Sure, based on the Bengals' dubious history, last season's AFC North title will be viewed as more of a surprise than this season's 2-7 start, but I beg to differ.
The Bengals are as much of a disappointment as Minnesota and Dallas, except Cincinnati's gotten a pass of sorts based on its past and overall lack of relevance compared to the other two soap operas.
You can look at all the close games the Bengals have played and say they're a better team than their record shows, but all that argument might get you is a Tweet from Chad Ochocinco and Terrell Owens. They've earned their victories and losses.
I spoke to Ochocinco before his seven-catch, 86-yard, one-touchdown effort on Sunday and he said he's more perplexed than at any time during his career about why the team has fallen off. Every team makes mistakes, every team has penalties, every team has injuries just like the Bengals, but they find ways to win, he said. Cincinnati can't overcome itself.
The Bengals proved that against the Colts. Indianapolis showed up with a radically depleted roster but managed to overcome its diminished talent, Peyton Manning not throwing a touchdown pass and the offense not being able to run the ball, to improve its status in the AFC South (6-3). Of course, the Bengals were gracious enough to offer up five turnovers. The Bengals were lucky Manning was off. You give him five turnovers and he usually hangs 35 on you before his arm gets warm.
Quarterback Carson Palmer's shoulder was numbed up, but that didn't have much to do with him staring down T.O. on one pass, only to have Owens continue his route up-field while Palmer threw it underneath, as if he expected T.O. to come back for the ball. Owens didn't, but Colts cornerback Kelvin Hayden did and returned the interception 31 yards for a touchdown to put Indy up 10-0 in the first quarter.
The breakdown in communication between Palmer and his receivers is something I've been hearing about for weeks. It's Week 11 and it's still happening. Receivers aren't running routes at the proper depth or aren't reading coverages right. Palmer is locking in on one guy and tipping his passes. It's confounding how Palmer, Owens, Ochocinco and rookie Jordan Shipley can look so dangerous for the initial parts of a drive and then make a mess out of things so quickly.
Indianapolis entered the game with the Bengals ranked 29th against the run. Yet, the Bengals called 45 pass plays. When they did run it, they tried to stress the Colts' perimeter, something that doesn't work well because of Indianapolis' speed. Of the Bengals' 72 rushing yards, 42 of them came on a fake punt by running back Brian Leonard.
Starting tailback Cedric Benson had 24 yards on 14 carries. Rarely did Cincinnati try to punch the ball between the tackles and particularly guard-to-guard -- even though Colts middle linebacker Gary Brackett was out with a turf-toe injury. Sure, they fell behind 17-0 and that's always a daunting deficit when facing a team like the Colts, but there was plenty of time to recover and pound it against a weakened team that struggles against the run and playing to your strength seems to make sense.
To further that point, the offensive line is built to run, something the Bengals did well last season. In fact, the reluctance to pass was often criticized but the strategy worked a lot better than things are working now. The Bengals recognize their pass protection deficiencies and against the Colts, Cincinnati used a lot of max protections that kept Robert Mathis and Dwight Freeney off Palmer (until it mattered). Freeney pointed out that the strategy limited the number of receivers the Colts had to worry about and enabled the secondary to make the plays it did.
Defensively, Cincinnati seems to have rediscovered what it was last season and early in 2010. Defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer told me that guys are finally playing as physically as they did a year ago. They took a pause for a few games, though, and it played heavily into the current six-game losing skid.
What's really lacking is a pass rush. The Bengals have just nine sacks -- that's 1.5 fewer than Packers linebacker Clay Matthews has by himself. Safety Chris Crocker leads the charge with two. Cincinnati is getting nothing up front, forcing the Bengals to blitz to generate pressure. That adds more pressure on the cornerbacks and that hasn't gone as well as it did last season.
As a whole, something Zimmer told me might be the reality of it all.
Nobody is playing great. Nobody is playing awful he said, but nobody is doing anything exceptional to make the next guy want to take things to a higher level, and so on. When you're getting systemic average play in a division that features Pittsburgh, Baltimore (the Bengals beat the Ravens) and Cleveland -- and you play in a conference that includes the Patriots, Jets, Titans and Colts -- not playing above average will get you to 2-7.
Last season, players were much better than average and that led to expectations. Look back at preseason projections and the Bengals were pegged, almost universally, as a playoff team. Instead, the Bengals are out of it. They're already in position to play out the string because nine wins won't cut it in regards to a playoff berth anywhere but in the AFC and NFC West. Compounding things, the Bengals might have the toughest schedule in the league the rest of the way. Even this week's game against Buffalo isn't a guaranteed win.
I asked Ochocinco after the Colts' loss how the team will approach things the rest of the way and he said, "Keep working." I swear I thought I had been transported to the Cowboys' locker room during Wade Phillips' final stand. I don't think the Bengals will mail it in. They compete and they will continue to compete. They also self combust.
T.O. hits another mark
The short-term situation also leads to the bigger picture of the team's future. Even before kickoff against the Colts, there was a lot of media-room chatter about the future of Marvin Lewis, the 2009 Coach of the Year, whose contract is up. Lewis might be a candidate to be elsewhere, but he might not. I can't see the Bengals not wanting him back unless he does something to turn them off. I don't see that happening.
If Lewis isn't in Cincinnati next season, it most likely will be of his choosing. If Lewis doesn't return, the names that have been mentioned in the whisper vine (agents, some NFL personnel employees, media) as possible replacements are Zimmer, who is loved by Bengals fans, and Oakland offensive coordinator Hue Jackson, who used to coach the wide receivers for Cincinnati. If Oakland keeps playing the way it has been, Jackson's star will rise and put him in demand. He's been a fringe riser in the past few years and he's getting hotter with each Raiders victory.
Personnel-wise, there might be some changes -- Owens' contract is up and the Bengals, at the least, have to start prepping Palmer's eventual replacement. Still, the roster is pretty young and pretty good. How Cincinnati finishes will dictate that end of things.
However things end this season, even 9-7 (riiiiiggghht), I don't see how the Bengals can't be considered a major disappointment. Yes, this is what they've done over the years when they've faced expectations, but so what? If the Vikings and Cowboys have failed to live up to their potential, then so have the Bengals.