Marvin Lewis is the second-longest-tenured head coach in the NFL, but his Bengals have yet to win a playoff game in his 11 seasons. Prized coordinators Mike Zimmer and Jay Gruden are now head coaches in Minnesota and Washington, and quarterback Andy Dalton — 0-3 in the postseason — is entering a contract year. To say the 2014 Bengals are at a crossroads is an understatement.
In addition to losing coordinators, the Bengals saw talented young linemen Michael Johnson and Anthony Collins sign with Tampa Bay and speedy wide receiver Andrew Hawkins leave for the rival Browns. The biggest question, aside from Dalton’s contract situation, is the health of defensive tackle Geno Atkins.
One of the best players in the sport over the past three seasons, Atkins tore his ACL in a Thursday night loss at Miami last season. When he was on the field in 2013, the Bengals’ defense allowed just 3.7 yards per rush. When he was off the field, the same D surrendered 4.3 yards per rush. Atkins is expected to be back and healthy for Week 1, but an ACL injury is never easy for a man of Atkins’ size.
Though the offense is seemingly loaded with young playmakers in wideout A.J. Green, running back Giovani Bernard, tight end Tyler Eifert and rookie running back Jeremy Hill, the defensive backfield is no longer the promising, young unit it once was. Without Zimmer coaching them up, there are questions as to whether the Bengals can expect the same type of superb production from veterans Terence Newman, Adam Jones, and Reggie Nelson.
In a division with quarterbacks Ben Roethlisberger, Joe Flacco and now Johnny Manziel, the Bengals’ secondary — one of the oldest in the league – can’t afford to take a step back in 2014.
In the end, it’ll be on Dalton, who is playing with more on the line than he has in any of his previous three seasons. He can lead the Bengals to their first playoff victory since 1990, reverse the stigma that he can’t win the big games and make himself some big money. Or he can fail to do any and all of that. He has the whole world in his hands … let’s see how he responds.