One of the great divides in philosophy, art, literature, and the net contained therein is whether or not nature, as in the natural state of the world and the beings in it, trends towards good or evil. Most modern popular art seems to support the former. We’re in the midst of a glut of superhero movies depicting men who do the “right” thing for the simple sake of doing the right thing. Television shows, though filled with cliffhangers, build up characters with whom the audience can sympathize, with the new “anti-hero” trend (think "House" or Sawyer in "Lost") being the perfect example of people drawn to good because, hell, that’s the way they are deep down. It’s Rousseau’s “born free and everywhere in chains” idea played out for our entertainment; people, if left to themselves, are going to figure it all out, and upon finishing their journey of self discovery they will be better for it. Sports media has begun to latch on to this idea as well. The NFL is filled with teams and coaching staffs that “unlock a players full potential” or players who “find themselves and live up to their talent.” Randy Moss on the Patriots, Derek Anderson and the Browns receivers, Eli Manning “turning the corner,” all represent media-aided depictions of the notion that if we just put players in the situations in which they were “supposed” to be, the story ends happily and everything is wonderful.
The Cincinnati Bengals advance the opposite of this philosophy like no other team I know. It’s not just that this is a deeply flawed organization that has been built on deeply flawed individuals; it’s that they don’t ever change, and they don’t seem to want to change. This gets deeper than the “Cincinattica” jokes and the countless arrests. The team trying to change THAT element of the culture is a good idea, but it’s not winning games, and it only changes the most superficial element of entrenched chaos and disorder. Instead, the Bengals seem caught in the unenviable position of having hyper talented players with dramatic flaws, and that it is an acceptance of these natural states of being that has both allowed the talent to flourish and resulted in the personalities behind that talent quickly destroying themselves and the team. Everything looks great until one person becomes dissatisfied, and then, because the destructive nature in the personalities on this team having gone unchecked so long, the end of the team’s cohesiveness and hopes for the season arrives, nasty, brutish, and short. Indeed, the further this team goes down a the road of players “finding themselves,” the more chaotic things seem to get. If the NFL equivalent of “finding yourself” is living up to potential, it’s hard to argue that Chad Johnson didn’t do just that last year (3rd in receiving yards, 15.5 YPC), and the result was Chad’s worst qualities emerging to help tear the team apart. It’s a trend found all around the locker room. Chad’s bipolar shifts, Carson Palmer’s temperament getting the best of him on and off the field, even Housh and his festering need to escape the shadows of being known as “solid” while having amazing statistics are not the results of problems with the team; they are what defines this team.
The question is whether or not they are immutable. Certainly, on defense, the team’s most obvious weaknesses emerge. A strange lack of focus on getting to the passer (taking two wide receivers so high in the last draft was one of this team’s stranger decisions) combined with an lack of desire to follow through on developing those defensive talents that could be great past the character flaws that hinder them (a strange opposite to what’s happened on offense) has left this team ineffective in the trenches. The secondary isn’t as bad as they’ve been made to look (though losing S Madieu Williams will hurt), but nobody can stay with a receiver for as long as these guys have been asked. The real blame must fall on the defensive front, which managed a paltry 22 sacks and allowed 118.3 rushing YPG, en route to a 27th ranked defense. The team has made two moves in the last two years that look to help matters by taking a corner who can give the defensive front time to work and this year taking LB Keith Rivers, who could bring much needed speed and variety to the defensive front. Still, the team will likely wish it had given at least a little more new blood to the defense in the second round this year, as one man can’t fix all the problems with that team.
Yet if the defensive problems are rooted in a boring discomfort with difficult personalities (who do bad things, yes, but so do a LOT of NFL players), it is the offense’s problems that define this team and its cyclical descent into madness. It’s not even a matter of these guys being unable to perform. Going into the credentials of this offense is redundant and misses the point: The problem isn’t talent, it’s the inconsistency that looms as the season progresses. For that, I blame Marvin Lewis, who has never shown an intent to change the nature of his team, and as a result reaps what he sows when the chaos that nature entails eats his seasons alive. Carson’s temperament unchecked may let him play more relaxed, but it’s the reason he panics when behind and forces bad throws (check his QB rating from game to game last year to understand why he shouldn’t be in the Brady/Manning conversation). Ocho Cinco’s flashy, egocentric nature drives him to perform but also leads him to turn on everyone when even slightly unsatisfied. It’s not the job of coaches to let the personalities on their team drift toward self-fulfillment. Coaches are western artistic minds, taming talents that they can’t fully understand and honing them towards productive expression. Lewis and the Bengals front office have let things drift to the chaos that defines this team. This certainly makes them dangerous, and on any given week things could fall into place and this team will outscore just about anyone in the league. Still, the slow descent into anarchy that happens every year on offense, combined with the lack of any sort of defensive vision, inevitably leaves this team wanting more often than satisfied, and should do the same this year. Life under the conch may limit the natives, but life outside of it leaves them trampled under a panic they create.
PREDICTION: 3-13 (a brutal schedule could even leave them worse off, but then again these guys CAN win against anybody on the right day...bottom line, stay away from this one)