One of the tests of an analyst’s mettle is knowing when to say “Uncle.” You stake out a bold and courageous position and hold it against all comers. Meanwhile the subject of your erudition constantly presents evidence that undercuts your argument– or at least makes it difficult to justify.
The last time I previewed the Bengals, I wrote a fairly well-reasoned essay about Marvin Lewis, making the point that he is a good coach handicapped by a bad front office. I reviewed the defections via free agency, pointed out that the Bengals were 3-4 due to losses to Pittsburgh, Denver, Dallas and New England, and boldy prediicted:
It would not be a surprise– they play Cleveland this week and Washington next– to see the Bengals go into the bye week at .500, and make a late-season run to make the playoffs.
In case you haven’t picked up on this, when I put something in blue, it means I consider it intelligent. Red means I think it’s pretty stupid (green means I’m quoting and have no opinion). This is my way of telling you that my assessment was way off. After beating the Browns, the Bengals:
- Tied Washington 27-27, in a game played in London
- Lost to the Giants 21-20,
- Lost to Buffalo 16-12,
- Lost to Baltimore 19-14, before
- Beat Philadelphia 32-14
I could frame that as “Cincinnati had a tie game played under ridiculous conditions– and lost three games by only 8 points total.” I could point to the injuries to WR A.J. Green, RB Giovanni Bernard., G Clint Bolling and TE C.J. Uzomah (who was filling in for Tyler Eifert, who was also injured).
Or I could go all Bill Parcells and say “Lewis’s team had a chance to take control of the season; instead they went 2-3-1.” Having watched Baltimore and the Giants, I’m going with the latter.
Seasons like this are the reason Lewis (116-101-3) gets compared, by talk show hosts and my brothers-in-law to Mike Pettine or Eric Mangini. It is extremely difficult to perceive him as a good coach when has three losing seasons and three 8-8 years in 13 years and hasn’t won a playoff game in seven tries.
I keep wanting to put Lewis in the tier with people like Marty Schottenheimer (200-126-1), Chuck Knox (186-147-1), Dan Reeves (190-165-2) or even John Fox (128-108-1, and that after going 9-19 in Chicago).
But the more natural fit is with people like Lovie Smith (89-87; five winning seasons in 11 years) and Jeff Fisher (173-164-1, six winning seasons in 21 years and about to set the record for most career losses), neither of whom I’d hire to coach my Madden 2016 team.
Also, the “losses in free agency” thing gets very old when WRs Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones are both having mediocre years. CB Leon Hall has been a bust with the Giants; RT Andre Smith has been on IR since game four. FS Reggie Nelson (33 and down some, but still having an OK year for the Raiders) is the only departure you’d count as a loss.
I would hire Lewis to coach the Browns, but if I were running a good team, I probably wouldn’t.
I will point out– only because it has a bearing on the game– that the Bengals still have something to play for. At 4-7-1, Cincinnati could still finish above .500– in addition to the Browns, the Bengals play Houston (6-6 in a weak division; offense so bad their fans might be nostalgic for Brian Hoyer). In fact, they could even win the AFC North:
1. Pittsburgh and Baltimore are tied at 7-5, Cincinnati plays both teams. Let’s assume the Bengals win out and go 8-7-1.
2. Pittsburgh and Baltimore (who would each be 7-6), play each other. Let’s assume someone wins (there have only been three ties in the last there years, and the Bengals have two of them). If so, one team will be 8-6; the other 7-7.
3. In their other two games:
- Pittsburgh will play Buffalo and Cleveland.
- Baltimore will play New England and Philadelphia.
So if (a) Baltimore beats the Steelers and loses to the Eagles (entirely possible, given how bad the Raven offense is), and Pittsburgh loses to Buffalo (which has a ferocious pass rush and can throw long), they’re both 8-8 and the Bengals, if they go 8-7-1, would make the playoffs.
Which, based on the record in “must-win” games, is highly unlikely,
The best insight into what is wrong with the 2016 Browns is Mary Kay Greenhouse’s mood of the team piece, which explains the reaction the players had to Hue Jackson’s breakdown after the Giants’ game. The piece explains how sorry they are to see him suffer, and how much they want to win Sunday’s game for him
I’ve read these pieces dozens of times over the years. I’ve never read one about a competent NFL head coach.
Don’t get me wrong. You often see a piece similar to it the week before a coach retires. Or the week before a major milestone– the players want him to get his 200th win at home. You almost always see these pieces after a catastrophic personal loss (death of a child). A game against the team who fired him? In a stadium where he’d suffered a gut-wrenching loss and still replays it in his head? His first time facing a former player who attacked him in print? Those pieces aren’t unusual.
But when the players on a losing team— the people causing the misfortune– are feeling sorry for the coach? It tells you how little he holds them accountable. A good coach would have the players in fear for their professional lives.
Robert Griffin explained how “it makes you want to play harder.” You would think a guy who couldn’t get a contract with any other team would already be playing as hard as he can. (Also notice that RGIII says he wants to play better, which isn’t guaranteeing that he will. do what it takes– staying in the pocket, reading defenses, throwing the ball away, sliding when the play is over– to achieve it.)
Andrew Hawkins is 30, has 25 catches for 257 yards– and one year and $1.8 million left on his contract. You’d think ti would be motivation to carry the team. But “I feel like [Jackson’s breakdown is] the No. 1 reason why a lot, especially the older guys, want to get it done,”
Duke Johnson, who has gained 650 yards rushing and 964 receiving in 28 games. “Everyone around here loves him and respects him. To see him that way kind of does something to the team.” Kind of.
