With the majority of the NFL's transaction action behind us, Chris Burke and Doug Farrar hand out grades for each team's off-season.
The Bengals have made the playoffs in each of the last four seasons, compiling a 40–24 regular-season record and wiping away the legacy of incompetence that marked the organization throughout the 1990s. Marvin Lewis should be praised for leading the Bengals from a team too cheap to pay for area scouts to a legitimate power in the AFC North. But despite the team's recent run of relative success, Lewis is still looking for his first playoff victory as coach. The Bengals have been eliminated in the wild-card round of four straight postseasons, a concerning streak that can't be separated from quarterback Andy Dalton's inability to maintain his composure and productivity in those big games.
Dalton's playoff numbers—88 completions on 158 attempts for 873 yards, one touchdown and six interceptions—are pretty grisly given the team's efforts to put talent around him to reach the proverbial next level. His coordinators, first Jay Gruden and now Hue Jackson, have stood firm on their belief in Dalton, and the team backed up that belief with a seven-year, $97.09 million contract extension last August that was essentially set up as a year-to-year deal.
“I don't think I did a good enough job of getting him to where I think he needs to be,” Jackson said in February. “That's one of my biggest responsibilities in my mind this upcoming year. ... The hard part for [Dalton] is that he's been in the playoffs every year. The expectation is that one of those days you're going to pull through and come out on the other side of that. When is it going to be?”
When pressed about Dalton's future with the team at the Senior Bowl, Lewis was a little less certain than some may have expected.
“Fortunately, somehow I’ve got the right little thing on my shoulder that says, ‘Don’t get into a quarterback controversy,’” he said. “That’s worked from Jon [Kitna] to Carson [Palmer] to Andy. It’s helped us have the success we’ve had and those guys have been good players, productive players. Even when they’ve left out of here they’ve been productive. It works.
“We have no problem with Andy Dalton as our quarterback. We don’t have time to waste time with another QB. To not continue to press forward and get Andy better and to get whoever the backup quarterbacks are better. The quarterback competition. Where has it worked? It doesn’t get you wins.”
So, the Bengals are in a quandary: Do they double their efforts behind a serviceable quarterback who may not have the ability to take the team all the way, or do they begin the process of rebuilding at the position as soon as Dalton's contract allows an out? The Bengals signed Lewis to a one-year contract extension in April, but the length of that deal seems to indicate that if the coach can't turn his 0–6 playoff record around, things could change. That would be a mistake, given what Lewis has done for the organization, but in the NFL, you're only as good as your last game.
The dwindling goodwill built up by both coach and quarterback makes the 2015 season a crucial one for the Bengals' future. And for the most part, it would appear that the team will try to take the next step without any major acquisitions. Former Packers linebacker A.J. Hawk was the biggest new name brought in through free agency, and defensive end Michael Johnson returned to Cincinnati after being cut one year into his deal with the Buccaneers. Amid a brutally competitive division, standing pat doesn't look like enough.
Best acquisition: Michael Johnson, DE
The Buccaneers signed Johnson to a five-year, $43.75 million contract before the 2014 season and cut him after just one year in a mammoth purge. Johnson went right back to Cincinnati, where he'd played from 2009 through 2013, and signed a four-year, $24 million contract with $4.5 million guaranteed and millions more in potential escalators. The 6'7", 270-pound Johnson has posted double-digit sacks in just one NFL season (2013), but the Bengals will take whatever they can get at this point.
Last year, Cincinnati's defense had the NFL's fewest sacks with 20, down from 43 the year before. Johnson did have nine quarterback hits and 15 hurries in addition to his four sacks, and the hope is that he'll see an uptick in production. If tackle Geno Atkins can return to form, it's possible, but if not, defensive coordinator Paul Guenther will be scrambling for answers.
Biggest loss: Marshall Newhouse, OT
It's representative of the Bengals' off-season that the team's biggest loss is a guy who won't be missed that much at all. Newhouse played well at right tackle when Andre Smith went down with a triceps injury, and he may see a lot of starting time with the Giants this season with left tackle Will Beatty sidelined by a torn pectoral muscle through at least November. The Bengals selected two offensive tackles with their first two draft picks (more on that in a minute), making Newhouse expendable. After a shaky start to his career with the Packers, he boosted his free-agent value by allowing just two sacks in 389 total snaps in 2014, his lone season in Cincinnati.
Underrated draft pick: Josh Shaw, DB, USC (pick No. 120)
The Bengals have a long history of taking chances on troubled players with mixed results, and Shaw is the latest in that line. His story is certainly original. In the summer of 2014, Shaw suffered two high ankle sprains in an incident that he first claimed occurred when he jumped from a balcony at his apartment building to save a nephew who was drowning in a swimming pool. In truth, he jumped off the balcony after an argument with his girlfriend. He was suspended by the team for 10 games, and his draft stock plummeted.
And that was a shame, because Shaw had first-round potential before everything fell apart. He played cornerback and both safety positions for USC, amassing 80 solo tackles and six interceptions in his collegiate career. Shaw originally signed with Florida before family health issues brought him back to California on a hardship waiver, and it was with USC that he really shined. He's got outstanding on-field intelligence, no matter what you make of his off-field decision-making.
Bengals defensive backs coach Vance Joseph stood up for Shaw after the pick was made, insisting that the team doesn't see the balcony incident as indicative of more onerous behavior.
“His mistake was more maturity than it was his being a bad character guy,” Joseph said. “It was a major deal, but [he's] not a bad person. I've played in this league, I've coached in this league a long time. There's been a lot worse guys drafted and played. If he's a problem, that's a good thing.”
If Shaw can keep his head on straight and accept the excellent coaching he'll get from Cincinnati's defensive staff, he's got a chance to be a major steal.
Looming question for training camp: Can both rookie tackles step up quickly?
The Bengals enter 2015 with starting left tackle Andrew Whitworth and starting right tackle Andre Smith in the final year of their contracts.
In the first two rounds of the draft, the Bengals selected Texas A&M tackle Cedric Ogbuehi and Oregon tackle Jake Fisher.
As you might guess, this is not a coincidence. Whitworth had an amazing season in 2014—he was Pro Football Focus's most efficient pass blocker—but he's going to be 34 in December. Smith has been inconsistent throughout his time in Cincinnati. So, the challenge will be for the new kids to step up and show whether they can render those contract issues moot. Ogbuehi is coming off a knee injury, but he's one of the most polished and natural blind-side pass blockers in this draft class. Fisher turned in an estimable performance through injuries and a move from right to left tackle in 2014.
“He plays with great attitude, tremendous energy and passion,” Lewis said of Fisher. “He's got a great future with us, and he'll get an opportunity to play this season.”
Lewis knows that Ogbuehi probably won't be able to hit the field until September, but you can bet he'll also get starting reps as soon as he catches up. The Bengals are on the verge of having new faces at both ends of their offensive line.