What was the difference between the 4-11-1 team in 2008 to the AFC North Champion 10-6 team this year? Mike Brown will have you believe that it can all be chalked up to Carson Palmer's presence on the field. However, as Showtime explains, Carson is no longer an elite QB. Surely, he is not alone in causing a 6 game swing.
So what drove the Bengals 2nd playoff birth in 19 years? I think it was due to a lot of luck and Mike Zimmer. And what is it going to take to get the Bengals to that next level - where making the playoffs is assured and the expectation is the Super Bowl? A lot of little things changing and the luck continuing. Lets go part by part.
Luck: In 2009, the Bengals had the 21st toughest schedule in the NFL, with opponents posting a season-record of 126-130 (.492). Besides the Bears game, they really never had a win where they dominated a game. This year, as opposed to past years, the Bengals simply got the breaks that Bengals fans are not used to (Denver game notwithstanding). And they mostly stayed injury free, or at least, they did not suffer any catastrophic injury to a big name player that could used a crutch to excuse away another season.
Mike Zimmer: Not much more to add to this than what Joe Reedy has already said: "In two seasons Zimmer has remade the Bengals defense into one of the top units in the NFL. When he took over in 2008 the defense was ranked 27th, giving up 348.8 yards per game the previous season. It improved to 12th last year (325.5 ypg) and was fourth this year (301.4 ypg).
This past season the Bengals were seventh against the run and sixth against the pass. It is only the third time in franchise history and first since 1989 that they had finished in the top 10 in all three categories in the same season.
The defense also yielded the third fewest points in the league at 18.4 per game."
We know the special teams didn't win any games for the Bengals. And here is what Showtime has already written about the offense: "This year, all excuses were gone. Carson was back and claimed to be 100% healthy. Housh was gone, but was replaced with Coles. The running game would be better. The offensive line greatly outperformed expectations. So the old Bengals offense was back, right? Maybe not the old Bengals, but at least a version of the Bengals offense that didn't suck. Well, we got a mediocre offense back. The unit ranked 24th by official NFL stats, 19th by Football Outsiders. Is that terrible? No, it was good enough to win 10 games. Considering that the organization feels Carson is a top-flight quarterback? It's terrible."
It was the defense this year that carried the team, and a lot of the credit goes to Zimmer. The fact that he is back for 3 years is a huge win for the Bengals.
So what has to change for the Bengals to actually win a playoff game? You certainly can't count on luck. And looking at the Bengals schedule next year, the luck may have run out. From Lance, here is the Bengals schedule for 2010:
Home: Baltimore Ravens, Cleveland Browns, Pittsburgh Steelers,
Buffalo Bills, Miami Dolphins, San Diego Chargers, New Orleans Saints,
Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Away: Baltimore Ravens, Cleveland Browns, Pittsburgh Steelers, New England Patriots, New York Jets, Indianapolis Colts, Atlanta Falcons, Carolina Panthers.
So is Mike Brown ready to make the changes necessary to get the Bengals to that next step? As Mo Egger pointed out after the playoff loss, this Bengals team is a good team, not a great team. The difference is razor thin. Here are a few things that are obvious moves the Bengals need to make in the offseason:
1. Fire Bratkowski.
2. Maximize draft effectiveness. Understand the system you are trying to build and draft accordingly. Do not draft another Jerome Simpson or (so far) Chase Coffman.
2a. Build scouting department. Clearly, to be able to maximize draft effectiveness, you need to have more scouts to get better analysis of available talent.
3. Figure out what the hell is wrong with Carson. Get him to Dr. James Andrews. Get him in the gym. Something. The Bengals are (still) built around Carson. We don't need him to be putting up Drew Brees numbers. But we also can't have him putting up Trent Edwards numbers.
4. Get some more playmakers on offense. Draft for speed. Look at Austin Collee, Julian Edelman, DeSean Jackson, or Percy Harvin.
5. Depth at TE.
6. Depth at Safety.
The little things are what separate the good teams and great teams. Are the Bengals going to do whatever it takes to get the little things right?