If you asked any sports fanatic if they thought the Cincinnati Bengals could win the AFC North three years ago they would give you a look of consternation and confusion. Of course, this was when Carson Palmer’s tenure with the Bengals was coming to an underwhelming conclusion. The Bengals had only been to the playoffs twice in the 21st century and hadn’t competed in a divisional playoff game since 1990. Although the Bengals have faired better in the AFC North than they did in the AFC Central, they have rarely proven to be an intimidating force that is capable of taking down defensive juggernauts such as the Baltimore Ravens and the Pittsburgh Steelers. Year in and year out the Bengals roster has always played second fiddle to their superior division counterparts who have been perennial playoff contenders for some time. However, between the Ravens reloading their roster with young talent and the Steelers lack of a ferocious team identity, the Bengals have a chance to take advantage of the lull that these top tier teams are currently facing.
Before Andy Dalton arrived, the Bengals consistency issues started and ended with their former quarterback Carson Palmer. Despite the fact that Palmer had several sensational seasons between 2005 and 2007, after he suffered an injury during the 2008 season Palmer never was the same. Even though the subsequent seasons following his injury weren’t necessarily abysmal, his overall accuracy and passing yardage decreased. In his last two seasons with the Bengals, Palmer was sacked 52 times for over 400 yards, which was the most yardage lost by Palmer in back to back seasons. After the 2010 season in which the Bengals went 4-12, it became clear that Palmer had lost what little agility and swiftness he had left. Yet, the Bengals didn’t succumb to the notion that their obsolete franchise quarterback would ultimately condemn to several seasons of unwanted mediocrity. Rather, they quickly sought out a young talent who has proven to be a solid fit for this franchise in his first two years with the team.
Although Dalton’s rookie season wasn’t miraculous, he still managed to throw 20 touchdown passes for 3,398 yards. In his sophomore year, Dalton’s accuracy and touchdown passes improved dramatically. While Dalton did throw three more interceptions than he did during his rookie season, his completion percentage improved from a meager 58.1% to a much more impressive 62.3%. Dalton also became a more tenacious passer who was less confined in the pocket and seemed more comfortable running the football when the situation called for it. However, Dalton’s consistency has never been an issue in the regular season. His focus and overall confidence appear to deteriorate when he plays in the post season. Even though Dalton was able to take the Bengals to two consecutive playoff berths for the first time since the 1981 and 1982 seasons, his poise in these sudden death situations have proven to be detrimental to this teams overall success. In his first two-playoff appearances, Dalton has never thrown a single touchdown pass. He has thrown four interceptions and in his most recent post-season appearance he completed only 46.7% of his passes. If Dalton wants to take the Bengals to the next level and beyond he must be more methodical and patient when it comes to passing the ball at the right moment, particularly when the Bengals post-season success is on the line.
While the Bengals weren’t atrocious defensively or offensively, they weren’t really proficient in these categories either. While the Bengals secondary and defensive front were solid throughout the 2012 season, their offensive efficiency left something to be desired. However, the Bengals utilized the NFL draft to bolster their roster with offensive standouts that could prove to be just what Dalton needs to make his case to eventually be the Bengals franchise quarterback. With their first pick, the Bengals selected tight end Tyler Eifert from Notre Dame. Despite the fact that the Bengals already have a pro bowl tight end in Jermaine Gresham, the acquisition of Eifert should make the Bengals receiving corps not only more effective but also much more powerful. At 6’6 and 250 pounds, Eifert is a colossal receiver who can catch anything that is thrown his way. With Eifert in the line up, the Bengals can run two tight end sets that is very similar to what the Patriots used to do with Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.
For now, the Bengals appear to be a franchise that is destined for a period of monumental success that will allow them to win their division for the first time since 2009. If Andy Dalton can overcome his post season woes and the Bengals new draft picks and free agency acquisitions prove to be the real deal, the Bengals have a chance to be an under the radar team that is capable of accomplishing the unexpected.