By Jonathan Comey
Cold, Hard Football Facts Girl Scout cookie salesman of the year
Carson Palmer! Chad Ochocinco! Terrell Owens! Cedric Benson!
The Bengals had too much flash and not enough flesh in 2011, and while their attempt to build a new offensive identity was a massive failure at least there were a lot of tasty quotables to nibble on.
While the Marvin Lewis Era has been a relative success for a franchise that has had only small pockets of relevance through the years, the Bengals find themselves exactly where they always seem to be – on the bottom of the AFC North looking up at better teams.
The 2010 storyline: Same old Bengals, incapable of dealing with the slightest whiff of success. Cincy was a 10-6 team in 2009, winning a rare division championship for the organization on the strength of one of the league's better defenses (291 points allowed).
But that unit utterly imploded in 2010 (395 points allowed), as the organization obsessed in the offseason over offensive players: three of nine draft picks were tight ends and wide receivers, while Mike Brown and mismanagement also brought in the volatile Terrell Owens, who proved – surprise, surprise – a huge detriment to the team.
In defense of the club, the Bengals faced a league-high 11 Quality Opponents in 2010. Hard to win consistently against that kind of gauntlet.
The Vital Signs
2010 record: 4-12 (20.1 PPG – 24.7 PPG)
Record vs. Quality Opponents: 2-9 (19.8 – 25.2)
Last five seasons overall: 33-46-1 (.588)
Best Quality Stat in 2010: Passing YPA (16th); Passer Rating Differential (16th)
Worst Quality Stat in 2010: Bendability (29th)
Defensive Passing YPA (new Quality Stat for 2011): 24th
Quarterback Rating (new Quality Stat for 2011): 23rd
Defensive Quarterback Rating (new Quality Stat for 2011): 24th
Offensive Passer Rating (breaking it out as a stand-alone Quality Stat in 2011): 18th
Relativity Index (once-proud Quality Stat being reintroduced for 2011): 21st
Statistical curiosity of 2010
The Bengals were pretty good at matriculatin' the ball downfield and stopping the opposition from doing so. They were 12th in offensive first downs and 12th in first downs allowed, which you'd think would add up to at least an average season ... instead, they went 4-12.
Best game of 2010
34-20 win vs. San Diego (Week 16). If you awoke from an 11-month coma just in time to see Cincy's impressive victory over the Chargers, you'd figure they were a better version of the team that made the playoffs just before you got hit by that truck on New Year's Eve. Cincy jumped out 13-0, never trailed, and held Philip Rivers to an 82.9 rating.
Worst game of 2010
49-31 loss vs. Buffalo (Week 11). Talk about a classic disaster the likes of which only the Bungles could execute so perfectly. Cincy held a 28-7 lead in the second quarter ... at home ... against arguably the worst team in football (the Bills finished dead last
across the board in our Quality Stats).
But you know the story in Cincy: a little taste of success goes straight to the head faster than a funnel of dirty martinis. The pathetic Bills scored 35 unanswered points in the second half, including three scoring strikes from the Canton-bound combo of Ryan Fitzpatrick to Steve Johnson. It was the low-point of Cincy's 10-game midseason losing streak.
Pass defense. While the NFL is going lawsuit happy, the Bengals' coverage men might want to consider hiring a lawyer to get some damages for mental and physical suffering. One of the deepest and best units in the league suffered through a series of injuries, compounded by the team's futile pass rush (27 sacks).
Only cornerback Leon Hall played a full season, Jonathan Joseph was hobbled for almost all the year, Pacman Jones missed 11 games and the safety rotation was a revolving door.
And yet, going against Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Joe Flacco (twice), Ben Roethlisberger (twice), Matt Ryan, Drew Brees, Josh Freeman and Philip Rivers, the Bengals still managed a solid defensive Passer Rating of 85.2 (19th).
Front office. When a team goes 4-12, usually they're cleaning house and demanding that things change. Instead, the inmates were running the asylum. Coach Marvin Lewis and his 60-67-1 lifetime record in Cincy vowed not to return unless changes were made to "The Bengal Way," and Palmer followed his sub-mediocre season with a demand to be traded. Lewis' contract was extended and Palmer's situation is in flux, but it all points to the same old problem – the front office.
When the Bengals were featured on "Hard Knocks" prior to their 2009 season, you could see the talent on the field and the passion from the coaching staff, but you could also see the weirdness of Mike Brown and the front office. The Bengals poured a lot of money into a passing game that was ineffective, and the lack of front-line playmaking on defense caught up to them in 2010.
When a team goes through a series of coaches, players and systems without success and the only constant is management, it's pretty clear where the problem lies.
General off-season strategy/overview
Palmer's "trade me or I quit" ultimatum is certainly the No. 1 issue in Cincinnati this year. While Palmer is still a viable NFL starter, he's also been pretty mediocre since 2007 statistically and 2010 was his worst full season (82.4 rating) despite good receivers and solid Offensive Hogs. If his heart isn't in Cincinnati anymore, dealing him probably makes sense.
The Bengals weren't outright terrible at anything in 2010, and are in good shape with their veterans. Joseph was tagged, and the Bengals can decide whether veterans Cedric Benson and Jonathan Fanene are worth retaining. They haven't had a slam-dunk draft since 2006, and considering their traditionally soft stance on free agency they can't really afford another one bad round of picks.
The No. 4 selection in a deep draft gives them plenty of options. Here's a suggestion – actually pick up the phone on draft weekend instead of forgetting the cell at home. The Bengals haven't made any type of significant move up or down in the draft in a decade – think it's a coincidence that the Patriots, Ravens and Eagles are major players here every year and also populate the postseason year and year out?
Totally premature 2011 diagnosis
Where's the improvement supposed to come from? They're old at the skill positions, and it didn't produce anything good. The defense took a big step back, and only some of it can be chalked up to injuries. They lost a lot of close games in 2010, but was it a product of bad luck or something more serious?
Our Quality Stats say it's a function of something more serious: the 2010 Bengals, for example, were No. 16 in our Mother Stat of Passer Rating Differential. That number, for most teams in most years, spells about an 8-8 season. But not for this dysfunctional franchise. Clearly, there are things wrong internally.
If Palmer doesn't come back and they go young at QB, you can pretty much pencil the Bengals in for another sub-.500 team. If he does, and re-discovers his game, there are enough pieces on defense to give fans hope ... but not a lot of it.