The length of the NFL season really shows on a team like the Bengals. A high school team at 0-8 sees the end in a couple weeks. A college team at 0-8 can still make its season in November by beating the rival.
The Bengals are 0-8 in the NFL. They’re not reaching the end of this dark tunnel until Christmas.
At a time like this, football players become professional football players, which doesn’t mean they become good football players so much as that they’re playing for the check. We think the check should be enough to make them good football players because it’s pretty big.
Players are motivated about establishing their credentials to remain in the NFL. Even at 0-8, it beats selling insurance. It’s pretty safe to bet that a good number of Bengals players won’t be in the league next year if they keep playing the way they played in Houston on Oct. 26; if they think this job isn’t worth doing, wait until they join the scrum with the rest of us.
The excitement of playing for glory is long gone for this team. Passion is off the table. We say that because passion alone should have kept the Bengals within four touchdowns of the Texans, who crushed them 35-6 for the first three-game winning streak in team history.
Two weeks ago, the Bengals had a pulse. Some of us even liked this Bengals team at 0-6 because of it.
Clearly overmatched, they still took the Super Bowl champions to overtime on the road, gave themselves a chance in Dallas and could have beaten Brett Favre in New York. The defense made a play once in a while, the offense made a play once in a while, and they seemed to have a chance on every play. If those Bengals were a high school team, you’d have loved them to death because they tried so hard.
Who could hate a football team that took its best shot every week with a quarterback from Harvard? In the absence of the Southern Cal quarterback, though, Ryan Fitzpatrick is doing a representative job, considering he has no running attack or offensive line support. It often seems as if the Bengals’ best offensive play is Fitzpatrick escaping the pass rush for positive yardage.
The Bengals were ragged but feisty earlier this season.
But you could see that team’s face melt Oct. 19 in the fourth quarter against Pittsburgh at Paul Brown Stadium. An earnest underdog turned into a hapless heap right before our eyes when the Steelers scored 21 unanswered points and made a 17-10 struggle into a 38-10 blowout.
Maybe the Steelers just beat up the Bengals and the home team reached its wall, but for the first time in weeks the Bengals didn’t merely lose. They looked like a loser.
Again, we go back to that most irksome quality of losers past, since 0-8 isn’t uncharted water around here. It’s that insipid, rolling-over, non-competitive losing that proves a team has completely lost track of its job, which is not to pack it in but to vigorously compete.
One hates to accuse a team of not trying, which is about the worst remark you can make about a professional athlete. But what are we supposed to think when cornerback Johnathan Joseph, right there when Houston’s Kevin Walter catches a pass and falls on the ground, doesn’t even touch him until he gets back on his feet and then just enough for a little shove as Walter cruises toward the end zone?
If a team plays hard and loses, it loses. In lieu of victory, effort is worthy of cheer.
Some fans will disagree and say it’s all about winning and losing, as if one way of losing is the same as the other. But that can’t be right.
One way of losing, the way the Bengals lost Sunday in Houston, is so utterly weak and ineffectual that there truly is nothing to gain from watching them play. That’s the kind of losing that makes yard work the more enjoyable passage of Sunday afternoon. It’s the kind of losing we used to despise, because it’s pointless to pull for a team that has no chance.
Yes, Bengals fans still watch the Bengals because, on any given Sunday, they still think the Bengals have a chance to win. When the Bengals start acting like they don’t, then they really do become a waste of time.
History says the Bengals will start winning a few. In each of the other four seasons when they started 0-8, they won at least three of their last eight games. And, in every other case, the Bengals’ brass was likely to say something like, “Hey, we were better the second half of the season and the fact that we won three indicates that we’re going in the right direction.” And, in every other case, the Bengals followed with another losing season.
In reality, opponents will start taking the week off against the Bengals, who will steel themselves again and fight against the putrid embarrassment of 0-16. As awfully as the Bengals have performed during the last two decades, they’ve still never dropped lower than 2-14, and that was enough to stimulate an outside coaching hire.
Sadly, the effects of Marvin Lewis didn’t last. Apparently, he suffered the fate of so many second-tier managers in so many industries who rescue their dying companies from the abyss. Once they’ve worked their magic, the inept ownership responsible for the original disaster gets excited and starts involving itself again. Not surprisingly, the operation returns to its old state of decay.
That’s why calls for the Bengals to fire Lewis so naively miss the point. He could be the solution only so long as the problems laid low.
Now that the problems have re-asserted themselves, there is no solution because the problems have all the power. And that’s why Lewis might as well just leave.
The least he could do is squeeze a few wins out of this team this season and make it worth watching again.
CONTACT BILL PETERSON: firstname.lastname@example.org