Here we are again, gearing up for another NFL season. The good news: My beloved Bengals have had four winning seasons in a row and have been to the playoffs four consecutive years. The bad news: My beloved Bengals haven't won a playoff game since I was junior in high school.
The Bengals open up training camp on July 31st and there is again hope of another winning season and maybe, just maybe a playoff win. But there is also concern that the window for the Bengals is closing.
The hope -
AJ Green. Without a doubt one of the most gifted receivers in the league. He is a touchdown waiting to happen.
Jeremy Hill. He lead the league in rushing over the final 8 games when Marvin Lewis promoted him to a starter. He too is a touchdown waiting to happen, which is a surprise for a big back, but anyone who saw him reel off an 80 yard touchdown run verse Denver last year on Monday Night Football knows his ability.
The offensive line. It's talented and deep (the Bengals first two picks in the draft this year are very talented tackles and probably won't see much time this year at all).
The secondary. There are a total of five first round picks in the secondary. Yes, some are getting long in the tooth (corners Leon Hall and Adam Jones as well as safety Reggie Nelson), but there is young talent too (Dre Kirkpatrick, Darqueez Denard, and Georg Iloka).
The concern -
Andy Dalton - he has been a winner, but he has struggled in most of his prime time games and in every single playoff contest. He can't win games on his own. He is no Andrew Luck or Aaron Rogers, that's for sure. But if he gets a strong defense and running game, he should be able to rack up the wins.
Geno Atkins - For two and a half years he was the most dominant defensive tackle in the NFL. And it wasn't even close. However, on Halloween 2013 in a Thursday night overtime loss to the Dolphins, Atkins ripped up his knee. Last year he was average all the way around (though he did make the Pro Bowl, that was all on his past glory). Word is that he looked great at mini-camp, but if he isn't back to his old self, the Bengals are going to face a very tough decision. They just can't pay an average defensive tackle the kind of money they gave to Atkins before the 2013 season.
Vontaze Burfict - for his first two years he was a dominant force at linebacker for the Bengals, so much so that he earned a Pro Bowl nod in 2013 (even snagging an INT in that game). The Bengals manned up and gave him a lucrative contract extension, and then, just their luck, Burfict struggles all season with injuries, finally missing the last 10 games. He had micro-fracture surgery on his knee. The recover is no-sure thing, so keep your fingers crossed.
Marvin Lewis - He has won more games than anyone in Cincy history. He has turned around the league's worth franchise (for anyone who thinks four years of playoff losses is bad, just return to the seasons of 1991, 1992, 1993, and 1994 seasons where they won (combined) a whopping total of 14 games. They won that many in 2013 (including preseason games) alone!
Times have certainly changed, but there is a lot of talent on the Bengals' coaching staff (Hue Jackson, offensive coordinator, and Vance Joseph, cornerback coach) who would make excellent head coaches and might prove to be the shot in the arm this franchise needs to get over the hump.
Odds are if Lewis doesn't win a playoff game this year, Joseph will be promoted to head coach. The Bengals chose to block his move to either San Fran or Denver for defensive coordinator positions, so they have to have big plans for him. Plus, this franchise has never recovered from not promoting Bill Walsh as head coach when Paul Brown stepped down. Joseph is a coaching star, and they need to find a way to keep him. Of course, if our defense struggles yet again this year, Joseph could easily be promoted to defensive coordinator to keep him on staff.
Best case scenario - Jackson's offense is well balanced (they run it with Hill and Gio Bernard) and their wide receivers stay healthy (Marvin Jones missed all of the 2014 after catching 10 touchdown passes the year before) and the defense rebounds with a healthy Atkins and Burfict and the pass rush is back to its usual dominant self (thanks to the return of Michael Johnson) and the Bengals win the AFC North and manage to win a playoff game at home.
Worst case scenario - Jackson's offense struggles with injuries and Dalton has a mediocre year and is plagued my turnovers. Likewise the defense struggles with no pass rush and the young, talented secondary is exposed and the Bengals struggle to win a handful of games.
My prediction - as a Bengals fan you can never be too optimistic - 9-7 and a wild card birth but a fifth straight playoff loss spells the end for Lewis and Dalton is released from his contract extensions and new head coach Vance Joseph promoted AJ McCarron (of the Crimson Tide) to starter while eyeing a talented QB in the middle of the draft in 2016.