The Bengals have lost their way, about as fully and quickly as they lost to the San Diego Chargers, 49-41, on Nov. 12 at Paul Brown Stadium. The tough schedule about which we've said so much contributed not one bit to that audacious collapse.
You wanted audacity, and you've got it. The Bengals held a 28-7 halftime lead on their home field, Carson Palmer threw for 440 yards and Chad Johnson made 11 catches for 260 yards. And the Bengals still lost.
Of the substances said to inhere in human beings, it's widely accepted that there are two -- mind and body. We understand that the Bengals are crippled in body, playing without center Rich Braham, right tackle Levi Jones, middle linebacker Odell Thurman and defensive end David Pollack. Without those fellows, the Bengals wouldn't have been very good last year either.
As to the mind of the Bengals, well, we try to apprehend the contents the same as we would with anyone else -- by reading off their behavior and utterances. Quite often, the filtering of noise is the key task in interpretation. If the Bengals have given us much to consider this year, it's a lot of noise.
Many believe character (read: good behavior) is the most reliable predictor of material success. There's a name for people who hold such beliefs -- they're called fools
Trouble off the field might distract or galvanize a team's efforts, but the trouble in itself means nothing. Marvin Lewis lived terrible off-field trouble pretty close to first-hand some years ago as the Baltimore Ravens' defensive coordinator, when middle linebacker Ray Lewis beat a double-murder rap. The Ravens focused their way to a Super Bowl victory.
It's curious that we should be so taken with salacious off-field news and gossip, the "he said, she said" that illuminates our times. We must harbor secret wishes to be little, old women living in the country dishing over the young men about town. We jabber on about this one abusing drugs, maybe that one cheats in his training, another takes out his frustration on a police officer, that one is said to drive around with guns and weed and maybe plying pubescent girls with alcohol so the young marks will sleep with him.
Rudy Johnson complains that the Bengals don't run enough after one loss, then Chad Johnson complains that the Bengals don't pass enough after the next. Is it soap opera for us or just down-home, small-town schadenfreude?
And what does it matter? Not one little bit. Add it all together and it makes not one bit of difference about the character of this football team as a moral agent with football tasks at hand.
The Bengals can proposition teenagers, urinate in the street and throw five illicit sex parties every year in strip clubs and sailboats so long as they tip the good people of the service industry enough to keep them quiet. It means nothing between the lines.
But when the fellows start blowing 21-point halftime leads on their home field? Now we're getting into character issues. When the guys roll over so their guests can score six touchdowns in one second half, we might acknowledge that the Bengals are gracious hosts, but we would not accuse them of adding up to a good football team.
Now we see clearly that the Bengals lack the virtues of a football team. They lack a killer instinct. They don't lack a suicide instinct.
This football team has a mental disorder, particularly on defense. They must be afflicted with some kind of phobic paranoia about hitting the guy with the ball near the goal line.
San Diego's LaDainian Tomlinson scored on a nine-yard run during which no one on the Bengals touched him. The Bengals have 11 guys to defend 19 yards and no one touches the ball carrier working through tight space. Tomlinson would have scored in a game of touch.
Later, the Chargers scored when quarterback Phillip Rivers shoveled the ball to tight end Brandon Manumaleuna for a five-yard touchdown pass and, again, no one on the Bengals laid a hand on a ball carrier.
Through the first half, the Bengals allowed San Diego 116 total yards. After halftime, the Bengals gave up 314 yards. Can it be a split personality? Manic depression? How does one account for this strange behavior?
Rivers offered this to reporters about how his team came back from down 28-7: "We didn't panic. We didn't point fingers like some teams around the league do."
Anyone's ears burning?
Almost to the final head, the television sages of professional football already wrote off the Bengals before last weekend. They're even wackier than the Bengals. But what do you expect around the NFL, where competition for the final playoff spots would make the Three Stooges proud?
Following consecutive losses to Atlanta, Baltimore and San Diego, the Bengals remain only one game out of the AFC's final playoff position. At 4-5, the Bengals trail only Jacksonville, Kansas City and the New York Jets. A couple weeks ago, one figured the Bengals needed a 10-6 finish, in which case they must win six of their final seven games. But if Kansas City, Jacksonville or the Jets can finish 10-6, the NFL should start an investigation.
This might be one of those years when an 8-8 team goes to the playoffs in the AFC. How appropriate if the Bengals -- the flighty, mixed-up, split personality Bengals -- make the playoffs just that way.