The Bengals play at the Jets on Sunday in what almost feels like the start of a second exhibition season after five straight trips to the playoffs.
How crazy is that?
No one living in the 1990s would have believed Cincinnati’s pro football team could ever have fans feeling that way, like nothing that happens in the regular season really matters anymore.
But that’s the perception Marvin Lewis has created during 13 seasons in the Queen City, for better or for worse.
The Bengals are way beyond a rebuilding process that seemed insurmountable when he took it over in 2003, and he deserves a lot of credit for changing the culture of a team that knew nothing but losing for an entire decade.
In many ways, Cincinnati has become a model organization. Few are as good at drafting, scouting and developing players. With memories of the bad old days never far away, I’m still amazed at how often they have to let go actual good players (in part because of their quality of scouting and in part because of the ridiculously small NFL rosters, but that’s another story) on cut-down day.
There is one way, of course, the Bengals are not the envy of any team. They are still more than two decades from winning in the postseason, which is where the feeling nothing matters in the regular season anymore comes from.
That feeling, while natural and understandable, is wrong though.
For one thing, winning 10 games is a hell of a lot better than winning two. Seems obvious, but it’s easily forgotten in the burn of January disappointments.
For another, this team really does have some questions as the regular season dawns.
It will be interesting to see if Andy Dalton can recreate the magic he had for much of last season without Hue Jackson. Was Jackson key to getting the attack into gear, or did he just need to teach the quarterback how to steer it?
There are new pieces on offense around Dalton, too, so don’t be surprised if the offense needs some time to gel.
If he falters, is there any point Lewis might consider a move to A.J. McCarron?
Defensively, the team bounced back last year thanks to better health, and there is every reason to think the front seven will be fearsome again. It might need to as the secondary appears to be hanging on by a thread thanks to some injuries and attrition.
Health is an ever-present issue in the NFL, one that can derail nearly any team in any season.
That’s another reason not to take any winning season in the NFL for granted. One never knows when their local squad will start to resemble a MASH unit.
Because of parity, more than half the games in the NFL are coin flips, even for good teams.
The way the schedule lays out, the Bengals could very well get off to a slow start. There are no cake games until late October when the Browns, who look like they’d rather win than lose this season under new head coach Jackson, come to town.
Even if the season starts poorly, there should be time to bounce back. The Steelers should be good but beatable, and if the Ravens recover from their terrible 2015, they still probably won’t be much more than average either.
The last 10 games aren’t a walk in the park, but they are all winnable. (There’s something else unimaginable to say about the Bengals in the 1990s, right?)
Maybe that’s what this team needs, anyway. To face some adversity and overcome it in the regular season then actually go into the playoffs with some momentum.
Four months separate us from those days of reckoning, though, and there are plenty of questions that will be answered while others arise between now and then.
I’m gonna advise enjoying the ride and hoping for the best if you’re planning to wear something with orange and black stripes on it Sunday.
There were days when hope itself wasn’t even realistic.
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