Cincinnati Bengals: Why they aren’t an elite franchise

Dec 18, 2016; Cincinnati, OH, USA; Cincinnati Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis walks the sideline against the Pittsburgh Steelers in the first half at Paul Brown Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports
Dec 18, 2016; Cincinnati, OH, USA; Cincinnati Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis walks the sideline against the Pittsburgh Steelers in the first half at Paul Brown Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports /

Despite struggles last season, the Cincinnati Bengals have been a perennial playoff team of late — so, why aren’t they considered an elite franchise?

Every franchise desired to be among the NFL’s elite. That’s not a bold statement by any means, but a true one nonetheless. Competing for championships is the undisputed prime objective of every organization in the NFL. So being a team that’s constantly in that mix is obviously in better shape than the ones who flounder opportunities and grasp for a more sporadic level of accomplishment in the hopes of staying relevant.

For pretty much their entire existence, the Cincinnati Bengals have fallen firmly within that latter category. Since they became part of the NFL at the merger in 1970, they’ve rarely been able to find sustained success of any kind.

Their regular season record is well below .500 (337-388-3). In 47 NFL seasons, they’ve ended with a winning record 17 times — but also managed a losing record on 22 occasions. They’ve made it to the playoffs just 14 times. In those trips, they’ve picked up just five victories. Four of those wins were during Super Bowl runs in the 1980s, but those runs did eventually fall short of the ultimate goal of a championship.

It’s fitting that both runs were ended by an elite franchise (the 49ers), taunting the team with what it could never achieve by falling in defeat to them on the biggest stage in heartbreaking fashion in both cases.

Under Marvin Lewis, things have undeniably been consistently better for the squad.

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They’ve accumulated seven of the franchise’s 17 winning record seasons. Their seven playoff appearances are half of the organization’s historical total, and their run of five-straight appearances from 2011-15 (and six out of seven years since 2009) is by far the best version of sustained contention they’ve ever mustered.

Prior to this, their best runs were two-straight appearances from 1981-82 and three-of-six from 1970-75. The four divisional crowns won in that time are basically half of the nine the squad has ever managed to earn. Still, even with all these positives to their resume, the team has consistently failed to make the next step.

The team hasn’t ever been in the second round of the playoffs under Lewis, falling to a litany of different squads along the way. Some of those defeats should have been expected (they were without multiple key players against Indianapolis in 2014), but too often, they’ve fallen well short of what they should’ve been capable of.

2011 saw them fall to a third-string quarterback against Houston. In 2013, they outgained the Chargers by 120 yards, but turned the ball over four times and were blown out 20-0 in the second half. In 2015, they did well to push the Steelers to the brink without Dalton, but a calamity of errors at the end (fumble by Jeremy Hill, multiple flags on the ensuing Pittsburgh drive) handed a game they should’ve won game to the Steelers.

Now, don’t get me wrong, the Bengals have been a good franchise with Lewis at the helm.

They’ve found a level of competence that eluded them the entire 1990s. They’ve battled through perception issues to overturn the ‘Bungles’ narrative which aptly stuck like glue before Lewis’ arrival. They’ve made themselves a premiere destination for castoffs and players with character concerns, not only giving those people a second chance at finding success but helping mold them into better people in the process.

That’s commendable; few franchises find themselves able to point to even one of those outcomes in their recent years, much less all of them.

Still, they’ve continued to be clearly insufficient in other key aspects, keeping them from ever reaching the pantheon of elites. Those problems have kept a constant ceiling on their goals, relegating them to an existence of being a tier or two below the best organizations in the league.

Jun 16, 2015; Cincinnati, OH, USA; Cincinnati Bengals owner Mike Brown looks on during minicamp at Paul Brown Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports
Jun 16, 2015; Cincinnati, OH, USA; Cincinnati Bengals owner Mike Brown looks on during minicamp at Paul Brown Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports /

As an organization, the Bengals just don’t seem to think about the entire scope well enough, ignoring clear opportunities to plan for unavoidable problems before they strike. They actively ignore using resources on areas of weakness, and will even allow an area to become significantly weaker without making much effort to stop the bleeding. They also don’t take the right gambles either, refusing to spend the money and/or draft capital necessary to help circumvent what issues end up coming their way.

