Between now and the middle of the summer, there's a good chance that I'll feel better about the Bengals than I do now. They'll draft some players, some of whom I'll like, a few I'll talk myself into, and the rest who I'll be open-minded about. They'll eventually sign a few free agents, including a couple who probably make sense, and I'll try my best to be open-minded about them. And there's always something about a rapidly approaching season, and all the optimistic words coming from the mouths of players that just makes us feel a little better about a team than we probably should.
But the problem isn't that the Bengals can't get better than they are right now. In fact, given when they're drafting and how many picks they have, I'll bet that they emerge from the last weekend in April better than they are in mid-March. The problem is that the Bengals will still appear to be light-years away from where they were 14 months ago.
Yes, 14 months ago. January, 2016. The Bengals had just lost suffered the most debilitating defeat in franchise history, a heartbreaking, suffocating playoff loss that still stings more than a year after it happened. But say what you want about how that team saw its season end - and at the time, I said a lot - the team that stormed and sulked its way off of the wet Paul Brown Stadium turf on that cold January night was one of the franchise's best. It might have been its dumbest, and probably its most immature, but the 2015 Bengals were the rare team in the franchise's history to play reasonably near the standard of a legitimate championship contender.
They had one of the best and deepest rosters in the NFL, one with very few large, gaping holes. They weren't excellent in many specific areas, but they were very good in almost all of them. They just authored a 12-win season, a total that matched both the franchise record for wins in a season and two other teams for the most wins in the AFC. With a healthy Andy Dalton, they were considered bona fide Super Bowl material, and even if they didn't ultimately win a playoff game, throughout the season they'd been in the conversation with some of the league's perennially great teams as to which one had what it took to win the title.
No, that team was never going to stay intact. There'd be coaching defections and roster attrition. Those things happen, and it'd appeared that the Bengals were braced for change and equipped to handle it. And even if the best-laid plans didn't yield another playoff appearance, the 6-9-1 season the 2016 Bengals authored seemed partially - with some hindsight - inevitable, and partially, something they could bounceback from.
Now? I don't know.
This team, at this moment, is a far cry from what it was in 2015, and I keep referring to 2015 because that season, until we experience another one like it, is the standard. One of championship contention. Being among the league's elite. Being able to win a high majority of games.
What the Bengals were in 2016 was not the standard. They were a team that had, at various stages of their season, a shaky offensive line, issues running the ball, an inability to make enough big plays on offense, problems rushing the quarterback, a lack of speed on defense, and very few game-changing guys that drastically affected how opposing offenses attacked.
What they Bengals are right now is worse.
The loss of their best two offensive linemen stings, and a week after we found out that both Andrew Whitworth and Kevin Zeitler have moved on, I'm still pissed. Getting into the hows and whys of their respective defections is pointless right now. But how they plan on rebuilding an already uninspiring running game and keeping their often-on-his-ass quarterback upright is now the biggest question hovering over a team that went into this offseason filled with them.
The thing is, the offensive line last season did improve as the season went on. Andy Dalton was sacked 21 times in the first eight games, 16 in the final eight. Meanwhile, the teams collection of skill players took major injury hits. Yet Andy was still able to function at a reasonable level as the likes of AJ Green, Giovani Bernard, and Tyler Eifert each missed substantial amounts of time. His passer rating, interception percentage, and completion percentage in the second half of the season were all pretty in line with his career totals, and even without some of its best players, the offense didn't completely grind to a halt.
That's a credit to Andy and some of the skills guys who remained, but it was also a reflection of an improved, if still inferior, offensive line.
Which just lost its best two guys.
Now a team that had a lot of holes has an alarming number of them. And I'm sorry, but I just can't convince myself that Andre Smith, a year removed from the Bengals all but paying for his airfare to Minneapolis, represents something to be appeased by.
Given that there's only so much that any team can expect from one draft class - and my fear that they're not going to trade AJ McCarron for early-round picks - and that the remaining crop of available free agents is filled with role players, fallback options, guys who are past their prime, and dudes coming off of down, or injury-filled seasons, the leftovers from a week that's reshaped the league don't exactly make you think that a difference-maker can be stolen from elsewhere.
Meanwhile, the best team in the league and the AFC - the team that not long ago, we'd hoped the Bengals could at least breathe some of the same air as - has gotten better. With a combination of trades, free agency acquisitions, and singing of their own guys, the defending champs look better than last year...
New England's offseason haul includes Rex Burkhead, a guy who was a nice backup here but who suddenly looks like a guy who could be a major contributor for a team that figures out how to use players that others seemingly can't figure out what to do with.
I could've made good arguments about the Bengals and Patriots being this close 14-15 months ago. I could've made weaker, but still legit claims that with some things breaking their way this offseason, those two teams could've been in the same conversation by the end of this coming season. Right now, it feels like the Bengals and Patriots are barely in the same league.
Oh, and while you and I stew over the fact that the Bengals have essentially stood by and watched their team disintegrate, cop-death enthusiast Adam Jones - who's $6.3 million cap hit could've helped keep an O-lineman, and no-longer-useful Rey Maualuga - with a $3.6 million cap hit - are still employed by this team.
Maybe they're being taught how to play offensive line.
Look, I know that criticizing the Bengals during free agency is usually very easy, and some do it gratuitously. I know how it inevitable its been that free agency was going to take its toll on what was once such a good, deep, roster. I know that there are some things the Bengals can do to make themselves a better team than they are today.
But there's almost nothing that can be done to convince me that the 2017 Bengals will be anywhere near as good as the 2015 team, meaning that this franchise - not long ago considered one of the league's most well-run - is setting a new, lower, standard as it stands painfully and maddeningly still.