NFL Offseason Review: Cincinnati Bengals
As the 2016/17 NFL season disappears more and more into the rearview mirror, fans of professional football have been forced to find other ways to fulfill their sports fan quota.
Some try to fill the void with other sports, such as college and professional basketball, hockey, or the upcoming arrival of professional baseball. Others, particularly those fans whose NFL team had an incredible season last year, instead prefer to dwell on the past, watching highlights and lingering on the events of last season.
Still other fans, without the luxury of a great season to look back on or other professional teams in the area, are relegated to looking forward to next year’s NFL season, and have been closely following the transactions of NFL free agency as well preparing for the upcoming NFL draft.
In the case of the Cincinnati Bengals, fans likely fall somewhere close to this lattermost category, with the state of their football fandom currently in limbo.
Not only did the Bengals put out a very forgettable 6-win campaign in 2016/17, failing to make the playoffs for the first time in five consecutive seasons, but the fans are also stuck in a place where they have few answers as to why the team performed so poorly: After four consecutive seasons with double-digit wins, dropping all the way down to 6 wins – exactly one half the total from the previous year – was certainly a large divergence.
For years now, the league has looked on at the team in Cincinnati, waiting to see whether or not they would ever make the jump from a team perennially on the playoff fringe into the main conversation of Super Bowl contenders.
For this reason, all 31 other teams in the league would do well to look back on the season that the Cincinnati Bengals had in 2016/17, in order to truly determine whether or not their slide out of playoff contention marks the end of an era in Cincinnati, or whether the team will be poised once again next season to be back on the fringe, or even into that main conversation once and for all.
In this edition, we cruise over to the heart of the Midwest all the way to the shores of the Ohio River, and take on the Cincinnati Bengals.
Last Season: In Review
First, to provide some context on the Cincinnati Bengals organization, we reach back all the way to the NFL/AFL merger, in 1968. The Bengals were one of the AFL’s original expansion teams, filling out their roster in 1968 with 40 veteran players in an allocation draft. The team’s founder and first head coach has now become the namesake of the franchise’s 17-year old venue – Paul Brown Stadium.
It didn’t take the Bengals too long to make it to their first Super Bowl, compared to some franchises, going against the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XVI, only to lose the game 21–26. Their next appearance would come during the Boomer Esiason era in Cincinnati, and in 1988 the Bengals lost once again to the 49ers, this time led by Joe Montana, in Super Bowl XXIII.
Following this Super Bowl loss, the Bengals entered into a sustained period of mediocrity, with the team failing to make the playoffs or win more than eight games for the 14 seasons between 1991 and 2005. When the team finally broke through to an 11–5 record and a playoff appearance in 2005, it was under the leadership of then-third year head coach Marvin Lewis, who still coaches the Bengals today.
The first 7 years of the now-14 year history of the Marvin Lewis era in Cincinnati coincided with the prime of the career of Carson Palmer, who was drafted by the Bengals with the first pick overall in the 2003 NFL Draft and subsequently played 7 seasons in Cincinnati, including one in which he led the league in passing touchdowns and brought the team to its first playoff appearance in 15 years.
More important to the team’s recent return to relevancy than the coach or quarterback, however, was the move made in 2009 by owner and de facto general manager Mike Brown, son of team founder Paul Brown.
After taking over the team in 1991 at age 56, following the death of his father at age 82, Mike Brown sustained close to three decades of almost ceaseless criticism for the way in which he ran the team. Primary among fan complaints include a lopsided stadium deal made in 1996, the fact that the Bengals had only 2 winning seasons during the 19 in which he ran football operations, and various features of his personal management philosophy that many fans believe keep the team from being competitive.
Importantly, however, in 2009 Mike Brown gave over most of the control of football operations to a committee including members of his family, head coach Marvin Lewis, and others.
After this change it became clear almost immediately how detrimental the then-73-year old Brown’s influence had been on the team. In the ensuing two drafts after turning over control of football decisions, the team selected Andy Dalton, A. J. Green, Geno Atkins, and Carlos Dunlap, among others, and subsequently made the playoffs five seasons in a row.
It was in this context, with the franchise slowly and steadily trying to work its way out from under the smothering influence of now-81-year old Mike Brown, that the franchise entered into the 2016/17 season, trying desperately to break out of the five-year pattern of making it to the playoffs with one of the bottom four seeds and promptly exiting in the Wild Card round.
The Bengals started off their 2016/17 campaign as all teams do, hoping to start off with a few quick consecutive wins before major injuries and adversity have a chance to rear their ugly heads, while simultaneously working to establish an identity around the themes that seem to be working on both the offensive and defensive sides of the ball.
