Maybe the Bengals still have a pulse, which means they’re not quite as desperate as those no-good outfits from the 1990s — but they’re still 0-3, they’re still going to have their hands full with the Cleveland Browns Sunday, their quarterback still is no better protected than David Klingler and the season still is a long way from hopeful.
They do look like a football team with a pulse, which, in this autumn of low expectations, means that our expectations are being met. It’s the least one can ask of a football team, that it give the impression of being competitive, and it’s still way too easy to remember when the Bengals couldn’t even do that. The Bengals visited the New York Giants on Sept. 21, finding that the Super Bowl champions weren’t on top of their game.
Why would the Giants be ready? They play in the NFC East, the NFL’s best division from top to bottom, and they also play defending division champions in the Seattle Seahawks and Pittsburgh Steelers. They walked past the St. Louis Rams 41-13 a week earlier, with the Seahawks coming up this week. If the Bengals weren’t so obviously messed up, the forecasters would have seen a trap game for the Giants. The Bengals surprised everyone by baiting the trap and taking the Giants past the wire before losing in overtime.
So we learned a little about the Bengals. We learned they’re not so hapless as we thought. We know that on the right Sunday they can crank up the right effort.
But can they crank it up every Sunday? On Oct. 5, they go to Dallas. A week later, they’ll return to New York to face the Jets and Brett Favre. A week after that, the Steelers visit Paul Brown Stadium. Two weeks after that, here come the Jacksonville Jaguars, followed two weeks later by the Philadelphia Eagles.
Four days after the Eagles game, they’ll be in Pittsburgh on a Thursday night. On Dec. 7, they go to Indianapolis. In seven games of a 10-week stretch starting at the top of October, the Bengals will be huge underdogs. A good team could lose against this schedule. A bad team could play dead. And that becomes the question about the Bengals this season, now that we’ve seen they can play in the lair of the Super Bowl champions and give them a run.
We can’t expect the Bengals to win, because they’re not as good as the team that lost last year against a much lighter schedule. But we can and should expect the Bengals to be competitive on every play. That’s how the Bengals failed in the first two weeks this season and how they made us think again about the 1990s. Seeing the Bengals miss multiple tackles on the same plays against Baltimore, then that ultimate humiliation against Tennessee, a punt blocked in their own end zone for a Titans touchdown, how low can a football team go? Good football teams don’t have punts blocked in their own end zone.
Good football teams will be stuck in terrible field position, be unable to move the ball and might even have a punt blocked once in a great while, but not all at the same time. Now that they caught the Giants napping and took them to overtime, are the Bengals better than we thought? Based on all the evidence, we’d have to say not. They just played a good game against a better team playing a poor game and almost earned a victory.
Based on two-plus years of decline, the Bengals have lost the benefit of the doubt. They’ve become a football team playing for pride more than for victory. A year ago, we saw them as contenders, but they’re pretenders now unless or until they show otherwise on a consistent basis.
The offensive line is especially a cause for concern, because one never knows if it’s going to blow open a huge hole for Chris Perry or leave Carson Palmer exposed to a broken nose. When the blockers hold the line for Palmer, he can still cut a defense apart. As long as Chad Ocho Cinco and T.J. Houshmandzadeh are still around, the Bengals will be able to score. But if the line doesn’t block, none of that comes into play. The Bengals allowed six sacks by the Giants, who won the Super Bowl largely because of their pass rush. Three other times, Palmer escaped the rush and made gains on the ground.
Palmer threw 39 times against the Giants and, figuring in the other nine plays when he couldn’t throw, it means the Bengals’ offensive line leaked 25 percent of the time, which doesn’t count the numerous times Palmer was hurried. And the Bengals didn’t run all that well, either. Perry led the way with 74 yards on 20 rushes, but 25 yards of that came on one carry.
Close as they came to beating the defending champions, it’s still a long way to the top for the Bengals. Three weeks into the regular season, they’re already trying to catch up, and the schedule lays out a treacherous path. But at least we can think a little bit in terms of silver linings after a heartening performance in the Meadowlands. It’s worth noting, for example, that the three teams that have beaten the Bengals — the Giants, Tennessee and Baltimore — were a combined 8-0 through Sept. 21. If the Bengals couldn’t beat those teams, no one else was beating them either.
Next time out, the Bengals will play Cleveland, a beatable team. Maybe the Bengals can build on what happened in the Meadowlands, put up a victory, then maybe steal two or three wins in October and November.
A winning season still seems out of the question. But now we can at least hope for a respectable season. We’d take it.
CONTACT BILL PETERSON: firstname.lastname@example.org