The Bengals Were — And Are — One Year Away

In his first two NFL seasons, Baltimore’s Joe Flacco won three out of four playoff starts – all on the road.

Pretty incredible right?

Here are Flacco’s stats for those four games:  37-for-85, 471 yards, 1 TD, 4 INT for a passer rating of 45.8.  In one of the wins, Joe was 4-for-10, 34 yards, 0 TD, 1 INT for a QB rating of 10.0.

I bring up those stats because it seems to me that the national bash-fest of Andy Dalton after his second subpar playoff game is absurd.  The playoff losses in Houston were not strictly Dalton’s fault, just as Flacco clearly didn’t deserve all of the credit for Baltimore’s postseason wins in his first two seasons.

Dalton and Whitworth (440x319)

Look, nobody knows for sure if Andy is going to develop into one of the top quarterbacks in the NFL, but I do think that his career if off to an outstanding start – especially when you consider that he inherited a team that was 4-12 the year before he arrived.

“I think Andy is an incredible quarterback,” said Andrew Hawkins.  “He is going to continue to progress and continue to get better and he’s going to bring the Bengals a lot of wins and playoff wins for many years to come.”

Going into this season, I thought that the Bengals young nucleus was still one year away from being a championship contender.  With a quarterback in his second season, a receiving corps made up mostly of first and second-year guys, and two rookies starting for most of the year at center and right guard, the offense is still developing.  But despite their inexperience, the Bengals went 10-6 and ended the franchise’s 30-year draught without consecutive playoff appearances.

“We wanted our season to go further and felt like we had the potential to go further, but it was still a good season,” said Andrew Whitworth.  “To make back-to-back playoff appearances is an accomplishment.  It’s a young football team with a lot of promise and there’s a lot ahead of us.”

Unlike last season, the Bengals didn’t slide into the playoffs by simply taking advantage of a soft schedule.  They beat three teams that finished with winning records (Baltimore, NY Giants, and Washington) and earned their postseason berth by knocking out the Steelers in Pittsburgh in a must-win scenario.

“Going into this season, I told the guys that we really hadn’t beaten anybody in big games,” said Chris Crocker.  “We finally got over that hump, but we also gave away games that we should have won.

“The tide is kind of turning in this division.  It’s not Pittsburgh and Baltimore anymore; we’re really somebody to reckon with.  I feel really good about this team.”

“Everyone is learning and gaining from experience,” said Rey Maualuga.  “Last year I thought we were good, and this year we were even better.  With the guys coming back next year, who knows what this team can do?  ‘Look out,’ I guess.  These guys are a team to watch and a team to beat next year.”

The key is to keep getting better from top to bottom.  Dalton appeared to regress late in the season, and needs to continue to improve at reading defenses and throwing accurate deep balls.  A speedy and shifty compliment to BenJarvus Green-Ellis would be a boost to the running game, and Jermaine Gresham needs to become more consistent to live up to his immense potential at tight end.  On defense, there are obvious questions at linebacker and safety that have to be answered, but the key pieces will be back from a unit that was the NFL’s best over the second half of the season.  It’s a roster that needs tweaking instead of wholesale changes.

“The truth is there aren’t a lot of teams playing now,” said Whitworth.  “Whatever we’re missing, there are a lot of other teams that are missing more.”

A second straight playoff loss in Houston has left a bitter taste in all of our mouths, but it hasn’t changed the way I felt about this team all along:  It was – and is – one year away.

“Next year for the season to be a success, we have to go to the playoffs and win a playoff game.  That’s how you take the next step,” said Hawkins.

“We have to live and learn from it and keep growing and keep beating on that door until we beat it in,” said Marvin Lewis.

“It’s time to push ourselves further,” said Whitworth.  “It’s still going to be a young team, but we’re going to expect a lot of ourselves.”

“The sky’s the limit for this team in 2013,” said Geno Atkins.

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