We see plenty of evidence of this even in the most successful decade they team has ever had.

Take the wide receiver position last season, where the team let Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu leave. In response to the talent exodus, they responded with signing Brandon LaFell and drafting Tyler Boyd. On paper that’s an okay idea, but looking deeper at how the franchise makes moves and you see the issue.

LaFell was a cheap starter with clear limitations. Boyd was a rookie, one who it took too long for them to actually trust enough to be a major component of their gameplans. They were already down Tyler Eifert half of the year, and then lost A.J. Green after 10 games. This would’ve been a massive drop for them in possible productivity regardless of who else was there, but it was made all the more severe by having a limited veteran as such an integral part of their plans while also refusing to put their talented rookie into bigger responsibilities sooner.

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We see this kind of problem with their offensive line this season. Coming off a year where they allowed 41 sacks, they let go of their two best players (Andrew Whitworth, Kevin Zeitler). To fill those voids, they elected to do very little.

They brought back Andre Smith, added a center J.J. Dielman late in the draft — and nothing else. What they have now are an okay center and left guard and a ton of question marks. None of the four tackles on the roster have done anything to elicit positive expectations, and there isn’t a clear answer for replacing Zeitler’s spot at right guard.

Without unlikely massive internal improvements from multiple players, the most reliable strength from those recent playoff years will undoubtedly have morphed into their most exploitable weakness.

It even shows up in smaller subsets as well. Look at their tight end position. Throughout the early days of Dalton’s career, they stuck with Jermaine Gresham (a.k.a. the embodiment of mediocrity). They managed to get Tyler Eifert in the fold in 2013, but the guy is a constant injury worry.

A smart team would plan around that. Maybe they use a decent draft pick on a high-upside prospect. If not that, they could add a capable veteran to inevitably step in when needed. Instead, Cincinnati has let the depth fester with replaceable faces.

After Gresham finally was allowed to leave, they picked up C.J. Uzomah and Tyler Kroft. Neither of these guys adds much as a blocker, nor as a pass catcher. They’re just warm bodies taking up space. With a massive amount of draft picks at their disposal, all the team did was use a seventh-rounder on Mason Schreck and grab Carter Cethan as a UDFA — two more players who project as just a warm bodies with limited receiving skills.

Stuff like this is not what elite teams do.

Look at how actual elite franchises function. New England routinely cuts bait with veterans before they fall off a cliff in productivity — often picking up extra assets (namely draft capital) in the process. Seattle paid big on extensions for their key defenders, and did so practically as soon as was allowable. Green Bay drafts receivers and linemen even when those bins appear filled to the brim, and also relies heavily on incoming rookies. Dallas has thrown so much high draft capital to their offensive line, and will extend key players seven years forward at a time. Denver makes plays for high level free agents all the time, and manage to do so even on their own stringent terms.

Cincinnati rarely (if ever) makes decisions in this manner. They barely even try to get free agents outside the bargain bin. Too often, they let even their best guys get right to free agency before re-signings, letting the market bloat salaries and even price themselves out of the running.

They shy away from playing even their highly drafted rookies early if they have any sort of alternative decision they can talk themselves into. Heck, they won’t even give real security to their long-time head coach, meekly handing over small extensions to Lewis even though it’s been quite apparent that he’s their guy unless he chooses to retire (which, despite rumors the past few years, has never been something he’s ever publicly confirmed).

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The team has done plenty positive this decade, but the areas where they come up short will continue standing as roadblocks to reaching elite status unless they make adjustments to their decision-making process.

Based on their history, I wouldn’t hold my breath.