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As recently as just last season, I wished that the Bengals would be a mediocre football team. I didn't wish for them to be great or even good, just good enough to make the games interesting. Just good enough to fill the stadium and avoid the blackouts we used to have when I first moved to Cincinnati. As a Bengals fan for approaching four decades now, I didn't want to overreach. I just wanted a team that I wouldn't have to hang my head in shame over.
I got what I wished for. The Bengals are now a mediocre football team. This year they fooled some people into thinking they were good and a few people into thinking they were great. Some in Cincinnati talked of a Super Bowl (ha!). Most of us just wished for a single playoff victory since we own the record of the longest streak without a playoff victory in the NFL in addition to officially being the worst team in the 1990s.
The Bengals are essentially a .500 football team now. We won a few games earlier this season that we probably shouldn't have won. This year's team was the mirror image of the team we had in 2005 when we last got into the playoffs and were eliminated in the first round. This year's Bengals had a really, really good defense and a totally ineffective offense. The offense played just well enough to keep us in games. The defense in 2005 wasn't that great. But, we got enough turnovers to win a few games. This year we beat Pittsburgh twice and the Ravens twice. So, people thought we were good. But, that was early in the year before anyone knew they were not their former selves. The Bengals finished the season losing four of their last five games. Worse yet, they said the Minnesota game was like a playoff game; a rehearsal in a harsh environment against a very good team. We lost. We said the San Diego game would be a test. We didn't pass. We only had to win one of our last four games to make the playoffs and we did just that. We won one, beating the lowly Chiefs before we got shellacked by the Jets; after acknowledging we were going to play to win a game on national TV. Some passed that loss off. But, we saw again yesterday that the Jets are a better team than the Bengals.
The Bengals record earlier this year peaked at well above 0.500 but, with the skid at the end, we finished the season just two games above 0.500. Against good teams, and when it counts, we could not get it done. Carson Palmer is not as good as he once was. The knee injury a few years ago, the elbow injury from last year, loss of confidence in his receivers... who knows what the problem is. But, he's not playing the way he once did. The receiving corps is just miserable. If Chad doesn't get it done, no one does. Laveranues Coles is not even a shadow of his former self. Cedric Benson is playing his heart out and is the one bright spot I can find on offense. Mike Zimmer has done an amazing job with the defense. But, if an NFL team can't put up 20 points a game no matter how great their defense is, they are not going to win on a consistent basis. Shayne Graham can make kicks all day long as long as they don't mean anything. But, yesterday, he missed two (again).
Some tell me to take heart. We have the nucleus of a good team. That's what we thought back in '05, too. I think the reality is we have the nucleus of a mediocre team. If all goes well, the misery of the 90's and seasons of losses outnumbering wins by two, three or four times are behind us. But, I expect the Bengals to be a 8-8 kind of team with occasional flashes of getting to 10-6 and sneaking into the playoffs. But, when you get into the playoffs, you play against better competition. The Bengals are good enough to get into the playoffs. But, they are still not good enough to make a run. As long as Mike Brown is in charge and as long as Bob Bratkowski is our offensive coordinator, don't expect that to change.