This effort was not helped by one trend that started early in the year for the Cincinnati Bengals and that would continue throughout the course of the season, namely the “colorful” behavior of Pro Bowl linebacker Vontaze Burfict.
Burfict had accumulated a debt of bad behavior from the prior season that carried over into a three-game suspension to start out the 2016/17 season, due to a questionable hit that he levied against Pittsburgh Steelers star wide receiver Antonio Brown in the 2015/16 playoffs.
Subsequently, it didn’t take long for Burfict to get in trouble again, with the linebacker earning a $75,000 fine for a low tackle against New England Patriots tight end Martellus Bennett, butting heads with fellow tight end Rob Gronkowski, and seeming to stomp on the head of LeGarrette Blount after the running back scored a touchdown late in the game.
Later in the season, Burfict was seen headbutting Ben Roethlisberger and flipping off fans on the sideline, despite the fact that he had sworn after the incident with Antonio Brown to change his ways and try and conform more to the league’s regulations.
While Burfict’s absence from the first three games of the year certainly wasn’t the only factor that influenced the team’s performance, it was nonetheless notable, as the team would give up 22, 24, and 29 points in its first three contests against the New York Jets, the Pittsburgh Steelers, and the Denver Broncos, respectively.
While the Bengals did end up winning one of these three games – their season opener against the Jets – the team nonetheless felt the need to bounce back with a strong defensive performance in Week 4, coinciding with Burfict’s return to live game action.
This Week 4 game would turn out to be one of the only bright spots in the first six games of the season. On Thursday Night Football, the Bengals hosted a Miami Dolphins team wearing bright orange uniforms, and the defense managed to sack Miami quarterback Ryan Tannehill five times, ultimately holding the Dolphins to only 7 points and winning the game by 15.
At this point in the season, at 2–2, fans had every right to feel hopeful that the team’s goals were in reach, and that the Bengals would be able to strike out to the same double-digit win record that the fan base had grown accustomed to over the past five seasons.
Unfortunately, however, the schedule gods had something else in mind, having gifted the Bengals two consecutive road games against the Dallas Cowboys and the New England Patriots – a tough trip by any measure.
The Bengals did manage to put up at least two touchdowns in both contests, but at the same time gave up four touchdowns to Dak Prescott and the Cowboys, and subsequently gave up four touchdowns again to Tom Brady and the New England Patriots, putting up so few points despite the fact that the team averaged around 350 yards of total offense in both games and did not turn the ball over in either.
After this disappointing and undoubtedly frustrating road trip, the Bengals returned home in Week 7 with two consecutive home games to look forward to, and the bye week to follow. Despite starting off the first six games of the season with a record of 2–4, the team had competed hard in each of those six games, and still retained a good bit of confidence in their ability to turn the season around.
After being cursed by the schedule gods with back-to-back road matchups against the Dallas Cowboys and New England Patriots, the Bengals were then given a gift of returning home against their luckless division rival the Cleveland Browns, who provided the team an opportunity to bounce back against an easier opponent.
The Bengals would win the game against the Browns 31–17, their highest point total on offense all season and their second-lowest point total on defense. The 559 yards of total offense that the team put up against the Browns would also end up being the highest yardage total over the course of the entire season.
In the subsequent game in Week 8, home against the Washington Redskins, the Bengals hoped to stack two wins in a row for the first time in the season, as a win would have brought the team back to an even record at 4–4 headed into their Week 9 bye. The game was held in Wembley Stadium, in London, and ended up being a high-powered shoot-out between Andy Dalton and Kirk Cousins that ended up tied at the end of regulation.
The game came down to a field goal with just over two minutes left in overtime. Washington kicker Dustin Hopkins sent a 34-yarder through the uprights, appearing to give the game to the Redskins. However, as Marvin Lewis had used a timeout to ice the kicker, Hopkins was forced to try it again, and this time pushed it wide left.
On the subsequent Cincinnati possession, Andy Dalton was stripped and the ball was recovered by Washington, giving them another possession to try and win the game with only a minute left. Ultimately, being completely unable to move the ball, the final play of the game was a Hail Mary throw that didn’t make it to the end zone, and the international fans were left with a head-scratching tie.
The Bengals would subsequently follow up their performance in London with three consecutive losses, on the road against the New York Giants, at home against the Buffalo Bills, and on the road against the Baltimore Ravens. Each game was lost by 5 points or less, and the Bengals quickly fell from 3–4–1 to 3–7–1, set to carry only a 3-win record into the month of December.