Joe Haden is upset that people are making fun of the team.
Haden doesn’t even seem to be aware that he’s close to being traded in a fire sale or cut. He’s owed $39.7 million over the next three years and the Browns can save $29.9 million by dumping him before June 1.
Other than Joe Thomas and Terrelle Pryor, nobody seems upset. And even those two are expressing personal emotions– they’re angry about the losing and poor play– than any external pressure.
Sashi Brown hasn’t indicated that he’s worried. Neither does Jimmy Haslam. They’re all convinced they’re going to win Super Bowls– and when they do, they won’t let anyone saying mean things have any tickets. They’re fat, lazy and arrogant.
Let’s address the key question first: Of course the Browns could beat Alabama.
The weakest professional team is composed of people who were conference all-stars. I don’t know how people can fail to get that point. (I also don’t know why anyone would care what Kordell Stewart thinks, anyway. The comment just tells you how smart a player he is.)
It is possible for the Browns to beat Cincinnati. In fact, the read map would be very clear:
1. Clamp down on the Bengals’ erratic offense. Technically Cincinnati is 14th in defense, but that’s a little misleading. In the first six weeks of the season, the Bengals allowed 145 points– 24.2 a game. The list of opposing offenses torching them included New England (35), Dallas (28), Denver (29) and Pittsburgh (24).
In the last six games, the Bengals have allowed 114– exactly 19.0 per game. Washington got 27 and the Giants 21, but Baltimore scored 19 and Philly 14. And Buffalo, who is ninth in points scored, got only 16.
The problem: The Bengals have scored only 105 points (20.1 a game) since they ran up 31 on the Browns. In the four games since the break– the point when they lost Green and Bernard– they’ve scored eight times and turned the ball over seven.
2. Rush the passer. Cincinnati’s big problem is the line. In the last four games, it has had only 315 yards rushing yards; over the season, the Bengals have allowed 32 sacks (26th).
If you give them time to throw, the Bengals are starting to figure things out. After gaining 186 yards against the Giants, they got 207 against Buffalo, 261 against Baltimore and 352 against Philly. But you can’t throw the ball from horizontal parade rest.
3. Run the ball consistently. In seven games, the Bengals have allowed opponents to gain over 100 yards; in an eighth, they allowed 92. They’re 2-5-1 in those game. The Bengals have a veteran defense; it is slower than it used to be and it misses tackles.
Remember that Kevin Hogan gained 104 yards on this defense with only 7 carries.
4. Be careful with the ball on passing downs. The Bengals are only 24th in sacks (22), but they are second in interceptions (14) and sixth in passes knocked down (60). DE Carlos Dunlap is sixth in the league with 14 knockdowns.
Knockdowns (“passes defensed”, to use the NFL term) are almost always dominated by defensive backs– who knock it out of the receiver’s arms, not at the line of scrimmage. The last guy to have as many knockdowns as Dunlap was J.J. Watt in 2012.
Getting their hands on the pass (LB Vontaze Burfict has 7, LBs Karlos Dansby and Vincent Rey each have 4), is the reason Cincinnati is getting so many interceptions– they’re tipping the pass in the air and someone else comes down with it.
You can throw on the Bengals if you get the pass away. But you’d better do that.
5. Make hay on kicks. Mike Nugent in 22nd in field goal percentage (80.5%), 30th in extra point percentage (91.5%) and 28th in percentage of touchbacks on kickoffs (45.8%). He’s costing the Bengals points
6. Take advantage of overconfidence. Even though this is the last winnable game of the year, pretty much everyone is picking the Bengals. Every ESPN writer is. The Browns even managed to lose Chris Pokorny of Dawgs by Nature.
On the Plain Dealer, they still have some imbecile named Scott Patsko (who is picking them to win for the fifth time this year). Nobody else.
Terry Pluto is still engaging in wishful thinking/denial, but he isn’t serious. Terry doesn’t have any reasons the team will win– he’s clinging to his “Every year a team wins one game that it shouldn’t win” mantra.
Which is a misreading of the idea behind that statement. The statement is trying to say that even a weak team will overachieve a few games every year. Meanwhile, even a strong team will come out overconfident– or just have a game where they can’t do anything right– and underachieve. If these things happen in the same game (as they often will), the weaker team will win
But that isn’t guaranteed– either the overachieving or the winning. The Browns have had their games– they came in the 30-24 loss to Miami and the 25-20 loss to Baltimore.They blew both chances.
That degree of unanimity can mean the game is a huge mismatch. It can also mean everyone is being lazy. I mistrust consensuses in the national media.
Both the Steelers and the Giants struggled to put the Browns away– it took 60 minutes of inept offense (and, in the New York game, kicking teams) to decide it. If RGII is healthy and sharp– or if he can at least play better than the quarterbacking in the last few games– if the offensive line can hold up and if the defense can pressure Andy Dalton, the Browns could get their first win.
There’s a big difference between believing something is possible and predicting that it will happen. Sometimes a club comes out of the bye week rested and sharp– filled with tricks.
But to do that they have to want to play. With the team 0-12 and a housecleaning coming, many players might be interesting only in avoiding an injury that could blow their contract value.
I view the contract extension given to CB Jamar Taylor as a bad sign. In and of itself, it’s a good sign. But– like the extension given to Gary Barnidge a year ago– the players who didn’t sign an extension (Pryor, LB Jamie Collins, RT Austin Pasztor) are probably more significant than the one who did. If they’ve checked out, this could be a very ugly game.
Bengals 27, Browns 13