There was a period of time not so long ago—literally, a few years ago—that the Cincinnati Bengals were actually being viewed as the top team in the AFC North. A couple of years of losing records and missing the postseason have sort of placed them back where they have typically been, but suffice it to say that their most recent ‘peak’ was not so long ago.
The organization put together a string of several good drafts that made them arguably one of the most talented rosters from top to bottom in the entire league, and the vast majority of it, even more than teams like the Pittsburgh Steelers, was culled simply from players that they had added through the draft or as rookie undrafted free agents.
For sure, they still have a talented roster, though they have allowed some talented pieces to leave, particularly on the offensive line with Andrew Whitworth and Kevin Zeitler leaving in free agency a year ago.
Still, Bengals owner Mike Brown argues that the talent level on his team is comparable to the Steelers’, who have won the AFC North for the past two seasons and three of the past four, making the postseason each time and once reaching the AFC Championship game in that span.
Brown gave an interview to the team’s website over the weekend and talked about the early December loss to Pittsburgh, which if I recall correctly took place in Cincinnati. The Steelers were trailing 17-0 just before halftime, with A.J. Green hauling in two touchdown passes from Andy Dalton, but Pittsburgh won as time expired on a Chris Boswell field goal, 23-20.
“In my heart of hearts we should have done a little better than we did”, he said of that division loss. “But I don’t have the feeling the player level was the determining factor in the game. Things conspired against us. I believe our talent level is equivalent to Pittsburgh, equivalent to Baltimore. Cleveland is on the way up. Don’t misjudge”.
Whether or not their talent level matches Pittsburgh’s—a team that just sent 10 players to the Pro Bowl in all three phases of the game—is difficult to determine without further evidence, as some of their younger players such as Carl Lawson, William Jackson III, John Ross, and Joe Mixon need further testing.
But they do certainly have some talent, such as Geno Atkins, Vontaze Burfict, Carlos Dunlap, Dre Kirkpatrick, Tyler Eifert, and of course Green. How does that stack up against Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, Le’Veon Bell, David DeCastro, Cameron Heyward, Joe Haden, Stephon Tuitt, and Ryan Shazier?
Have the Bengals underperformed over the past two seasons? Did they overperform during the previous five seasons? What will they look like in 2018 after retaining Marvin Lewis as head coach, but hiring six new assistant coaches under him, perhaps the team’s biggest change below the head-coaching level in its history?