One storyline emerging during this middle portion of the season for the Bengals was the injury to star wide receiver A. J. Green, who suffered a tear to both muscle and tendon in the hamstring area during the team’s Week 11 game at home against the Buffalo Bills.
Despite the fact that Green was medically cleared to play four games later, at that point Cincinnati was already eliminated from the playoff hunt and unwilling to risk future injury to their star wide receiver, and held him out from the remaining three games of the season. Nonetheless, Green would end up coming only 36 yards shy of 1,000 receiving yards and making the Pro Bowl despite playing in only ten games.
Even before the playoff flame had been completely snuffed out, though, when the Bengals still had a fighting chance, a clamor once again arose among fans and sources around the league that 14-year head coach Marvin Lewis should be fired.
The primary grounds cited by these sources as reasons for his dismissal include the fact that after 6 playoff appearances under his leadership the team had yet to win a playoff game. More pressing at the time was the fact that the team had started off 3–7–1 through the first 11 games of the season and was looking as though it wouldn’t have even an opportunity to play for that coveted first playoff victory.
Ultimately, though, given owner and de facto general manager Mike Brown’s emphasis throughout his tenure with the Bengals on financial solvency and loyalty to existing employees, it was very unlikely that Lewis would not play out the remaining year of his contract at minimum, and astronomically unlikely that the owner would fire Lewis for starting off a season with such a poor record.
These were the types of frustrations that the 3–7–1 Bengals carried into their final five games of the season.
The Bengals returned home in Week 13 for their first game in the month of December. Against the beleaguered Philadelphia Eagles, the Bengals managed to put up 32 points – their highest point total of the season – and generated three turnovers on defense – also their highest total of the season.
The team would finally succeed in stringing together back-to-back wins in Week 14, as they followed up their strong home win against the Eagles with a road game against the Browns. After beating their hapless division rival for the second time, the Bengals sat at 5–7–1, with an infinitesimal – though real – chance of making the playoffs, due primarily to the weakness of their division.
With three games remaining, including home games against the division-leading Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens, the Bengals needed to win out to have any chance of trying for that coveted playoff victory.
And things looked good when the Steelers came to town, with the stingy Bengals defense allowing only three field goals in the first half while the offense put up two touchdowns to go along with two field goals, giving the Bengals a 20–9 lead at half time.
Unfortunately, however, the Bengals would be unable to score another point for the duration of the game, giving up three field goals to bring the lead down to 2, and ultimately giving up a touchdown late in the fourth quarter. Cincinnati would lose the game 24–20.
With the loss against Pittsburgh, Cincinnati was officially eliminated from playoff contention, and they carried their frustration into the following road game in the eventual Super Bowl venue, NRG Stadium in Houston. On Christmas Eve, the Bengals faced the Texans, and they played angry.
The Bengals’ front office must have felt that part of the problem during this late stretch of the season was the play of their kicker, Mike Nugent, as the team waived the 12-year veteran unceremoniously after his sixth season in Cincinnati. Nugent had missed 6 out of 29 extra points and converted 79.3% of field goal attempts over the course of the season before being cut and replaced by the younger itinerant Randy Bullock.
Unfortunately for him, however, one of Bullock’s first acts as the new Bengals kicker was to miss a game-winning field goal against the Texans, bringing the Bengals down to a record of 5–9–1 on a final score of 10–12 and doing little to endear the new kicker to the fan base.
Also notable during this concluding portion of the season was the injury to Pro Bowl tight end Tyler Eifert, who had demonstrated a tendency throughout his career to be injury-prone. After missing the first six games of the season with ankle and back injuries, Eifert was placed on injured reserve two days after the Bengals’ Christmas Eve game on national television against the Houston Texans.
Eifert subsequently had back surgery, and is expected to return to full strength next season where he is slated to play out the remaining fourth year of his rookie contract.
In the final game of Cincinnati’s 2016/17 season, in Week 17 against the Baltimore Ravens, the Bengals took a commanding 20–0 lead at half-time, playing more physical than their division opponent in front of the home fans in a game when neither team had anything to play for but pride.
The Bengals would end the season with a record of 6–9–1, and miss out on the playoffs for the first time in five years.
Cincinnati’s Strengths and Weaknesses
In reviewing the story arc of the 2016/17 season, we got a cursory glance at the trends that combined together to make the team drop a full six games off of its win total from the previous year. However, we didn’t look quite closely enough in order to be able to identify just what position groups were most to blame for the precipitous decline in performance.
In order to more accurately identify the strengths and weaknesses of the Bengals team, let’s go through the Bengals top to bottom and see what areas of need Cincinnati’s front office will need to address this offseason in order to bring the team back to their winning ways next season.
