Cincinnati Bengals: Bad 2016 Season Was Not An Aberration

Sep 13, 2015; Oakland, CA, USA; Cincinnati Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis stands on the field during a timeout against the Oakland Raiders in the first quarter at O.co Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

The Cincinnati Bengals had a bad 2016 season for a number of reasons, all of which point to it not being a fluke.

The Cincinnati Bengals firmly put the negative “Bungles” past of the 1990s through early-2000s behind them under the leadership of Marvin Lewis. The franchise not only began to experience some success, but was considered by many to be one of the league’s most talented teams during a good portion of this decade.

After a 4-12 season in 2010, the Bengals all of a sudden embarked upon a streak of five-straight seasons reaching the playoffs. Those campaigns all ended earlier than hoped (0-5 in those Wild Card contests), but it could be argued that most of those results could easily have turned the other way with slightly different circumstances.

Going into 2016, it seemed the team would likely return to the playoffs again, but instead dropped off in multiple areas to fall to 6-9-1. Looking back, that fall shouldn’t be as surprising, however. And the factors which played a part in that dip in the standings could prove to be even more impactful in 2017.

Combine them with other factors occurring since the end of last season, and there is a sizeable list of reasons that indicate those 2016 struggles could be more that just a one-season blip. Let’s take a look at five of the biggest reasons why the Cincinnati Bengals will continue to falter.

Feb 5, 2017; Houston, TX, USA; Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Mohamed Sanu (12) against the New England Patriots during Super Bowl LI at NRG Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

5. Hemorrhaging Talent

Philosophically, Cincinnati shares common ground with a team like the Green Bay Packers. Each of these teams mainly builds the talent of their teams through the draft and are reluctant to spend money on players they did not develop themselves.

This can be a successful plan — Cincinnati did make the playoffs in six of the seven years prior to 2016, and Green Bay hasn’t missed the postseason since 2008. But a problem inherent to this model is what happens when those players you draft don’t develop as quickly or as well as planned. If they don’t develop to be as good as you hope when you need them to, your team suffers, and usually your record will follow suit.

More damaging than simply not developing, though, is when a team allows talent to leave. Often this is somewhat inevitable. You cannot keep everyone, especially when realizing just how much more players cost on second contracts compared to the price tag on rookies. Even considering that issue, what has happened with the Bengals in recent years has been more damaging than in the average situation.

Going back through recent offseasons, we can see numerous key players for this team which have been allowed to leave in free agency. After the 2014 season, Terence Newman and Jermaine Gresham left for Minnesota and Arizona, respectively. With that, Cincinnati lost one of their better corners and decent insurance for Tyler Eifert’s injury issues (which were already showing up back then). Post-2015 saw Leon Hall, Reggie Nelson, Marvin Jones, and Mohamed Sanu leave. That took another two solid veteran performers from the secondary, as well as massively depleting the talented weaponry of the offense.

In a vacuum, each of those moves makes sense. Many of those players were either aging or set for high-market contracts (if not both). In multiple instances, the team also had drafted players to eventually take over. But this is a team that tends to have plenty of money to burn on their cap due to the lack of big-money outside signings.

Strategically, what is the point of keeping that money if they never really push up on the cap? Outside of being excessively frugal, there isn’t much of one. Even considering their meager spendings in free agency and extensions for players they do keep long-term, there has consistently been enough to fit in at least one of these key players each season without crippling their future. What’s worse, in many cases those moves have failed to prevent a notable drop-off in production.

Granted, it should be noted that many of these players did go on to perform at lower levels elsewhere. Again, in a vacuum, most are proving to have been good long-term decisions at the time. Still, when they are added together in combination with the options chosen to replace them on Cincinnati’s roster, it is apparent that the overall picture is bleaker for the team and could be a major roadblock to the team returning to the playoffs.

Jan 9, 2016; Cincinnati, OH, USA; Cincinnati Bengals tackle Andre Smith (71) against the Pittsburgh Steelers during a AFC Wild Card playoff football game at Paul Brown Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

4. Awful Offensive Line

During Cincinnati’s high-points of success this decade, one of their staples was a great offensive line. That has changed dramatically. Here are the rankings for the Cincinnati offensive line from 2011-15, per Football Outsiders:

Year
Overall Run Blocking Rank
Power Success % (Rank)
Stuff % (Rank)
2nd Level YPR (Rank)
Open Field YPR (Rank)
Adjusted Sack Rate (Rank)
2011
20
56% (25)
22% (27)
1.12 (23)
0.51 (28)
4.5% (4)
2012
11
69% (5)
17% (9)
0.91 (31)
0.90 (10)
8.3% (28)
2013
11
63% (19)
18% (9)
0.96 (26)
0.37 (30)
5.2% (3)
2014
11
68% (9)
15% (3)
1.16 (16)
1.04 (3)
4.6% (5)
2015
1
68% (13)
17% (3)
1.20 (14)
0.42 (31)
5.9% (15)

And now here’s 2016:

Year
Overall Run Blocking Rank
Power Success % (Rank)
Stuff % (Rank)
2nd Level YPR (Rank)
Open Field YPR (Rank)
Adjusted Sack Rate (Rank)
2016
14
60% (19)
20% (15)
1.04 (26)
0.55 (23)
7.3% (26)

Notice a difference? What I see is a team taking an across-the-board step back in quality blocking. From 2012-15, the team was at least 11th in overall run blocking, and all the way at  No. 1 in 2015. They dipped in 2016, and the individual areas Football Outsiders tracked were even steeper. Almost a double-digit drop in power run success, stuffed significantly more often on runs, and going from middling to outright bad in second-level rushing yardage.

The run-blocking was rough, but the pass blocking drop-off was much more noteworthy. After ranking among the top five in Adjusted Sack Rate (ASR) three times between 2011-15, the team saw that percentage skyrocket. It may not seem like a big leap, but just a couple percentage points in that statistic can mean a team gave up over 10 more sacks in the same amount of passing snaps. For example: In 2014, Cincinnati gave up 23 sacks in 503 passing snaps for their 4.6 percent ASR. In 2015, they let up 32 sacks in 505 passing snaps for their 5.9 percent ASR).

The big reasoning for the drop-off last year was failings by their offensive linemen. Andrew Whitworth and Kevin Zeitler were elite at their spots, but nobody else could play with much consistency. Offensive line is also the unit where having a cohesive group is more important than having a few high-level individual performers, so the actual impact of Whitworth and Zeitler was mitigated substantially by their underwhelming teammates.

Still, having those guys was meaningful and they are no longer on the roster at all. In their places are a bundle of question marks in the best-case scenario, and the other spots aren’t exactly bright spots.

Russell Bodine was decent at center in 2016, but his play was an outlier from his previously poor form before that. Clint Boling has been an average performer at left guard for four seasons now. Right guard is a huge hole without Zeitler. Their tackle rotation is left to be decided by Cedric Ogbuehi, Jake Fisher, Andre Smith, and Eric Winston — none of whom a team should feel comfortable turning to at this point of careers, much less needing two of them to act as starters.

The blockers were once the biggest strength for this Cincinnati team, but now it easily stands as their biggest weakness for the foreseeable future.

Oct 4, 2015; Cincinnati, OH, USA; Cincinnati Bengals defensive end Michael Johnson (90) looks on from the sidelines during the game against the Kansas City Chiefs in the second half at Paul Brown Stadium. Cincinnati defeated Kansas City 36-21. Mandatory Credit: Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

3. Middling Defensive Line

While the offensive line was the key on-field strength of Cincinnati’s previous offensive success, the same could be said for their defensive line on the other side.

When this team has been at their best, their defensive line was forcing pressure at a high rate. This past year, they fell under 7.0 percent in Adjusted Sack Rate for only the second time since 2011. The other time (2014) was mitigated by issues including Geno Atkins working his way back after a torn ACL in 2013 and the free agency departure of Michael Johnson. This time, even with those players on the field, it didn’t make nearly as much of a positive impact as planned.

Atkins played well, but Johnson is a shell of his former self as a pass rusher. And beyond Carlos Dunlap, the team had nobody else to turn to for production. Domata Peko hadn’t been a good player since nearly 2012, but still picked up nearly 600 snaps. Pat Sims cratered to by far his worst season since 2011 in over 400 snaps. Wallace Gilberry, Margus Hunt, and Will Clarke all were underwhelming in their roles as backup edge rushers.

A unit which used to be powered not only by top-quality talent at the top but also strong depth fell off heavily, and those issues look to continue to decline unfavorably.

Barring injury, Atkins and Dunlap should continue to play at a high level, but no other spot has a credible answer going forward. Peko being gone is a positive in a vacuum, but there doesn’t appear to be much to get excited about in his stead. The only realistic options on the roster appear to be either the aforementioned Sims or a young guy like Andrew Billings. Sims would be about as bad as having Peko there still, and Billings missed all of last year with an injury.

On the outside, the depth chart is the same so far, minus Hunt, who was easily the best of the three backups taking edge rusher snaps for the team. That was bad one year ago, and we have no reason to expect better from those same guys a year later.

This is a spot the team surely will look to in the draft, but even an addition or two may not be worth getting too excited over. Cincinnati has a tendency to focus on letting draft picks sit and learn in their early years rather than throw them into the fire, so an immediate impact could be unlikely.

If they don’t go against that thinking, this line could fully recede to the abysmal levels we saw from them in 2014. Should that happen, even 6-9-1 would probably be a tough outcome to reach, much less surpass.

Dec 18, 2016; Cincinnati, OH, USA; Cincinnati Bengals cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick (27) against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Paul Brown Stadium. The Steelers won 24-20. Mandatory Credit: Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

2. Cornerbacks Are Just Average

The defensive line may have been the strength of the defense in their best moments, but the area of the team where they’ve spent the most capital during their success has been the cornerback spot. This team has spent not only money for big contracts on corners during their success this decade, but they’ve used numerous high draft picks on cornerbacks as well.

Leon Hall was making nearly $10 million per year from 2011-15. Adam Jones signed a three-year contract last offseason for nearly $7 million per year. First round picks were spent on Dre Kirkpatrick, Darqueze Dennard, and William Jackson III in three of the past five drafts, and Kirkpatrick just signed an extension that will pay him over $10 million per year for the next five seasons.

With all of this investment at the position, it would seem like the team should be getting high-level production at the spot. Instead, what Cincinnati has gotten is mostly middling production, and that appears set to continue for the foreseeable future.

Jones has actually been above-average across his time with Cincinnati, but two of the past three seasons have been a clear step below that level for him. He also brings with him on- and off-field issues which impact his ability to stay on the field. That is always a worry with him, and though it isn’t completely his fault, it will probably always be part of the package you get with him.

Kirkpatrick, Dennard, and Jackson all have or will face some degree of the Bengals’ decision to let their rookies sit back rather than jump right into action, but the returns on all three so far don’t show all that much promise.

Kirkpatrick was undeniably awful in his first full year as a starter in 2015. His 2016 season shows a player who was the epitome of average (Pro Football Focus grade: 74.7). Yet (probably somewhat simply due to the massive jump from his previous form) that was enough for Cincinnati to give him eight figures per season until 2022. He could conceivably get better — that’s definitely what the Bengals are hoping for — but 2016 could be his baseline. If it is, the team is going to be in a rough spot, because those other guys aren’t guarantees to even reach Kirkpatrick’s level.

Dennard has been a major disappointment three years into his career, rarely getting on the field in that time and doing little to prove he should be out there when he has been. He saw his highest snap count yet in 2016 (334), but in it he had his worse season-long performance (PFF grade: 53.3). Worse than that, he’s already been surpassed: 2015 fourth-round pick Josh Shaw received more snaps in 2016 (618) than Dennard has had in his entire career (583), and Shaw has been clearly better than him in that time as well (2016 PFF grade: 73.0).

The other major player here is the 2016 first-rounder, Jackson III. He missed all of last year due to injuries, but even without those, there is a strong chance he wouldn’t have done much more than sit on the sideline. Remember how I mentioned Cincinnati likes to have their draft picks sit at first? Well that happens most noticeably with their cornerback spot, and Jackson III is right in the middle of that part of his Bengals tenure. With Jones, Kirkpatrick, Dennard, and Shaw all above him right now, it could be awhile before he has any chance to prove himself on the field.

Considering the relative blandness of their talents so far, that can be seen as both an indictment of what Jackson III’s talent level could be and how good we can expect the group to be in the next few years.

For a position with so much invested in it, that would be a disappointing development, one which could stand as a major roadblock to this team from challenging for the playoffs again anytime soon.

Dec 13, 2015; Cincinnati, OH, USA; Cincinnati Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson looks on in the first half at Paul Brown Stadium. The Steelers won 33-20. Mandatory Credit: Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

1. The Post-Hue Dropoff

More than anything else, seeing Hue Jackson leave the team last year could have a catastrophic long-term effect on where this group could realistically hope to go.

With Jackson as their offensive coordinator from 2014-15, the team saw their highest offensive successes during their playoff-bound runs from 2011-15. There wasn’t a dramatic change from the Jay Gruden-led offenses of the previous years at first, but signs were starting to take form. Notably, the team jumped from middling efficiency in the run game to being a top-10 unit by Football Outsiders‘ Run Offense DVOA metric.

It was 2015 where it all came together in dramatic fashion. The team was bested only by Seattle in terms of Overall Offensive DVOA that year, while being in the top 10 for Weighted Offensive DVOA (seventh), Run Offense DVOA (seventh), and leading the league in Pass Offense DVOA.

In his time heading the offense, the offensive line also improved greatly at run-blocking, turning the team from a sub-top-10 unit into the best run blocking unit in the league in terms of Adjusted Line Yards, while also improving dramatically in sub-metrics, including power run success, stuff percentage, and second-level yardage, per Football Outsiders’ metrics.

All of that in itself is impressive, but remember, this was also including the games Andy Dalton missed at the end of the season as well, furthering its significance.

Especially in 2015, Jackson showed off a strong feel for the game, and had a deep grasp of how and when to utilize his players in his gameplans. From trick plays (like the touchdown catch-and-run by Dalton early in the year) to constantly finding ways to keep all of his unique weapons liable to produce on any given snap (between A.J. Green, Tyler Eifert, Marvin Jones, Mohamed Sanu, Jeremy Hill, and Giovani Bernard, he certainly had plenty). He orchestrated what had legitimate claim to being a Super Bowl-caliber offense — and had Dalton not been injured, there is a decent case to be made they could’ve made a deep playoff run that year.

Without him leading the charge, everything took a huge step back. In terms of DVOA, the offense fell from the top 10 in every offensive category. Dalton returned from dark horse MVP in 2015 to the middling performer he had been prior. Hill and Bernard weren’t close to being as impactful. Green was the only consistent weapon running routes and making plays at a high level just a year after being the lead dog in a deadly multi-faceted attack. The blocking wasn’t nearly as good, dropping a tier in both run and pass blocking.

Not all of the drop-off can be attributed to Jackson, obviously. There’s no way he (or anyone) could’ve prevented some sort of negative change in production after such a stellar 2015 and the corresponding losses in free agency.

His influence and knowledge of the system in place could have mitigated the damage, however. There were multiple instances across the season where better play-calling could have given the team what they needed to come away with a win and changed the entire scope of last season:

  • Week 8, vs Washington: 27-24 lead with under five minutes in fourth quarter, and four drives through overtime before the eventual tie
  • Week 10, at N.Y. Giants: 20-14 lead midway through third quarter, before 0 points on five following drives in a 21-20 loss
  • Week 11, vs Buffalo: 12-10 halftime lead, then 0 points on six second-half drives (including three three-and-outs) in a 16-12 loss
  • Week 15, vs Pittsburgh: 20-9 halftime lead, then 0 points on four second-half drives in a 24-20 loss
  • Week 16, @ Houston: 10 points on 12 drives in an eventual 12-10 loss

Any one of those games could have flipped behind a better-led offense; win a few of those rather than lose or tie, this team could have been right there in the playoff hunt again.

Beyond just last season, the team would also be more stable going forward. Right now, rather than having an unquestioned setup for the offensive system going forward, the team could need a substantive change at coordinator as soon as next year.

Past that, there have been rumors swirling in recent years regarding Marvin Lewis’ future, both in terms of being on the hot seat or even retirement. Before, there may have been the possibility of a succession plan of sorts to have Jackson take over whenever Lewis left. Now the only clear answer seems to be a complete overhaul regardless of how he eventually leaves.

Unlike other areas, this one probably isn’t a clear-cut decision made by the team which hasn’t worked out. Jackson clearly wanted to be a head coach again, and likely wouldn’t have stuck around without a clear path to that position in the very near future. Despite the rumors streaming around, Lewis still appears to be nowhere near ready to call it quits, and Bengals owner Mike Brown has shown no signs of tossing out the best head coach he’s ever employed.

Still, though there doesn’t appear to be a realistic path for Jackson to have stayed, the impact of him leaving could continue to have negative effects reverberating through the next few years. With plenty else not looking great either, the struggles of 2016 could be only the beginning of a new sustained run of futility for these Cincinnati Bengals.

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