The Cincinnati Bengals have won just six games since the start of the 2016 season, and the franchise is in full-blown panic mode after opening this season 0-2. As a reflex, the Bengals fired offensive coordinator Ken Zampese following Thursday night’s embarrassing loss to the Houston Texans at home, promoting quarterback coach Bill Lazor to fill his role.
Head coach Marvin Lewis explained the move to fire Zampese — a guy who’s been with the organization since 2003.
“Ken Zampese has done a tremendous job for us for my 15 years here, and I have the utmost respect for Ken as a person and as a coach,” Lewis said in a statement, per Katherine Terrell of ESPN. “But I feel it best for the football team to breathe new life into the offense, and that’s why I am making the change.
“Bill Lazor has great experience in the league and as a coordinator, and I feel Bill can progress our offense the way we need. We have a lot of talent on offense, and we need to keep working to take full advantage of the personnel we have.”
On the surface, it makes perfect sense. The Bengals failed to score a touchdown their first two games, Andy Dalton looked like a kid who forgot how to ride a bike and Zampese certainly struggled in his play-calling duties at times.
But once we take a deeper look into what’s really going on in Cincinnati, it’s clear Zampese was nothing but a fall guy for the flailing Bengals.
A number of things have happened in the past couple of years that have led up to the point we’re at now. The point at which Cincinnati’s offense is as incompetent as any around the National Football League, which is really saying something (hello New York Jets and Indianapolis Colts).
Losing Hue Jackson before last season was obviously a huge blow to Andy Dalton on an individual level, and it hurt the offense as a whole. Jackson, who’s now coaching the Cleveland Browns, guided Dalton to his best seasons as a pro between 2014-15. In those two seasons, the former TCU star completed 65 percent of his passes for 6,648 yards, averaging 7.67 yards per attempt while throwing 44 touchdowns and 24 interceptions.
The past 18 games since Jackson took the job in Cleveland, Dalton has faltered, throwing 18 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. He surely misses the guiding hand of Jackson, who has a way with quarterbacks, and who knows how to call a game.
But it’s not all about Jackson being gone.
During the offseason leading up to the 2016 season, Cincinnati also lost two of its top receivers, Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu. They signed with the Detroit Lions and Atlanta Falcons, respectively. Then leading up to the 2017 season the Bengals lost their top two offensive linemen — left tackle Andrew Whitworth and left guard Kevin Zeitler — to free agency.
Those losses have been keenly felt. The organization tried to shore up its receiver position by making a bold move to take Washington product John Ross with the No. 9 overall pick. There’s only one problem with that: Ross was taken off some teams’ draft boards because he has a history of injury and came into the league with an injured shoulder.
Ross only just started practicing with the team for the first time since being drafted in August. And it didn’t take long for Ross to suffer another injury, which kept him out of Week 1. He then got benched on Thursday night after fumbling in the first quarter against the Houston Texans.
John Ross first career touch in the NFL is a fumble recovered by Jadeveon Clowney. pic.twitter.com/edYDbgfBWw
— NFL Update (@MySportsUpdate) September 15, 2017
The team’s offensive line is a mess without Zeitler or Whitworth. Cedric Ogbuehi has been awful as Whitworth’s replacement, and the interior shuffle that was required when Zeitler bolted for Cleveland has not worked out well. Jake Fisher, not surprisingly, has been just as bad as Ogbuehi.
Here's a look at how Cincinnati's offensive line stacks up, per @PFF
Hint: it's not pretty pic.twitter.com/PeYUGRCTwl
— Sportsnaut (@Sportsnaut) September 15, 2017
Kind of like what we’ve seen in Indianapolis, it’s impossible to take full advantage of excellent skill position players like A.J. Green, Tyler Eifert and the team’s trio of talented running backs without an offensive line.
While scheme can certainly help mask some of these issues, talent cannot be conjured out of thin air. So while it’s certainly true that what Zampese did the past two games wasn’t inspiring, firing him isn’t going to fix any of Cincinnati’s systemic problems.
If anyone should be fired right now, it should be Lewis, who has never won a single playoff game as Cincinnati’s head coach and who continues to cultivate a culture that embraces players who other teams won’t touch with a 10-foot pole (Adam Jones and Vontaze Burfict — not to mention Joe Mixon — we’re looking at you).
Lewis is essentially Jeff Fisher, minus the playoff wins. He’s posted a career record of 118-105-3 and has a career record of 0-7 in the playoffs. For reasons that we cannot begin to fathom, owner Mike Brown refuses to start over with a fresh face, instead hoping Lewis will do for him what Chuck Noll, Bill Cowher and Mike Tomlin have done for AFC North rival Pittsburgh.
Bengals fans know, it’s not happening.
Zampese wasn’t great. He certainly didn’t do anything the past 18 games that screams “offensive genius!”
That said, Ken Zampese wasn’t the problem in Cincinnati. And the truth of this statement will continue to resound throughout the 2017 NFL season, as it sure feels like matching last year’s 6-9-1 mark will be tough to accomplish.