The Bengals’ offense was ranked 24th in the league in 2016/17 in terms of scoring, putting up 325 points over the course of the season (20.3 points per game). The team’s production in terms of yards surged beyond this figure, however, with their 5711 yards on the season (356.9 per game) good for 13th best in the league.
When a team’s point production lags significantly behind its production in yards on the offensive side of the ball, this generally indicates one of two things.
First, a team might be moving the ball down the field but then frequently turning the ball over before they are able to capitalize with points. However, as the Bengals had the 8th-fewest turnovers in the league last season, this is not likely to be the reason.
The other way a team can move the ball for a large number of yards and still fail to convert those yards into points is if the team frequently lost the field position battle, getting the ball deep in their own territory and moving the ball but still ultimately needing to punt. As the Bengals did not turn the ball over a disproportionate amount, this is likely the reason why their production in terms of points lagged so far behind their point production.
The Bengals’ offense got a roughly equal amount of yards out of their passing and running game last season, despite the fact that they were ranked 20th in the league in passing attempts and 9th in the league in rushing attempts.
This was because the team was considerably more efficient in the passing game than the running game, ending the season ranked 14th in net yards per pass and 23rd in average yards per rush attempt. Paradoxically, however, the Bengals were ranked 6th in the league in rushing touchdowns, with 17 on the year, but 26th in the league in passing touchdowns, with 18.
Part of the reason why the Bengals were so unable to convert touchdowns in the passing game over the course of the season was the inconsistency of quarterback Andy Dalton, who was ranked in the middle of the league in terms of starting quarterbacks last season.
Despite having taken a big step forward in 2015/16, Dalton seemed to regress back to his career averages in 2016/17.
It seems that Andy Dalton requires a strong receiving corps in order to be effective in the passing game, lacking the talent and intangibles necessary to elevate a mediocre receiving corps. In this way, with the loss of wide receiver Marvin Jones in free agency, and injuries to both tight end Tyler Eifert and A. J. Green, Dalton’s stock took a serious hit, as well as that of the Bengals’ receiving corps itself, which saw its ranking plummet all the way to the bottom handful in the league in the absence of Green.
Luckily, the Bengals’ backfield made up for this lack of production in the passing game, with the running back group rated among the top ten in the league last season. The complementary running styles of Jeremey Hill and Giovani Bernard gave the Bengals a good amount of schematic flexibility, especially considering Bernard’s usefulness as a scat back in the passing game.
All of this production in the running game came behind the excellent production of the Bengals’ offensive line, and in particular the consistently exemplary play of left tackle Andrew Whitworth, who ended the season ranked #2 overall among peers at his position, as well as #2 in pass blocking. Right guard Kevin Zeitler also played well, and the Bengals’ only real hole on the offensive line was at the right tackle position, which saw starter Cedric Ogbuehi benched after 11 games in which he gave up a total of 40 QB pressures and 9 sacks.
In summary, the Bengals’ ineffective offense in 2016/17, when broken down position by position, can be traced primarily to two factors. First off, the offensive line had a hole at the right tackle position, though the rest of the line performed admirably. Second, the injuries in the receiving corps revealed just how little Andy Dalton is able to produce without serious help.
The Bengals’ defense performed significantly better than the offense last season, ending up being ranked 8th in the league in terms of points allowed, with 315 points given up on the season (19.7 per game).
The defense also gave up significantly fewer points than it did yards, with their 5612 yards given up on the season (350.8 per game) only ranking them at 17th in the league. Given that the team only generated the 19th-most turnovers in the league, this disparity between yards and points supports the idea that the Bengals’ defense was simply stout in the red zone, and kept opposing offenses from converting long drives into points.
The Bengals’ defense was considerably more efficient in defending the pass than they were in defending the run, with the team ranked 8th in the league in net yards allowed per pass attempt, and 23rd in the league in average number of yards allowed per rushing attempt.
This disparity in defensive efficiency occurred despite the fact that the team was thrown on much more often than they were run on, ranking at 25th in the league in number of opposing passing attempts and 17th in the league in number of opposing rushing attempts. The Bengals simply gave up more yards on the ground (the 21st-fewest in the league) than they did through the air (the 11th-fewest in the league).
One reason why the run defense lagged behind the pass defense was the astonishing lack of depth in the defensive front seven. While Carlos Dunlap and Geno Atkins both ranked out among the top players in the league at their respective positions, really no other player on the defensive line was even in the middle of the pack despite receiving an adequate number of snaps. In the second level, hothead linebacker Vontaze Burfict received the highest overall grade in the front seven despite missing 3 games.
