If the Bengals Were a Song: Air France - "No Way Down"
Who Are the Bengals?:
There is a little part of all of us that needs to believe these Bengals can win this year. We all love the idea of a longsuffering team and fan base finally turning the corner and achieving success, but this goes beyond that. That would be true of any underdog in any season. To say that this year’s Bengals are another iteration of the same sad story that has been told and retold in Cincy for the last decade would be to ignore the fact that this team experienced loss in a waythat hasn’t been paralleled in a long, long time. Their defensive coordinator, who deserves the lion’s share of the credit for this team’s success this year, lost his wife in the middle of the season, and didn’t miss a beat in terms of his coaching responsibilities. Unbelievable. As if that weren’t enough, the team lost Chris Henry to a still unthinkable chain of events resulting in his sudden death. I can’t think of any comparison other than what happened to Sean Taylor, and this story somehow seems even more tragic because of how low Henry had sunk in his life and how close he seemed to becoming a healed, mature adult. For this team to have made it this far, dominated their division rivals, and earn a spot in the playoffs after all that is the kind of feat that is objectively admirable, regardless of rooting interest. Suffering remains the single most unifying concept we understand as people, and it is this understanding that connects us to this team.
It is this same understanding of suffering that makes the Bengals so hard to peg in terms of football talent. The numbers point to them being a legitimate threat against any potential opponent. They’re tough against the run (7th in the league), and even more deadly to passing attacks (6th in the league) thanks to a cornerback tandem that was shamefully overlooked in Pro Bowl voting (Jonathan Joseph deserved to go, and Leon Hall DEFINITELY deserved to go). Meanwhile Cedric Benson, who knows a thing or two about longsuffering (both tolerated and inflicted) rushed for over 1200 yards despite missing three games, putting up a yards per game average of 96.2, second only to Chris Johnson and making the ground attack 9th in the league in yardage. It’s ironic that this team faces the Jets in a first round playoff matchup, as the team will be looking into a mirror image of its newfound brutality.
Unfortunately, the mirror also reflects similarly uninspiring results through the air. Let me make one thing very clear: Nothing was going to make up for the loss of an athlete and player like Chris Henry. His absence has left the team without a big target in the red zone, and without a big play vertical threat. That said, there is no excuse for this team being as bad as 26th in the league in passing yardage. You’re telling me that Laveranues Coles, Andre Caldwell, and that other waste of space they drafted in two years ago can’t help Chad Ochocinco put up more yardage than this? Hell, Ochocinco alone ought to be worth more yardage, thanks to his underrated speed and precision in his cuts. The blame, then must return to the man who will be at the center of the Bengals’ postseason chances, and the man who has yet to prove he can overcome adversity such as the kind surrounding this season, Carson Palmer. Once destined to be the league’s next elite passer, Palmer appeared earlier this year to have shed the self-imposed pressures that had turned him into a psychological trainwreck earlier in his career, only to once again look somewhat shaken under center. For such a talented passer to have only 21 TDs and a pedestrian 6.64 YPA suggests that either the scheme has given up on his ability to stretch the field, or he’s given up on his own ability. Either way, without a marked turnaround this postseason, the Bengals will simple be too predictable to survive in a playoff filled with potential wildcards.
Still, I keep coming back to that game against the Chargers the week of Chris Henry’s tragic death. Faced with a matchup against the smart favorite to win the Super Bowl and the most unfair emotional burden placed on any team in the league, the Bengals played a beautifully run game and took the Chargers to the wire, losing to a field goal in the last seconds. Palmer threw for 314 yards, the multifaceted receiving corps kept the defense on its heels (five receivers had at least three receptions), and if an unbalanced run game (Larry Johnson was still being worked into a role) would have been more settled, who knows what could have happened? Prior to that point, the team looked ready to sink into a familiar mediocrity; after that game, they had found an edge that they will desperately need against the league’s elite teams. That’s the other thing about suffering; nobody quite knows how people emerge on the other side of it. If the Bengals have their talent executing at 100%, there isn’t a team in the AFC that can match them; at 85%, there might not be a team in the AFC they can beat. At the start of this season, I wrote that the Bengals had all of the tools to be the AFC’s most varied offense and most brutal defense. After a season that has done everything it can to break this team, I still feel the same way, which has me terrified as a Jets fan, but hopeful as a human being.