We've refrained from joining the general discussion about the Bengals and their failure for the last month, thinking only jilted dreamers could produce such vitriol. Not even the New England Patriots are perfect, however close they are. It's easy to find flaws, even in a winning team, and Bengals fans, loyal as they are, love to find fault as a tribute to their critical intelligence.
But the schedule foretold particular trouble for the Bengals through the first half of their season, when most of their toughest games were to be played. In other words, we could have predicted fault-finding in September and October because we could have predicted four or five losses. So why chew on it?
Admittedly, that 51-41 loss at Cleveland in Week 2 set off alarms, but they could have been false alarms because the Bengals still had time to get one back. The Bengals haven't gotten it back, though, and now they're about out of chances because their remaining schedule contains five or six wins for a good team -- and the Bengals aren't a good team.
Even as a playoff contender, the Bengals weren't going to survive the first half with a winning record. Details aside, they weren't going to beat New England, their chances of winning in Kansas City were slim from the beginning, they weren't going to win in Seattle, they were going to lose either to Baltimore or Pittsburgh and the New York Jets figured to be good enough to beat them after a 10-6 finish last season.
The forecast stipulated that the Bengals would split the first half of their season, after which a very accessible second half of 6-2 would certainly qualify for the playoffs and, if they should stub their toes some week, they could still win a tiebreaker with a 5-3 second half and a 9-7 overall performance.
If the Bengals were 4-4 today or even 3-5, we could look to the schedule for a chance to jump into the picture. Their remaining games outside the AFC North come against Arizona, Tennessee, St. Louis, San Francisco and Miami. They could lose one of those and one of their remaining divisional games, and there's that 9-7.
But the Bengals aren't 4-4 or 3-5. They're 2-6. Since their 27-20 win against Baltimore on Sept. 10, the Bengals have beaten only the Jets, who can barely beat anyone as it turns out.
The Bengals have lost games an experienced playoff contender should win in Cleveland and Buffalo. They've eaten up more than their share of mulligans.
They're in deep trouble with major holes to fill. They've got a great quarterback and very good wide receivers, but not enough else. Especially troubling is the absence of a running game -- the Bengals are 28th in the NFL with 88.4 rushing yards per game, due to serious structural trouble.
Up until Nov. 4, one still could have argued for the Bengals. But they lost in aggravating style, giving up 479 yards to the Buffalo Bills, one of the NFL's mediocre offenses. The Bengals rushed only 17 times, gaining 28 yards.
To say the Bengals are a playoff contender at this point is tantamount to saying a team that can't run or stop the run is going to win seven of eight games in the NFL. It just doesn't add up.
As always, much commentary has been expended to charge that the Bengals are losing for reasons having little to do with football. For example, Chad Johnson is a divisive presence on the team. Maybe he is and maybe he isn't. But if the Bengals could run the ball, Johnson's antics are a sideshow in the truest and most appropriate sense.
Are the Bengals losing because they won't hire a general manager? If they hired a GM, he'd probably be injured by now or suspended by the commissioner. But would a general manager be a fool for drafting David Pollack or Chris Henry?
Mike Brown gave a rare interview in the morning paper on Nov. 4, during which he argued that injuries have gutted the Bengals' defense and their last few drafts. Point taken, to a degree. If the Bengals couldn't have foretold that a new commissioner would take away Odell Thurman and Chris Henry, that doesn't mean they get a pass.
It's really simpler than all that. After all, this is football, not microphysics or cognitive psychology.
It's raw physical dominance, which is expressed in blocking and tackling. On the tackling side, the losses of Pollack and Thurman have been much discussed. But the Bengals are every bit as hurt on the blocking side.
Veteran Willie Anderson missed the Buffalo game with injury at one tackle, and Levi Jones has struggled while he tries to come back from injury at the other. In the last five years, the Bengals have drafted two offensive linemen in the first two rounds and one of them, Eric Steinbach, already took off as a free agent.
The Bengals entered the season needing to replace Steinbach and retired center Rich Braham while Anderson and Jones tried to regain full strength. That's four starting linemen missing from the 11-5 team of 2005. And where's Rudi Johnson? A hamstring problem has limited him to 13 carries since Sept. 23.
We can try, if we wish, to make the Bengals more complicated than they really are with our melodramatic descriptions and heavy breathing over personality conflicts, but they just can't run the ball. Some of us, who thought the Bengals would be good this year, clearly didn't realize the state of their running game. The first half of this season has set us straight.
Like it or not, the Bengals must rebuild the interior of their football team. Maybe we should have seen it coming. If we didn't understand that before now, we probably didn't want to.
If the Bengals just aren't very good, that's their fault. If we're surprised, it's ours.
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