The Bengals’ secondary was ranked higher than the front seven, though not appreciably so. While no player in the unit was ranked especially highly at their position relative to the rest of the league, no player was ranked especially low either. What the unit lacked in star individual contributions it made up for in youth, speed, and dedicated improvement over the course of the year.
With the group playing together as a unit more and more as the year went on.
In summary, while the Bengals’ season statistics put them among the top ten in the league in terms of points allowed, when you take a closer look at the individual units that compose the defense and the individual players that compose those units, it’s amazing how the high rankings appear to simply disappear into thin air, as the Bengals’ defense primary virtue is how well it plays together, not any individual contributions from individual players.
Next Season: A Preview
When we took a close look at the Bengals’ strengths and weaknesses unit by unit, we found that despite the fact that the team did some things well (e.g. scoring defense), the fact of the matter is that it’s difficult to point to any individual unit of the team as particularly strong, or particularly weak.
On the offensive side of the ball, the running back duo performed very well last season and there was a gaping hole at right tackle, but other than that the unit was simply hampered by injuries in the receiving corps which limited Andy Dalton’s abilities. On the defensive side, though, there was essentially nothing to report – no individual player or unit was ranked especially highly, yet the group performed very well put together, and the team lacked depth throughout.
This may be the reason why the Cincinnati Bengals’ Super Bowl odds, listed at the Bovada sportsbook, currently place them at the fringe of playoff contention once again, back in that same limbo in which they always seem to live.
Specifically, with the New England Patriots the prohibitive favorite at +400 and the rest of the field leveling out at +1000, the Bengals, at +5000, are only slightly ahead of those teams at the farthest edge of contention at +6600.
But despite the fact that the gambling public is not showing very much confidence in the Bengals’ ability to compete for a Super Bowl next season, we still owe it to the franchise to try and determine whether or not they will be able to make the roster moves necessary to put themselves back into the race.
Let’s take a look at the roster moves that the team has already made so far this offseason in order to address their areas of need and try and forecast what areas of need they could potentially address throughout the remainder of free agency and in the draft.
With a good idea of what the Bengals’ roster will look like next year, then, and with additional help from advanced statistical and scheduling factors that clue us in to how well the Bengals should perform next season, we will then be able to make a very accurate prediction – even this early in the offseason – for whether or not the gambling public should believe in the Bengals in 2017/18.
Before we go into the moves that the Bengals have made this offseason and the moves that we believe they should make in the draft and throughout the rest of free agency, we first need to try and understand the team’s general front office philosophy, in order to establish what types of moves would be realistic for the franchise.
And as we discussed above when providing context on the franchise itself, the Bengals’ front office begins and ends with Mike Brown.
After taking over as majority owner, president, and de facto general manager of the Bengals after the death of his father in 1991, the franchise had only two winning seasons over the subsequent 19. By contrast, when Brown finally gave up control over football operations to a committee that included head coach Marvin Jones, things immediately improved, and the team made it to the playoffs 6 out of 8 seasons.
But setting aside the lack of success on the field, it’s also important to understand some of the features of Mike Brown’s general management philosophy that have come to define the Cincinnati Bengals’ organization over the years, and which carry through even since the management changes in 2009.
Firstly, Mike Brown has become known for tolerating rather “colorful” off-field conduct from his players, or, put less delicately, keeping a few thugs on the roster. Despite demonstrated instances in which a player’s off-the-field conduct impacted their game performance, Brown seemed to ignore these considerations, leading to a roster that contained several “bad eggs” which could spoil the bunch.
A good example of a player whose conduct is tolerated by the front office is Vontaze Burfict, who we discussed above. Keeping Burfict on the roster is one of Mike Brown’s most charitable decisions, considering that NFL fine money is given to charity. The amount of money that Burfict has racked up in fines over the course of his tenure with the team could easily pay the full sticker price of a nice suburban home in the Cincinnati area, no mortgage necessary.
Another feature of the Mike Brown era in Cincinnati has been his reluctance to fire or replace personnel in spite of demonstrated poor performance. The value that Brown places on loyalty can be seen in his decision to hire primarily family members to run the team, to name the new stadium after his father rather than sell the rights to a corporate sponsor, and his decision to stick with head coaches long-term.
Finally, the last feature that has come to define the Mike Brown era in the Cincinnati Bengals’ front office is an emphasis on financial solvency. In an era when the collective bargaining agreement and the salary cap rules have enabled a massive inflation of player contracts, Brown has stood nearly alone in his stance on making rational, frugal decisions and refusing to overpay players.
