Trying to win the mental game
The way coach Marvin Lewis sees it, the Bengals' brass had two ways to respond to last season's chaotic playoff loss, the team's fifth straight wild-card exit. Just one involved Lewis's staying in Cincinnati. "The only way to flip the script in this league is you get new players and new coaches," he says. "That didn't happen, and it's not going to happen." Without an overhaul mandated from above, Lewis says, "You've got to feel good about your success and keep building upon your success."
That success ran out last January, only 1:23 from the Bengals' first playoff victory since 1990, when running back Jeremy Hill fumbled in the red zone. Then Ben Roethlisberger, bum shoulder and all, marched the Steelers down the field with short passes before linebacker Vontaze Burfict hit Antonio Brown high on an incompletion, earning a 15-yard penalty (and a three-game suspension to start this season). In the ensuing hubbub cornerback Adam Jones gave Pittsburgh another 15 yards with an unsportsmanlike conduct call, setting up the Chris Boswell 35-yard field goal for a 18--16 win that moved Lewis to 0--7 in the playoffs.
"Everyone keeps bringing it up," Lewis said in April. "We have to move on," For some it hasn't been easy. Hill said in May that his mistake is "still the elephant in the room any time I walk in somewhere." Jones said he has watched the game 10 times, "and it hurt me to my heart that we let it go like that." "We still think about it," linebacker Vincent Rey says, "How close but how far."
Make no mistake, Lewis has not forgotten either. This off-season, when guest speakers came to meetings, Rey noticed a theme. While matters such as fatherhood and social media were also discussed, "We would talk about being smart, about attitude, controlling your attitude," he says. "Just how to win." Psychologist Peter Ganshirt came to speak multiple times. The team also watched Admiral William McRaven's 2014 University of Texas commencement address—the one in which he said, "Every SEAL knows that under the keel, at the darkest moment of the mission, is the time when you must be calm, composed."
Entering his 14th season in Cincinnati, Lewis is not leading a revolution from within. Eighteen starters return this year, with the most notable losses being tackle Andre Smith and receivers Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu. But the Bengals have young, highly drafted replacements at the ready. The motto Lewis chose for this year, "Pound the rock," is similar to the one he used in his first season, "Keep shoveling." The man he picked to replace departed offensive coordinator Hue Jackson, Ken Zampese, was the quarterbacks coach last year. On the defensive side Lewis brought in two former assistants to coach the defensive line and secondary. And for the linebackers, he hired Jim Haslett.
Haslett is a fan of Burfict's and remembers his playoff hit with a mix of admiration and ire. "He has to cover the guy to the flat, but he's reading the quarterback's eyes and has a chance to get an interception—but at the last second he knew he couldn't get there, so he stuck the flipper up," Haslett says. "Can you change somebody like that? That's kind of instincts. But maybe I can help him next time around so that he won't do that. But he has great instincts."
That hit is Lewis's Bengals: impressive and unsatisfying at the same time. That's what all the meetings are about.
TAKE THIS GUY AWAY AND THE OFFENSE CRUMBLES
Cincinnati's offense really clicked last season. The scheme was the same, but everyone was more experienced playing together, and 2013 first-round pick Tyler Eifert blossomed. After missing most of the '14 season with a broken right elbow, the tight end emerged as a red zone weapon. He doesn't have Julius Thomas's length or Rob Gronkowski's brawn, but the deceptively athletic Eifert hurt defenses running down the seams and on routes beginning from a wide-split position, where he was winning battles against some cornerbacks. He assumes an even more significant role in 2016, as quarterback Andy Dalton adjusts to new wide receivers Brandon LaFell and Tyler Boyd, a second-round pick from Pitt. Eifert is recovering from May surgery on his left ankle, and his return by September is in question. If he's out, the Bengals' schematic continuity and red zone flexibility will suffer.
SI's 2016 Prediction: 10--6
2015 Record: 12--4
SEPT. 11 atNYJ
SEPT. 18 atPIT [PREDICTED WINNER]
SEPT. 25 vs.DEN [PREDICTED WINNER]
SEPT. 29 vs.MIA [PREDICTED WINNER]
OCT. 9 atDAL
OCT. 16 atNE
OCT. 23 vs.CLE [PREDICTED WINNER]
OCT. 30 vs.WAS [PREDICTED WINNER]
NOV. 14 atNYG [PREDICTED WINNER]
NOV. 20 vs.BUF [PREDICTED WINNER]
NOV. 27 atBAL
DEC. 4 vs.PHI
DEC. 11 atCLE [PREDICTED WINNER]
DEC. 18 vs.PIT [PREDICTED WINNER]
DEC. 24 atHOU
JAN. 1 vs.BAL [PREDICTED WINNER]
= PREDICTED WINNER