A simple answer is often the right one when it comes to figuring out why NFL teams struggle. The Cincinnati Bengals sit at 1-4-1 as the days wind down in October. Their issues would be obvious if you looked at their cap sheet.
Salaries for A.J. Green, Geno Atkins, and Carlos Dunlap add up to a little over 20 percent of the Bengals' 2020 salary cap. They've gotten very little from the trio that has gone to a combined 17 Pro Bowls.
Green showed signs of life on Sunday. He glided through his routes and finished with eight catches for 96 yards. It helped buoy the $18 million decision to keep him, yet Green is still outside the top-48 NFL wide receivers in yards, catches and yards per catch.
He hasn't found the end zone in 2020 and despite success on Sunday, Green still ranks last among all receivers in average separation according to NextGen Stats. One of the best players in team history has gone from being a scheming mismatch to getting schemed up to avoid going MIA. Then again, at least there are numbers in the box score for Green.
Atkins can't even lean on that low bar. The 11-year veteran has played 37 snaps through two games since coming back from a shoulder injury. Atkins might as well have stayed on the sideline. The Georgia product hasn't recorded a stat during those 37 snaps. He doesn't have a tackle, assist, pressure, or hurry. The 25th highest-paid player at his position is a ghost right now.
At 32-years-old, Atkins is playing spot snaps on third down. Somehow the game plan against Indianapolis called for a street-free agent the week prior to play nearly twice as many snaps as Atkins. Xavier Williams has championship pedigree after playing for the Chiefs, but he shouldn't be out-snapping Atkins.
Therein lies the issue. The Bengals have been paying for diminishing returns on Atkins ever since they made the mistake of giving him a third contract. His current deal went into effect in 2018 but he's been declining slowly since 2016.
Sports Info Solutions tabbed Atkins as the 18th best defensive linemen in the league that year with 35 points saved. Since then, he's saved 25, 24, 14, and zero points so far this season. Atkins is another cautionary tale for the next team that wants to pay their aging defensive linemen big money even though he's on the wrong side of 30.
Cincinnati signed Dunlap at age 29 and his fall off is a little more perplexing. The second-leading sacker in Bengals' history had arguably the best all-around season of his career in 2019, finishing eighth among defensive lineman in points saved. Dunlap got off to a slow start last season and worked out of it, but the coaching staff isn't giving him that chance in 2020.
The veteran's role was reduced and still didn't get starter-level snaps against the Colts despite the Bengals not having Sam Hubbard. We've come to the point where Khalid Kareem, Amani Bledsoe, and Dunlap were within three snaps of each other. Usually, coaches rely on their veterans to figure things out and play through struggles. That doesn't seem to be in the cards for the two-time Pro Bowler this season. The staff has picked a few young guys they want to focus on and that's left Dunlap as the odd man out.
Five years of playoff berths, the Mike Zimmer defense and countless deep balls to Green feel like distant memories at this point.
Bengals fans are left to cheer on, or more fittingly, cover their eyes through the teardown of an era. The most consistent time for Bengals football since the 80s has long been over and the organization held onto it. Conventional wisdom says to trade the whole trio for spare parts and move on, but history says the Bengals won't do that.
The Bengals have made two in-season trades over the last 35 years. They dealt Carson Palmer to Oakland in 2011 and traded tight end Dan Ross to Seattle in 1985.
The Bengals have made it clear they aren't in the business of making other teams better by trading with them. They had a chance to take some of this sting away at last year's deadline. Atkins and Dunlap could've had their value turn into 2020 draft selections. Instead, the Bengals' staff is shuffling through late-round picks and free agents when they could've exchanged old franchise heroes into future draft selections.
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