What all this leads to in Cincinnati is a hesitancy to make grand, sweeping changes to the front office philosophy, an insecurity among players as to whether or not the team that drafted them will pay them for a new contract, a lack of trust in the decision-making ability of the front office among fans, and a team culture that is so frustrated it requires a loyalty clause to forcibly prevent players from speaking out against the front office or the franchise.
With all this in mind, the Bengals entered into the start of the league year with roughly $40 million in cap space, giving them the 11th-most cap space in the league. As of the time of this writing, the Cincinnati Bengals have made the following roster moves, in addition to the customary practice squad maintenance that all teams undergo soon after the season ends.
First, before the beginning of free agency, the Bengals did some work on their list of 16 players set to become unrestricted free agents when the league year began. The team re-signed kicker Randy Bullock, placed linebacker Trevor Roach on the reserve/retired list, and signed cornerback Bené Benwikere, who had previously been drafted by the team.
The team also re-signed wide receiver Brandon LaFell, leaving only 11 players set to become unrestricted free agents at the start of free agency.
Subsequently, once free agency kicked off, the team re-signed cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick and offensive tackle Eric Winston, taking care of two of the 11 free agents. The team then lost 6 of the remaining 9: linebacker Karlos Dansby to the Arizona Cardinals; offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth to the Los Angeles Rams; offensive guard Kevin Zeitler to the Cleveland Browns; defensive tackle Domata Peko to the Denver Broncos; halfback Rex Burkhead to the New England Patriots; and defensive end Margus Hunt to the Indianapolis Colts.
With these moves, all of the major pending free agents on the Bengals’ roster last year had been resolved, save the one or two minor role players who did not merit significant attention in the opening rounds of free agency.
After handling their own players, it was time to seek out other teams’ players. The Bengals signed offensive guard/tackle Andre Smith from the Minnesota Vikings, re-signed center T. J. Johnson and offensive tackle Eric Winston, waived wide receiver James Wright, and also signed linebacker Kevin Minter from the Arizona Cardinals.
After all of these roster moves, as of the time of this writing the Bengals are now down to roughly $21 million in remaining cap space, according to Over the Cap. In keeping with the frugal front office philosophy outlined above, however, their spending has exactly tracked with the league: After starting out free agency with the 11th-most cap space, they are now still at the 12th-most.
It’s unlikely that the Bengals will make any splash free agent signings at this point, particularly considering the fact that they must reserve cap space for draft picks and carry some forward into the season.
This is especially true considering the fact that the Bengals have retained all seven of their original draft picks, at the #9 slot, and also have a whopping four compensatory selections: One in the fourth round, due to the departure of Marvin Jones; one in the fifth round, due to the departure of Mohamed Sanu; and two in the seventh round, due to the departure of Vernon Davis and Ryan Harris.
The biggest area of need that the team will need to address in the draft is clearly the trenches: with the loss of both Andrew Whitworth and Kevin Zeitler, the Bengals’ offensive line is currently in shambles. Losing Domata Peko and Margus Hunt also certainly does little to improve the depth of a defensive line unit that was already perilously thin last season.
With slight improvements thus far in free agency and an unheard of 11 selections in the draft, the Bengals could be poised to take a step forward next season based purely on roster composition – if they are able to utilize their draft picks well.
However, if the franchise fails to hit in the draft or to utilize the rest of free agency to add roster depth, the Bengals could miss the playoffs once again next season and be headed for a multi-year period of rebuilding.
In this way, when we looked at the Bengals’ current roster situation and the progress they have made thus far in the offseason to improve their roster, we found that it’s not yet entirely clear whether or not Cincinnati will head into training camp and the preseason with an overall improved squad or if they are poised to take another step back.
At this point in the offseason, before the NFL Draft has even taken place, it is difficult to forecast just exactly how a team will fare next season.
But that’s not to say that there aren’t data points we can use to make this sort of prediction. In fact, there are several different reliable pieces of information that we know even this early in the offseason that clue us in and help us make an accurate prediction for what we expect to see out of each NFL team next year.
The first important statistical factor to consider in predicting a team’s future performance is called Pythagorean expectation.
Pythagorean expectation is a statistical formula originally developed by sabermetric wizard Bill James for use in baseball; it was later modified for the NFL by Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey. The idea behind Pythagorean expectation is to use advanced statistical modeling to more accurately assess a team’s past performance, in the hopes of better predicting their future performance.
Specifically, Pythagorean expectation is a modified version of the original Pythagorean theorem that we all learned back in algebra class, used to deduce the length of one side of a right triangle based on knowledge of the other two sides.
