In one way, it was business as usual at Cincinnati's Paul Brown Stadium. And in another way, it may have been a glimpse of the future. The Bengals moved to 8-0 on the season and maintained their legitimate status as one of the best teams in football with a 31-10 win over a Browns team that was game enough in the first half, trailing their interstate rivals by just 13-10 at halftime. And then Andy Dalton's team scored 17 unanswered points, and that was that. It was to be expected from a team that many in the league believe has the most talented overall roster in the NFL, and outside of the Patriots, it's difficult to point to a team in the AFC with more juice going into the second half of the season. Dalton continued his development in 2015, impressing more and more naysayers with each game, completing 21 of 27 passes for 234 yards, three touchdowns (all to tight end Tyler Eifert, who is having quite the season of his own) and no picks. There was also a reverse handoff to receiver Mohamed Sanu with 13:26 left in the game that Sanu ran 25 yards for a touchdown after taking the ball from running back Giovani Bernard. Who was the main downfield blocker on the play? Dalton.
“Guys just came out there, we were calm, and we knew what we had to do,” Sanu said of the Bengals' second-half turnaround. “We had to play physically, fast, and do our jobs. I ran around, Gio flipped it to me, and all I saw was Andy. I didn't see nobody else and I just followed him in, and we trotted in together.”
Many will continue to wait for the postseason to extend their full belief in Dalton, and given his failures in four straight playoff losses, that's fair enough. But this is a different quarterback than the one we've seen before, at least so far.
“I think the biggest thing is from a pre-leadership standpoint, I've been able to push guys to be the best they can be,” Dalton said after the game. “I wouldn't say there's a whole lot different from me. I feel that I'm playing to the potential I know I can play to, and guys are playing well around me.”
As for the Browns... well, at 2-7, this is a team that continues to show a lot of talent deficits at a lot of positions. But as happened earlier in the year when he was pressed into starting duty, quarterback Johnny Manziel replaced Josh McCown and played well enough outside of structure for one half of football. He gives the Browns a spark that McCown doesn't, and that's where we'll begin our three takeaways from this game.
1. The Browns need to realize what they have—and don't have—in Johnny Manziel
It was interesting that, after his quarterback completed 11 of 18 passes for 128 yards and a touchdown in the first half, Browns head coach Mike Pettine seemed annoyed at what Manziel wasn't doing, telling CBS' Tracy Wolfson that he'd have to calm Manziel down and encourage him to make plays inside the pocket. With all due respect to Pettine, that's not who Manziel is at this point in his career, and to limit him to the pocket would be doing him a great disservice. Manziel plays at his best outside of structure, but he's also starting to grow as a reader of defenses and as a running quarterback who now runs to throw. Manziel finished his day with 15 completions in 33 attempts for 168 yards, and the more he stayed in the pocket, the worse things got. Cleveland's receivers may be the worst overall group in the league, as Manziel was plagued by several drops on catchable passes, and he's not helped by his coach's restrictive perception of what he should be doing. What the Browns should be doing is starting Manziel, welding their pro-style offense onto what he can do, and letting that develop over time.
“It was inconsistent,” Pettine said of his quarterback after the game. “I thought he did some good things. In the second half, I don't know what he was trying to do, especially when we fell behind—trying to make too many big plays instead of taking completions. It's also a function of, and you guys are sick of hearing me say this, how well are we playing around him? In the second half, I don't know if we played well enough around him.”
Well, Manziel's teammates didn't, and he also ran out of gas, but the central theme remains the same: If the Browns are going to have Johnny Manziel as their starting quarterback, they need to stop trying to retrofit him into something he isn't yet ready to do, and build around his present skill set. That's called coaching, fellas. Sometimes, it just makes sense.
2. Hue Jackson will be a head coach again next year
The Bengals' offensive coordinator, who worked his way up to that job after an unceremonious departure from Oakland as the Raiders' head coach in 2011, should get another shot to be somebody's head man in 2016. There are few play designers in the league more adept at maximizing what he had on the field than Jackson, and he runs a dizzying array of stuff at every opponent the Bengals face, from wide line formations to package plays to straight-up power football. It's all intended to give his quarterback a clearer picture of the field and to create more opportunities for his playmakers, and any team with an offense currently stuck in the mud would do well to add Jackson to their interview lists if they're looking for a replacement at that position.
3. Cincinnati's defense is what could take it to the Super Bowl this year
For all the talk about Dalton's progression and Jackson's creativity, Cincinnati's defense, and the work of second-year coordinator Paul Guenther, goes relatively unnoticed. It shouldn't be that way. Guenther is very creative with his coverages and fronts, and as a long-time defensive backs and linebackers coach, understands how to use spacing and disguised concepts to fool opposing quarterbacks. Guenther had a tough act to follow in Mike Zimmer, but he's done a great job making sure the Bengals' defense lives up to the high standard expected out of everyone this season by head coach Marvin Lewis.