NFL

Cincinnati Bengals Gear Up for ‘Divisional Round or Bust’ Season

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The 2015 season is still more than five months away and the entire Bengals organization is already on the hot seat.

The pressure facing the Bengals exists on every level. It starts at the top, where Marvin Lewis enters the final year of his contract. He has led the Bengals to four straight playoff appearances but has yet to win a game in the tournament, dropping his career playoff record to 0-6 (tied with Jim Mora for the worst postseason record ever).

Quarterbacking that streak of one-and-dones is Andy Dalton, who is feeling some heat of his own. The Red Rocket is one of the most maddeningly inconsistent players in the NFL, forcing his coaches and teammates to spend an inordinate amount of time defending his performances.

“I don’t think I did a good enough job of getting him to where I think he needs to be,” said offensive coordinator Hue Jackson of Dalton. “That’s one of my biggest responsibilities in my mind this upcoming year.”

While Dalton still has six years remaining on the extension he signed last August, he becomes much more vulnerable after the 2015 season. He had two roster bonuses built into his contract, one of which was paid out just three days after he inked the extension ($5 million) while the other was redeemed earlier this month ($4 million). After this year, the only guaranteed money the Bengals are on the hook for is the prorated portion of Dalton’s $12 million signing bonus.

Cincinnati could have cut ties with Dalton earlier this offseason and avoided paying his second roster bonus, but Lewis is unwilling to start over at the quarterback position with his own job hanging in the balance.

“We signed Andy long-term. We committed ourselves to Andy long-term and now we feel really good about him and he will continue to get better with the pieces around Andy,” Lewis said. “Andy has done a lot of things not a lot of people have done. We have to keep playing better around him and that will be helpful to Andy.”

It is easy to see how the Bengals — despite enjoying the most sustained success in franchise history — are playing a dangerous game of dominos. If Lewis fails to lead his team past the first round, there is no chance he receives a new contract. And if a new coach comes in, he will likely heed the seemingly endless calls for Dalton’s head.

Dalton is hardly the only Bengals player with an uncertain future beyond this season. The list of Cincinnati players scheduled to become free agents next offseason is loaded and lengthy: receivers A.J. Green, Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones; offensive linemen Andrew Whitworth, Andre Smith and Kevin Zeitler; cornerbacks Leon Hall, Adam Jones and Dre Kirkpatrick; safeties Reggie Nelson, George Iloka and Shiloh Keo; defensive linemen Wallace Gilberry and Brandon Thompson; and linebackers Vincent Rey and Jayson DiManche and Chris Carter.

Several of those players may choose not to come back if the Bengals undergo sweeping changes. The player the franchise is most worried about is Green, a top-three receiver who is extremely close with Dalton (they were drafted together in 2011 and spearheaded Cincinnati’s turnaround from laughingstock to contender).

Then again, all of this is assuming the worst-case scenario. There is also a very real chance the Bengals make the playoffs for a fifth consecutive year, win their first playoff game since the 1990 season and possibly even advance to the franchise’s first Super Bowl since Boomer Esiason was under center.

While the forecast in the Queen City is murky in 2016 and beyond, the immediate future is soaked in stability. The Bengals return every core player from a roster that won 40 games over the last four seasons. And there are plenty of reasons to believe this year’s Bengals team will be markedly better than last year’s 10-5-1 outfit.

For one thing, the team was hit hard by injuries late last season. Do-it-all linebacker Vontaze Burfict went on injured-reserve on Dec. 9, which played a key role in the Bengals allowing an average of 27 points over their final three games (including the playoff loss to the Colts). And while Cincinnati’s other cornerstone defender (Geno Atkins) did not miss any games, he never looked right as he dealt with the lingering effects of an ACL injury.

“Geno played his tail off against the run last year,” Lewis said. “He didn’t have the production we’d like rushing the passer but I wasn’t dissatisfied with Geno’s season at all. He’ll go back to being as dominant as he was. He’s just got to work through.”

Rejoining a healthy Burflict and Atkins on defense is Michael Johnson, who returns after spending last season in Tampa Bay. Not only does he provide the second edge rusher Cincinnati sorely needs, but he helped the team swipe a compensatory draft pick (a third-rounder, at that) in exchange for his brief free-agent departure.

Johnson is not the Bengals defender to realize the grass isn’t always greener elsewhere. Cornerback Brandon Ghee also returns to Cincinnati after spending last year in San Diego and Tennessee. The Bengals are not afraid to bring in new blood, either, adding LB A.J. Hawk as a free agent.

All of these upgrades will strengthen a defense that ranked No. 22 overall last season (after ranking No. 3 in 2013). That puts the onus back on Dalton and Lewis, who has done everything possible to set up his embattled quarterback for success.

Dalton will lean on a dominant running game led by rookie revelation, Jeremy Hill, as well as Giovani Bernard.  He also has elite pass catchers at his disposal, including Green, Sanu, Williams and Tyler Eifert (Jermaine Gresham, currently a free agent, could return as well). But you know what they say … you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him show up in the playoffs.

That is what it will come down to for the Bengals … they have to win enough games to get into the tournament and then win at least one more once they get there. Otherwise, they stand to lose everything they’ve built up over the last four years.

Want to talk more about the Bengals and their odds of finding postseason success? Join Michael Lombardo for his weekly NFL Chat on Friday at 2pm EST. But you do not have to wait until then … you can ask your question now


About Michael Lombardo

Michael Lombardo

Michael Lombardo has spent more than 10 years as a team expert at Scout.com, primarily covering the Chargers, Cardinals and Panthers. He has been published by the NFL Network, Fox Sports and other venues.