With the improbable 2011-12 Cincinnati Bengals season in the books thanks to a rather ignominious exit yesterday at the hands of the Houston Texans, it's time for a little reflection on the team's 17 games. The season started under storm clouds in Georgetown and ended in a disappointing fashion, but what took place in between brought both exciting football for this season and promise for the future.
1. The Bengals have the nucleus for a good run. With Andy Dalton at quarterback, AJ Green at WR and a host of young defenders like Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap, the Bengals have quickly formed the nucleus of what should be a contending club for the foreseeable future. Of course there are plenty of important pieces still to be added and some key free agent decisions to be made this off season (more on that in the future), this Bengals team is built for the long haul.
The AFC North features two other playoff teams in Baltimore and Pittsburgh, but their core is aging, not blossoming. Of course they'll have the same opportunities to reload as the Bengals, but with their windows closing, the Bengals door of opportunity is opening. Cleveland has a solid young core on defense, but is still somewhat schizophrenic on offense, unsure of whether Colt McCoy is the answer and not equipped with great skill players. Add to that the Bengals get to enjoy a third place schedule next year despite a playoff run, and things look very good for 2012.
2. Mike Brown is either changing his methods or stepping away. The Bengals started immediately after the lockout by spending major dollars on key free agents like Manny Lawson and Thomas Howard. They then locked up Andrew Whitworth, Kyle Cook and Leon Hall with long-term deals. Then Mike Brown closed the season by offering two-for-one tickets to the final home game and sending his wife and daughter to a pep rally hosted by 1530. This is not the same Bengals front office.
This very well may be the beginning of the transition from Mike Brown to Katie Blackburn. If so, the early returns are positive. For a long time the Bengals have been negligent in spending on quality players and all but absent in interacting with their fan base. We'll see if this continues this off season, but there's no question the Bengals' front office made all the right moves this year.
3. Draft picks. The Bengals will have two first round picks this year, thanks to the Carson Palmer trade, in what may be the most talent-rich draft in decades. We'll look at those picks in greater detail later, but Cincinnati has an excellent opportunity to make some major upgrades at positions as well as build some depth very quickly. If the past couple of drafts are any indication, we can expect some new starters coming to Cincinnati this April.
4. Marvin Lewis can coach. How quickly we forget just what Lewis inherited when he took over this franchise and how quickly he turned it around, winning a division title in his third year. Returning this year with a rookie quarterback, new offensive coordinator, no off season, and major roster upheaval, Lewis and the Bengals were written off by everyone before the season began.
Lewis has suffered through rebuilding, locker room dysfunction, and now re-rebuilding and has done so with skill and aplomb. His critics can't really have it both ways. On the one hand, they want to point to Lewis' inability to win in the playoffs, but on the other, they want to focus on the Bengals' lack of scouting and personnel. If Lewis in fact is operating with inferior personnel (and he clearly has at times) then his record as the Bengals head coach has been phenomenal. No one can point to this season and argue with a straight face that this team underachieved.
Lewis began transforming an organization that was the epitome of losing and ineptitude when he arrived in 2002. A decade later, he's won two division championships in one of the NFL's toughest divisions and made the playoffs three times. More than anything, it appears he's transformed Mike Brown, which may be his biggest and most lasting accomplishment.
Training camp will be here in a little more than six months and then the Bengals will be back to work. For now, both the Bengals and their fans should take some time to reflect on what they accomplished in 2011. It didn't end with a Lombardi Trophy, but we may look back on it and see it as the season that started the team in that direction.
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