But the NFL’s Pythagorean theorem doesn’t deal with triangles and lengths: Instead the numbers that are manipulated in the theorem are the amount of points scored and the amount of points allowed by a particular team. By plugging these points totals into the formula, the number that ultimately gets spit out is an expected win percentage based purely on points.
The idea behind this is that in the NFL, not all wins should be valued the same amount. For example, when the 2016/17 Indianapolis Colts lost 7–28 at home against the Pittsburgh Steelers, that’s a pretty terrible loss. That loss should certainly mean more than when the same Colts lose 23 to 26 in overtime in Houston. And yet, at the end of the season, all we remember is that the Colts were 8–8, with both of these two losses receiving the exact same weight in the loss column.
By the same token, when the 2016/17 Buffalo Bills beat the Cincinnati Bengals 16–12, even though there’s a W on the win column, this shouldn’t impress anyone. However, when those same Bills beat the San Francisco 49ers 45–16, that same lone W should go a whole lot further to tip us off that the Bills could be legitimate contenders. Once again, though, at the end of the season, the Bills are just 7–9.
In this way, utilizing Pythagorean expectation gives us a way to evaluate a team’s performance over the course of a season using statistics that truly capture not just whether a team won or lost games, but how well they won or lost games. We learn more than just how many games a team won; we learn how many games that team should have won.
In the case of the 2016/17 Bengals, the numbers demonstrate quite clearly that the team actually under-performed last season, by more than 2 games. Specifically, what this means is that despite the fact that the Bengals only won 6 games last season, according to Pythagorean Expectation, the team should have won exactly 8.3 games.
And when you think back on the Bengals’ schedule, this completely makes sense: Cincinnati played in an incredible 8 games – half of the season’s games – that were decided by one possession or less, and went 1–6–1 in these games. Looking even closer, the team was unlucky enough to lose five games by five points or less.
Of course, Bengals fans will look back and remember the missed field goals and other miscues that led to some of these close losses, and perhaps will feel confident that the team addressed that issue by trading in their old placekicker for a younger model.
But in reality, when you look at the statistics of points scored and points allowed using Pythagorean Expectation, we see that while certainly part of the difficulty was related to the kicking game and to other specific units of the team, part of their failure to win close games was simply a statistical anomaly – it was just bad luck. And one would expect this bad luck to equalize over the course of multiple seasons.
So in this way, instead of thinking of the Bengals as a 6–8–1 team last season, by utilizing Pythagorean Expectation we think of them instead as a 9–7 team, because that’s how they played; they simply under-performed in the final win/loss column. And it’s crucially important to put this under-performance in the context of the second piece of information that clues us in to how well the Bengals will play next season, and that is the schedule that Cincinnati played over the course of the 2016/17 regular season.
According to the meticulously calculated “DVOA” value, assembled by the stat gurus at Football Outsiders and accounting for every single play of every game individually, the Bengals played the 14th-most difficult schedule in the entire league in 2016/17, placing them in the middle of the pack in terms of strength of schedule.
While this doesn’t necessarily speak good or ill of the season that the Bengals had last year, it does help clue us in to the season that they are going to have next year. By comparing the strength of the Bengals’ schedule last year to their slate of opponents next year, we can determine whether or not this should make the road easier or more difficult for Cincinnati in 2017/18.
And the reason we’re able to judge the strength of the Bengals’ schedule next year despite the fact that the week-by-week NFL schedule is not set to be released until mid-April is because while the schedule-makers have the tough task of balancing all kinds of different factors, including international games, complicated TV contracts, team travel schedules and all the rest, the slate of opponents that these schedule-makers use to configure the schedule is based on a simple mathematical rotation that becomes set in stone the moment the standings are finalized at the conclusion of the Super Bowl.
Specifically, every year, the 16-game schedule for each NFL team is composed of the following games: 6 games against division opponents (3 at home, 3 away); four games against teams from a single division within the same conference; four games against teams from a single division within the opposite conference; and finally two games against opponents within the same conference that finished in the same position in their division.
For the Bengals, this means the following:
- 3 home games against the Ravens, the Browns, and the Steelers
- 3 road games against the Ravens, the Browns, and the Steelers
- 4 games against the AFC South: the Colts (home), the Texans (home), the Titans (away), and the Jaguars (away)
- 4 games against the NFC North: the Bears (home), the Lions (home), the Packers (away), and the Vikings (away)
- 2 games against other AFC third-place finishers: the Bills (home), and the Broncos (away)
At first glance, this schedule doesn’t appear to be especially difficult: The AFC South was among the worst divisions in football last year, and having two games against the Browns each year is certainly a gift from the football gods.
