams had worse preseason Super Bowl odds than the Bengals.)

Those recent Bengal playoff qualifiers repeatedly failed and, excepting perhaps 2015, did not bring high ceilings. From a national perspective, that run just added a frustrating chapter to the Bengals’ NFL-long, 27-year, playoff-win drought.

Cincinnati going into its biggest regular-season games since its most recent playoff campaign makes this one of the weirder contention efforts in recent memory because the same key pieces are in place from the years that invited Bengals mockery. Like a TV reboot no one demanded — and networks with NFL rights certainly weren't intrigued by this — Lewis, Dalton, A.J. Green, Geno Atkins, Carlos Dunlap and Vontaze Burfict are back for another try. 

The Bengals have a 16th-year coach who’s 0-7 in the playoffs, a 30-year-old quarterback who rated 26th in Total QBR last season, and they didn't add any talent at the other glamour positions this year. 

The closest the Bengals come to a needle-moving transaction was the trade for injury-prone left tackle Cordy Glenn. Otherwise, they just changed coordinators, installing Teryl Austin as DC and making Bill Lazor a full-time OC after he took over Ken Zampese’s playbook last season. They also retained some nice auxiliary contributors they acquired since their most recent playoff berth.

So it’s understandable that networks wanted little to do with prominent Bengals games. And wow, did they actively avoid this team. Prior to the small-market-fueled Bengals-Chiefs Week 7 clash being flexed to Sunday night — a refreshing change for this major-city-reliant brand — Cincinnati was set to play 14 of its 2018 games in the 1 p.m. ET Sunday slot. Those are Browns-level expectations for interest in a team, and the Bengals still have a strong chance to be an incredibly overlooked contender as the season progresses.

Will these Bengals hold up to make it to that Saturday afternoon ESPN wild-card game you know they'd be assigned? It’s a bit hard to believe new coordinators and some homegrown supporting-casters' development could make a big enough difference to revitalize the Bengals, but it’s happened so far.

Lazor’s scheme has, to some degree, reignited Dalton, whose 61.2 Total QBR figure ranks 11th. Green remains this generation’s most underappreciated great receiver, and Tyler Boyd’s an emerging sidekick. Joe Mixon is better than any Cincinnati running back deployed during its five-year postseason streak. This offense ranks fourth with 30.6 points per game (up from 26th and 18.1 in 2017) and sits sixth in DVOA. 

Atkins and Dunlap are still giving the franchise some of the best defensive production in its history, but Austin’s defense resides outside the top 20 in yards, points and DVOA. It came through to beat the Dolphins and mostly muzzled the Ravens but allowed 30-plus points to the Panthers and Falcons. It’s hard to imagine the Bengals being capable of overcoming this as their schedule intensifies.

Tests against the Steelers, Chiefs, Saints and the Baltimore leg of the Ravens series loom over the next five games and will provide answers to the legitimacy question. Any skepticism based on the Bengals' work thus far (and recent past) is understandable, but this turning into something real opens the door for a possible amendment to a somewhat forgotten run.

The Bengals won two division titles during their five-season streak of January cameos and paired a top-10 offense with a top-10 defense in 2013. The what-if potential the ’15 Bengals provided doesn’t get its due, considering they were 10-2 before Dalton’s season-ending injury. That team’s lasting memory is understandably the ignominious, Burfict-orchestrated chaos in a first-round loss to Pittsburgh that most surely was expected to be the end of that contention window. 

Cincinnati's sub-.500 showings in 2016 and ’17 supported such a hypothesis.

But if the Bengals can survive this upcoming stretch and remain in the AFC North mix, the decision to retain Lewis won’t look as laughable. But it will alert the football-following public to prepare new jokes in case the Bengals are in position for their usual conclusion. It could also represent the most consistently good era in franchise history while allowing Dalton to stall the franchise's decision to bring in a successor. 

Patrick Mahomes, the drama in Pittsburgh and another probable Patriots putting-it-together montage are bigger stories. But the Bengals’ sneaky stroll back to relevance — and chance to adjust this nucleus' legacy — adds a nice subplot to the AFC picture.

The next five games will be pivotal in determining if Cincinnati’s offseason caution was correct. If it turns out this was a fluky start, Bengals brass needs to consider preparing for a new era.

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