Jeremy Hill is Right: It is Now or Never for Bengals Playoff Hopes

By Andrea Hangst

Cincinnati Bengals running back Jeremy Hill may be entering just his second season in the NFL, but he already feels a sense of urgency when it comes to his team’s chances to remain playoff contenders in the long term. Since 2011—when quarterback Andy Dalton came on the scene as the team’s starter—the Bengals have reached the postseason each year, which is good. But the bad news is that they’ve not won a single one of those playoff games, and 13-year Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis remains 0-6 in the postseason on his career.

Hill spoke with ESPN’s Coley Harvey on Monday about the Bengals’ year after year of postseason disappointment and pointed out that there is not much time left for this team to remain a high-level playoff contender. He said,

“It’s been four years in a row, and if it doesn’t happen this year, then it’s probably never going to happen. That’s the mentality and the sense of urgency that we bring in every day. Something has to change. Getting to the playoffs every year, that’s cool and all, but we want to get to the next level… The sense of urgency needs to pick up and just the get-up and the want-to to do it. Everyone has that mentality right now and that’s going to definitely help us going into the season.”

It takes far more than a positive mental attitude for a team to not only reach the playoffs but win in them, though it is a good start given how far we still are from kickoff of Week 1 and that January’s playoff games feel like a lifetime away. But Hill is not exaggerating when he says that if it doesn’t happen in 2015, things may never fall in Cincinnati’s favor again. One of the Bengals’ biggest strengths over the past four years is how strong and how complete a roster of players they’ve had. But that strong, complete roster has come at a relatively low price. That won’t be the case in 2016 and beyond.

The Bengals have 27 players slated to hit free agency next year, whether as restricted or unrestricted free agents. And a number of them are starters—and key starters at that. They include wide receivers A.J. Green and Marvin Jones, left tackle Andrew Whitworth and right tackle Andre Smith, cornerbacks Leon Hall and Adam Jones, safeties Reggie Nelson and George Iloka, linebacker Vincent Rey and defensive end Wallace Gilberry.

[mks_pullquote align=”right” width=”300″ size=”24″ bg_color=”#dd3333″ txt_color=”#ffffff”]Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis remains 0-6 in the postseason on his career.[/mks_pullquote]The Bengals could carry over as much as $18 million in cap space from 2015 to 2016. And because so many current players are set to reach free agency next year, their current 2016 salary obligations for under-contract players is just north of $106 million, that could give the Bengals as much as $65 million in cap space to work with. But even that amount of money won’t be enough to re-sign everyone they would like to keep. Further, the Bengals didn’t get into such a favorable financial situation by spending on free agents, but rather by drafting well. They will spend next year, to be sure, but their long-term franchise health, as determined by owner Mike Brown, is to have cash in the coffers and not high-priced contracts littering the books.

No matter how the Bengals decide to spend money next year, it seems inevitable that a number of new faces and as-of-now little-known veterans could have to be appointed to starting jobs held by players who have been in Cincinnati for some time. Losing both offensive tackles, for example, can be mitigated by the fact that the Bengals drafted two more in Rounds 1 and 2 of the 2015 draft—Cedric Ogbuehi in Round 1 and Jake Fisher in Round 2.

However, we have no idea whether these two will play well, will be ready as sophomores to start or can build quick trust with quarterback Andy Dalton. Pieces are in place for many of the positions the Bengals are set to lose starters and depth, but these pieces have to play at a high level individually and as a unit. That could take time. And when that takes time, a team has to step back and regroup. The Bengals’ run of (relative) success could thus end after five seasons.

But, as Hill said to Harvey, “It’s now or never.” What about 2015?

It’s easy—and not entirely wrong—to point the finger at Dalton when discussing why the Bengals have managed to reach the postseason with him but fail to come away with wins. There is the 0-4 postseason record, after all, plus Dalton’s propensity to perform poorly when the spotlight is on him, further evidenced by the team’s 3-7 record in primetime games since 2011. Dalton has also thrown just one postseason touchdown pass to six interceptions and his playoff completion percentage is just 55.70 percent, down from his career regular-season percentage of 61.6 percent. Dalton struggles under pass-rush pressure—his completion percentage on pressured passes last year was just 45.5 percent according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required)—as well as under the pressure to perform well in a playoff or primetime game.

In the Bengals’ most recent playoff loss, a 26-10 Wild Card round defeat by the Indianapolis Colts, Dalton deserves a pass. His entire stable of targets were depleted—he had long been without Jones and tight end Tyler Eifert and also did not have Green for the game. His odds to succeed were dead in the water before the first snap. Instead, blame should fall on a defense—particularly a pass-rush—that underwhelmed all season long. Cincinnati’s defense had just 20 regular-season sacks in 2014, down from 43 a year prior, and the defense only managed to sack Colts quarterback Andrew Luck once.

[mks_pullquote align=”right” width=”300″ size=”24″ bg_color=”#ffffff” txt_color=”#dd3333″]Cincinnati is already going into the 2015 with the second-most difficult schedule.[/mks_pullquote]As such, the Bengals were outgained, 254 yards to 482 for Indianapolis. The Bengals totaled 144 passing yards with a thrown-together receiving corps, while the Colts were unfettered, with 368 passing yards in the win. Dalton’s shortcomings can be masked when the rest of the team around him plays well. But when there is no defense to speak of and no weapons to assist Dalton, they have no chance. That’s the future they could be facing in 2016, which means they have to bounce back as a unit in 2015 for one last gasp at playoff relevance.

Jones, Eifert and Green are all healthy. The Bengals added another pass-catching tight end in the draft, Tyler Kroft. Their pass-rush should get a boost now that they have defensive end Michael Johnson back after a one-year stint with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The roster is mostly unchanged and is in good shape. And, Hill isn’t the only player who feels the urgency in the locker room, with Hall saying to Harvey just days earlier, “It’s a big offseason, not only for me, but for the team. Year after year it’s a big offseason but for whatever reason, this year seems a little bit bigger.”

The Bengals are set up for success, much as they were in their last four seasons. It’s about what they make of it that matters. Cincinnati is already going into the 2015 with the second-most difficult schedule. They have four primetime games, a bane of Dalton’s existence. And they won’t be able to get the band back together in 2016 in the same form it is taking presently. This is the final year of the Bengals-as-we’ve-known-them, and we’ve known them to be a playoff team. It’s time that they earn a win in January, because who knows when they may get that opportunity again.

Photo: Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports