Sunday, November 14, 2010

Great Expectations

“Take nothing on its looks; take everything on evidence. There's no better rule.”

-Charles Dickens, Great Expectations

I’ve been trying for weeks to write something about the Cincinnati Bengals, but to no avail. Despite my throngs of readers and fans (umm...hi Mom) pleading with me for almost a month to give them something, anything, about what is going on in Bengaldom, I keep coming up empty. Every time I sit down to put words to my thoughts, it inevitably ends with me swigging hard liquor straight from the bottle while glaring at old pictures of Marvin Lewis, Carson Palmer, and Chad Ochocinco in a dimly lit room – and that’s no way to spend a Tuesday afternoon.

But the truth is, the 2010 Cincinnati Bengals are a bad, bad team. We may look good on paper and running around in pre-game warm-ups, but we can’t perform when it counts. This season was shot since Jump Street. The expectations were great, but the Bengals found a way to disappoint.

So what’s wrong with this team? How can we go from a 10-6 AFC North Division (sweeping) Title and playoff berth in 2009, to a pathetic 2-7 sham of a ballclub in 2010? A quick comparison of rosters from each season would only lead one to believe that the 2010 squad is more talented, more experienced, and more prepared for greatness – more prepared to fulfill those expectations. Things should be even better this year. But as Bill Parcells used to say, “You are what your record says you are.” Well our record says we suck…and it’s not wrong.

There are plenty of places to point fingers. You can point them at Carson Palmer (which I already spent 1,600+ words doing), who is an utter shell of his former self. He is still a great guy, hard worker, and physically gifted quarterback. But when the situation gets tight or a big play is needed, Palmer falters. Case in point: I was watching the Bengals and Steelers on Monday Night Football a couple weeks ago with my roommate John (not a Bengals fan). It was 3rd down with 15 to gain, when I said that I hoped the Bengals run a draw play or screen pass. John, believing I was being sarcastic because of the low probability of those plays resulting in a first down, asked if I hated when a team did something like that. I stated that I used to hate it, but that I would rather my team run the ball on 3rd and 15, as opposed to Carson throwing a pass into triple coverage that gets picked off.

Well, guess what happened. Carson airmailed a pass into triple coverage…and it was picked off. Not 15 seconds after I specifically stated what I thought (or knew) would happen, it did, just as I said it would. John was shocked. Unfortunately, I was not.

But I’ve spent enough time on Palmer, and he’s not the only one deserving of blame. Because as bad as Palmer’s play has been, it has certainly been aided by his ring leaders at wide receiver, and the circus act that is the play calling.

I was hesitant about the signing of Terrell Owens this offseason, especially when we already had the loose cannon of Chad Ochocinco. True, both players are extremely talented wideouts that will play hard to get catches and win football games. But when the passes aren’t coming their way and the points aren’t piling up on the scoreboard, the frustration of each comes out. Chad is another guy I’ve spent plenty of words on in the past, and I still think he is a great person that works hard and wants to win. But he drops waaaaayyyy too many passes, doesn’t always run crisp routes, and his frustration becomes slightly destructive when the team struggles. I understand (and even appreciate) the fact that he shows emotion, but I would much prefer that he took it out on opposing defenses instead of his own team. And while he still attracts double teams and can make spectacular plays, he’s not the player he once was, and he might be the last to realize it.

TO, on the other hand, is a little more complex than Mr. Ocho. I think TO is a great player that still has the capacity to be a great receiver. I think he plays hard, and I think he wants to win. But I think he makes up his own routes at times, and his body language when things go bad is equivalent to that of a preschooler. And the thing about TO that really hurts the team is his lack of willingness to make the tough catch. He can fly by and through defenders with ease, but if a pass isn’t within 6 inches of his chest, he’s not trying too hard to haul it in. He has chronic alligator arms, and if it is not a relatively easy catch for him to make, he doesn’t put much effort into doing so.

Even still, the characters at wide receiver and shaky QB sure aren’t getting any help from the gameplan. The offense has become so stagnant and predictable that most Bengals fans can guess the next play call before it is even made. No trick plays, no creativity, and heaven forbid we run a play action pass. The amount of talent you have on your team (or even lack thereof) is irrelevant if you can’t keep the opposing defense somewhat in the dark. And if I can sit in my living room and know what play is coming, then I’m sure a bunch of NFL coaches can too.

Unfortunately, the blame train doesn’t stop there. The Bengals feasted on their run game last season, making up for the failings of the pass game by grinding out the clock and holding possession. The defense finished 4th in the NFL in 2009, with lock-down coverage and sure tackling. This season, the run game has faltered, and the fact that we are always playing from behind doesn’t help to get it going. The defense, despite only adding talent, looks like a completely different unit, unable to pressure the quarterback, prevent big plays, or get big stops. And of course the sputtering offense leaves the defense in bad field position and always catching their breath, so it’s really just a vicious circle of hell all around. Add in injuries, stupid penalties (which this squad attracts like a magnet) and shoddy special teams play, and it’s no wonder we look a lot better on the depth chart than we do on the field.

And yet, all that I’ve said still doesn’t clarify why such a formidable and successful team last year has taken such a drastic fall this season; it explains the “what”, but doesn’t really get to the “why”. Why is this team failing in every facet in which it succeeded last season? Why are we committing dumb penalties? Why is the play calling so elementary? Why is the defense and run game crumbling? Why is our quarterback – and on a larger scale – our team, choking in big moments and continually coming up short???

Expectations, that’s why.

If you’ve watched the Bengals this season, then you know that we are arguably the best team in NFL history…when we get down by three scores. Palmer gets in a rhythm, the offense clicks, the blocking tightens, the defense gets big stops, and the team starts to look like we hoped it would. Carson is throwing bombs to our high profile receivers like it’s 2005 all over again, the line is opening huge holes for Ced Benson to plow through, the defense is hitting the quarterback, the secondary is locking down receivers, and the coaching staff starts to show some gumption.

And then you look at the scoreboard and realize that half the game has already gone by, and that a couple good possessions doesn’t put you back in the lead. It happens like clockwork. We get down by 20 or so, mount a comeback, and then come up short. We wait until the pressure is completely gone, claw our way back, and then coddle into the fetal position once things get intriguing. The 2010 Bengals are always flirting with victory, but still end up going home alone at the end of the night, a tease that can’t seal the deal when it counts.

Last year’s Bengals were coming off a four win season with no expectations of greatness. Winning tight games and shocking opponents was easy, because no one ever saw it coming. But once the target was on our backs, with people buzzing about back-to-back playoff appearances and a shot at a Super Bowl run, the Bengals buckled, crumbled, and collapsed. In the words of Public Enemy, “Don’t believe the hype.”

But somehow, it still gets to me. Regardless of everything I’ve told you, it still tears me up week after week to watch my team waver. I enter the game accepting of their faults and expecting them to struggle, and yet it still sticks in my craw all the same. It’s like watching The Perfect Storm over and over, and still being shocked and upset every time that little boat gets demolished out at sea.

Eventually, things will turn around for the Cincinnati Bengals. (Really, they will.) It’s why I hang around, and why every fan of every sport hangs around through tough times. And when the tide does finally turn in our favor, it will undoubtedly be worth it. It just won’t be this season.

The Bengals have some major decisions in the near future – coaching, personnel, and attitude decisions. Maybe things will change. Maybe next year, when the heat has died off and expectations are far from great, the team can turn it around. Maybe they can change their fortunes for the next five years. Maybe even 10. Either way, I’ll rely more on proof than hype, more on the walk than the talk. Expectations are wasted if the evidence can’t live up to them.

There’s no better rule.

Thanks for reading

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