For nearly three decades now, Bengals fans have been trying to convince themselves that this year is finally going to be the year that the team's playoff drought comes to an end, and for the past 26 seasons, they've been wrong.
The roughest part of that 26-year drought might have come last season when a Bengals team with high expectations stumbled to a 6-9-1 finish. However, that stumble might have actually worked out in the Bengals' favor because it gave a team that's already pretty loaded with talent a chance to make one of the first 10 picks in the NFL Draft.
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The Bengals could have used that pick to draft for need -- by taking an offensive lineman or a defensive end -- but instead, coach Marvin Lewis made it clear that he's in win-now mode when he selected wide receiver John Ross, the man with the fastest 40-time in NFL combine history.
The Bengals threw their needs out the window again in Round 2 when they took running back Joe Mixon. The picks made sense when you considered one thing: Lewis is going into the final year of his contract, which means planning for the future took a backseat to winning now, and that strategy might actually pay off.
By landing Mixon and Ross, the Bengals walked out of the draft with two first-round talents, even though they only had one first-round pick.
So what does all of this mean?
It means that you can make a strong argument that Andy Dalton has the best offensive talent he's ever been surrounded by during his six seasons in Cincinnati. Now, I don't want to jinx things, especially because I'm from Cincinnati, but Dalton and the Bengals might actually have enough talent this year to pick up that long-awaited first playoff win.
If you look at Dalton's career with the Bengals, there always seems to be some sort of giant wrench thrown into the Cincy's season.
Let's start with the fact that Dalton was only drafted by the Bengals in 2011 because Carson Palmer hated the team so much that that he refused to play for them. Basically, Palmer decided he'd rather retire than play for the Bengals, which led to his eventual trade to the Raiders.
Not to mention, Dalton didn't get any offseason practice during his rookie year due to the 2011 lockout, when teams weren't allowed to meet with their players. Once the lockout was over and Dalton was allowed to practice, he was put in charge of an offense that you wouldn't exactly call inspiring. At the time, the Bengals had a tailback (Cedric Benson) on the back end of his career and Jerome Simpson as their No. 2 receiver. Their No. 1 receiver was also the guy picked in the first round in Dalton's class: A.J. Green.
In 2012, the Bengals decided to add some weapons for Dalton when they drafted Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu, but neither rookie really helped the team that year. Instead, the Bengals played the season without anyone who really resembled a true No. 2 receiver.
In 2013, the Bengals' running back situation hit rock bottom for Dalton, as starter BenJarvus Green-Ellis only averaged 3.4 yards per carry, which ranked 41st in the NFL. The thing the Bengals did find in 2013 was a No. 2 receiver (Jones), and Dalton responded by throwing a career-high 33 touchdown passes. So the passing game clicked in 2013, but the Bengals struggled to run. The one thing the Bengals did do in 2013 is add two more weapons for Dalton in the form of Tyler Eifert and Giovani Bernard.
On paper, the Bengals offense looked loaded heading into 2014, but then someone made that piece of paper into a voodoo doll and set it on fire. Jones would end up missing the entire season due to an injury, Eiftert would sit out 15 games due to his own injury while Bernard and Green both missed three games due to injury. The Bengals' 26-10 playoff loss to the Colts that year was indicative of their season: Dalton had no one to throw to because everyone was injured.
However, the team did keep add another offensive talent in 2014 in the form of running back Jeremy Hill.
By the time 2015 rolled around, everyone was finally healthy, and Dalton responded by turning into an MVP candidate. The Bengals quarterback went 10-3 as a starter and was in the MVP conversation until he injured his thumb in a Week 13 loss to the Steelers. The Bengals season slowly unraveled after that, and eventually ended in an 18-16 playoff loss to the Steelers where Cincy suffered arguably the worst late-game postseason meltdown in NFL history. For the sake of Bengals fans, I won't rehash that loss here.
After an injury-riddled 2016 season that saw Eifert (eight) and Green (six) both miss several games, Green sees a Bengals team in 2017 that could be as exciting as the team from 2015.
"They can all make plays all over the field," Green said of the Bengals' receiving corps in late May. "I feel like we're getting back to where we were in 2015 with Marvin [Jones[, Mo [Sanu]. I feel like once TB [Tyler Boyd] gets settled in, he'll be able to play faster because now he knows what to do and the way [Cody Core] is coming along, and after adding Ross and adding Mixon, I feel like we're getting back to that 2015 roster."
That's a lot of depth, and there's a good reason for that. As the Bengals have learned, injuries can happen at anytime in the NFL, but unlike 2016 and 2014, the 2017 team has enough depth to deal with an injury to pretty much any skill position, if it were to happen.
Basically, the Bengals have a lot of firepower all over the field.
This Bengals team is definitely designed to put up points, and that's probably not a coincidence because when the Bengals score, they win. Cincy is 37-1-2 in their past 40 games when they score 22 or more points.
To put that in perspective, the Patriots are the only other team with 37 wins in their past 40 games when they score 22 or more points, but their winning percentage is lower (.925 for New England compared to .950 for the Bengals). Even successful teams like the Seahawks (32-8), Packers (32-7-1) and Ravens (27-13) aren't a lock to win when scoring 22 or more points, but the Bengals are thanks in large part to the fact that Cincy has had a top-nine scoring defense during five of Dalton's six seasons.
The Bengals defense should be just as strong as ever in 2017. The only question is if Dalton will be able to take advantage of the arsenal of weapons that he's been handed.
The only thing that might hold Dalton back is the Bengals' offensive line. The team lost two key linemen this offseason in left tackle Andrew Whitworth and right guard Kevin Zeitler, and right now, there's no telling if their replacements will even be half as good either of them.
That being said, Bengals offensive coordinator Ken Zampese already seems to be a fan of the Bengals new left tackle, 2015 first-round pick Cedric Ogbuehi.
"I have full confidence that he's going to be a fabulous player for us," Zampese told the team's website in late July. "It's no different than a new guy at wide receiver or a new guy at another position. You find out what his skill set is so you can put in your game plan to keep it in his wheel house. No different than any other player."
After 26 years of waiting, the 2017 Bengals feel like a team that has the talent to end the playoff drought, which is good news for Nick Lachey because I think all this postseason losing is starting to wear on him.