But in order to determine how difficult this slate of opponents really is, we can consider each team’s performance in 2016/17 in order to get a proxy of how well we think they will do in 2017/18, and how this aggregated performance compares to the opponents of other teams.
When we tally up the number of wins that each of the Bengals’ opponents had in 2016/17 and compare that win total to the number of wins that all of the other teams’ opponents combined for, we see that the Bengals lucked out with the 4th-easiest schedule in the league, according to total wins and win percentage. Cincinnati plays only 7 teams next season that had winning records last season.
When we look at the Bengals’ opponents in terms of point differential – which, as we saw with Pythagorean Expectation, is a more accurate measure of team success – we find that the team’s schedule is a little bit tougher than it appears at first glance, ranking out at the 8th-easiest in the league.
But no matter which way you look at things, by all accounts it seems that the Bengals are slated to play a significantly easier schedule in 2017/18 than they did in 2016/17.
So, in summary, having looked at the arc of the Bengals’ season last year, the strengths and weaknesses of the team unit by unit, the roster moves that the team has made thus far in the offseason, and the statistical and scheduling factors that clue us in to how well the team will perform next season, we’re now able to combine all of this information together and make an accurate prediction for what we expect to see out of Cincinnati in 2017/18.
Given the fact that the team under-performed by more than two games last season, we’ll start out next year’s Bengals with 9 wins, the win total that we believe they deserved last season. Given the fact that their schedule is significantly easier next season than it was last season, we’ll tack on an additional win.
However, despite the fact that the Bengals have an unheard of 11 picks in the 2017 NFL Draft, the departure of two of the team’s best offensive linemen in free agency is not something that just goes away overnight, especially considering the fact that the front office missed the opportunity to swap out for any of the other big name offensive lineman free agents that went in the opening hours of free agency.
The defensive unit also took a hit with free agent departures that were not adequately replenished with corresponding free agent acquisitions. Of course, this is fine – if the Bengals are anchoring on rebuilding their roster with young talent through the draft. The fact that they had such a net loss in free agency last year that they were awarded four whole compensatory selections in this year’s draft seems to indicate that this could be the philosophy of the Bengals going forward.
But rebuilding a team through the draft is a long and time-consuming process, and therefore the fans should perhaps expect things to get worse before they get better. If the offensive line is worse next year and the injury bug hits, say, the defensive secondary instead of the receiving corps like it did last year, the Bengals could have a serious problem on their hands; good in our minds for a two-game skid.
Predicted regular season record for the 2017/18 Cincinnati Bengals: 8–8
Conclusion: The Story of the Cincinnati Bengals
After joining the league during the NFL-AFL merger on the back of founder and stadium-namesake Paul Brown, the Cincinnati Bengals enjoyed several periods of success up until Paul’s death in 1991, after which point the leadership of his son Mike brought the team into a 19-season period in which they failed to have a winning season or make the playoffs.
In 2009, however, the decision was made for football operations to be taken over by a committee that included head coach Marvin Lewis, who has now been leading with the team for almost 15 years, and as a result the Bengals made the playoffs five seasons in a row after the drafting of franchise players Andy Dalton, A. J. Green, and others.
After five straight seasons of making the playoffs and failing to move past the Wild Card Round, however, the fan base entered into the 2016/17 season hoping that it would finally be their year to break out with a postseason victory.
Unfortunately, however, the opposite occurred, and the team won only 6 games despite playing at the level of a 9-win team. Part of the blame was placed on placekicker Mike Nugent, who was replaced by the younger Randy Bullock, but in examining the team unit by unit we found that a lack of depth throughout the roster and injuries in the receiving corps were most responsible for the skid.
Unfortunately, the opening period of free agency up to the time of this writing has seen the Bengals get worse instead of get better, as two of the team’s best offensive linemen – a unit that was already struggling at certain positions last year – left in free agency, along with a few key role players in the defensive line.
With the frugal, hesitant front office philosophy built in by Mike Brown, it seems unlikely that the team will address these needs in free agency throughout the rest of the offseason, and will instead likely rely on their 11 draft picks to shore up the roster and provide depth.
If this turns out to be the case, however, and the Bengals roster gets even younger next season, then the team could be slated to once again miss out on playoff contention, even if the bad luck they had with close games last season equalizes and they get back to being a .500 team.
While it certainly doesn’t help to hear this, in the end Bengals fans are simply suffering along with their other Ohio professional football brethren under the reign of a sub-par owner, and may have to wait out another few years of winter before the team can surge back into championship contention.