In Offseason, Bengals Look to Past for Future
Despite losing in the first round of the playoffs for four straight seasons, the Cincinnati Bengals see no reason for change. In fact, their approach this offseason was to procure any available current or former Bengal on the market and try the same experiment again.
The lone exception is that of A.J. Hawk who at this point of his career is a rather pedestrian pick-up. He will add depth to an injury-prone linebacker corps and has a history of being a fairly reliable tackler, but there is little flash to his game and his big-play making skills are likely minimal.
Within those linebacker ranks is the familiar Rey Maualuga who seems like a very similar player to Hawk. To his credit, Maualuga turned in his best season ever last year and calmed down a shaky mid-season defense. One has to wonder, however, if the seventh-year Bengal hasn't already peaked in terms of an overall career. He's played thousands of snaps and has been largely inconsistent, never living up to his college greatness and only finishing a full season twice. There's no question he knows the system and his coach's expectations by now and it's clear that the Bengals organization sees football value in him still, but there are a lot of alternatives that could have been explored with a potential $15 million price-tag that Maualuga can earn under the terms of the newest contract. Also, a decent compensatory pick could have been awarded had he ended up signing with one of the other teams that had interest in him.
The same goes for starting left guard Clint Boling who saw himself valued beyond many's expectations and pulled down a hefty contract from the Bengals after other teams were reportedly interested in the young lineman. While Boling has always been serviceable, his play never seemed dominant enough to warrant a five-year/$26 million extension, but that's what happened. Perhaps the market on guards is weird this year based on a scarcity at the position; after all, the Cardinals signed Mike Iupati for $40 million over five years. Nonetheless, he's in the fold again and if nothing else, adds stability and depth to a young and promising interior offensive line.
The Bengals also found a few former family members along the free-agent path, and brought back the old faces of Michael Johnson, Pat Sims, and Brandon Ghee. Once again, in terms of economics, the Bengals looked to have pulled off another shrewd maneuver, letting Johnson sign a big contract with Tampa Bay last year only to sign him back at a massive discount once the Buccaneers released Johnson after an ineffective season there. Sims never commanded the cash that MJ did, but it's a similar story of saving money and cap space for the Bengals and still somehow keeping their guys. Also, with both of these men in the make up of the defensive line, the pass rush was much more fierce in those days and the group's production plummeted without them. Of course, much of that drop off likely has something to do with former defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer leaving to become the head coach in Minnesota, but current coordinator Paul Guenther was on the staff then too.
Will all of these same people produce different results?
That's the big question. Making broad organizational directional changes can certainly be scary and off putting for a business like a pro football team, I'm sure, but a reluctance to alter can eventually become just as damaging. Who can forget the 2010 season when the Carson Palmer era crumbled at the feet of Mike Brown and Marvin Lewis because the change they made that offseason was getting Terrell Owens and not getting rid of Bob Bratkowski. That offense was so predictable that a pick-six was a near guarantee every game.
This will be the fifth year of the Andy Dalton era with apparently many more to come. Public opinion of the starting quarterback has almost concreted against his favor. Even though his winning percentage is terrific and his stats are historically positive, his consistent inability to rise to the biggest challenges of his career has left him largely dismissed by the general football public. The perception, fair or not, is that as long as Dalton is under center and Marvin Lewis roams their sidelines, the Bengals will not be able to break through in the postseason and potentially win a Super Bowl. That the team dynamic is stale and that the window of opportunity for this group is closing.
The Bengals have a plan, though, and they're sticking to it. The plan is well known to most casual observers of the sport and the patterns of their organizational thinking are easy to follow and predict. To make the playoffs for a fifth straight year would be an impressive feat, but because of the stinkers in the end, it's going to take almost two playoff wins to validate all those close calls. If they can make a meaningful postseason run with the same group, it will be extremely rewarding to the men involved who exercised such patience to make it possible. If the years pile up without more satisfaction, however, that same patience will be blamed again.
Written by Bryan Burke, associate editor
Photo: Pat Sims via Bengals Facebook