The Blog Of Football Guesses is a weekly (and sometimes more) homage to a former Clear Channel iHeartMedia Director of Digital who once informed me, in all seriousness, that "football picks drive web traffic, especially if you toss in a picture of a cheerleader." All guesses are for entertainment purposes, mainly mine.
When jerks like me who have radio shows and sports blog start making their exceptionally-too-thought guesses for how the local NFL team will fare during the upcoming season, there's five ways to play it. Some safe, and some, not so much.
The two ways that aren't safe are to guess that they'll either be really, really good or really, really bad. Go with a guess that's too optimistic, and you'll be accused of being a homer. Guess that the season will be a disaster, and you'll be crushed with accusations of being too negative for no reason while answering emails from pissed off fans for months.
So most guesses, especially on the local level, play it pretty safe., which means that if you want to be safe, there's three ways to go.
You can say they'll go 10-6, which means that you think that the team in question could be good, but not that good. This guess allows you to hedge your bet a little if the team exceeds everyone's expectations, while offering enough wiggle room to assert that, you know, you didn't think they'd be as good as some of those other schmucks did.
Or, you can predict an 8-8 finish. This assures the reader or listener that you don't think their team will be that bad - fending off some of those emails - and allows you a little room at the end of the year to say hey, I at least didn't have them losing more than they win, if they do win more than they lose.
Both guesses, even if they're legit and come armed with arguments and facts that support them, can seem like cop-outs.
The middle ground from those two is, of course, a guess of 9-7. A 9-7 allows for the playoffs to be a possibility and gives you the chance to go back and remind people that you had them in the postseason hunt if they do indeed find their way into January, but it also puts you in position to backtrack a little if the team ends up being pretty shitty, especially if you're 9-7 comes with a sidecar of "but I could see 7-9."
That's pretty much where I am with this year's Bengals.
Last season, more than half of the league - 17 teams - finished with between six and ten wins, including the Bengals. Two years ago, the number was 18, and in 2014 there were 17 teams between six and ten wins, meaning that more than half the league is always somewhere between not good and pretty good, with one or two small things separating the teams that finished with six wins and those that finished with ten.
On the opposite ends of this large middle is where you have the extremes. Extremely bad and extremely good.
I don't think the Bengals will be either.
(Tossed-in cheerleader photo courtesy of Getty Images)
They won't be extremely bad because their best ten to 15 players won't let them be. As miserable as last season was for the Bengals, they still found their way to six wins (while avoiding the ten loss mark) during a year where age caught up to the defense, the play of the offensive line dipped significantly, and injuries ravaged the entire roster.
While he wasn't superlative by any stretch, Andy Dalton did keep the Bengals afloat, even as the offense disintegrated around him, with the lack of a running game amplifying the issues caused by the O-line's decline and the injuries to his targets. For all of his limitations, Andy has become reliable by avoiding mistakes and not turning in total stinkers in the games when he's not at his worst. (He's raised his floor, if you will.) Andy Dalton and a forgiving late-season schedule that pitted the Bengals against crappy offenses are the main reasons why the record wasn't as bad as it could've been. If their quarterback didn't let them dip below the six-win mark last year, he won't allow them to win five or fewer this year.
The Bengals have a capable quarterback who they've surrounded with weapons, and insulated with what should be an improved ground game, and even if the offensive line struggles, Dalton has become better at getting rid of the ball quickly, he does avoid throwing picks, and I've talked myself so much so often into Cedric Ogbuehi being able to be competent that I almost believe it.
Their defense younger and faster than it was a season ago, especially in the front seven. The pass rush should create more pressures, and the defensive line has seemingly limitless upside. Even with Vontaze Burfict's lame three-game suspension, the linebacker group seems more capable of making plays, Burfict's play in the second half of 2016 was very encouraging, and he did come to camp in marvelous shape. The secondary faces legit questions, but it's not like the Bengals are sorting through a bunch of unheard-of guys to play defensive back. Instead, they'll dive into a group of players they've invested heavily in and ask more of them, which seems like a reasonable thing to do.
They won't be extremely good, either. They don't appear to have an area that puts them among the NFL best, or most efficient at anything. It's been three seasons since the Bengals had a solid running attack, so assuming that they'll suddenly be among the best running teams in the sport is a stretch. They have an enviable group of pass targets, but there's reasonable health concerns for a couple of guys, their quarterback has his limitations, and to reach the efficiency rating the Bengals enjoyed on offense two years ago - second in the league - the blocking is going to have to be better than average, and the ceiling for the line as a whole isn't that high.
Oh, and the offensive coordinator has earned no one's trust.
The defense is younger and quicker. Burfict is a star, and Geno Atkins is still one of the toughest men to block in the game, but as a whole, there's a ton of guys that have never played a meaningful snap in the NFL that have to make an impact if the defense is going to excel at any one thing. I love so many of the young guys the Bengals have on defense. Each of them are capable of doing big things instantly. I don't think all of them can do them at the same time.
That leaves us somewhere in the six to ten win range.
This is a good time to remind you that I don't do the thing where we start at the top of the schedule and guess individual wins or losses, because if guessing the winner of a game next week is inexact, how can one pretend to do so for a game played three months from now with any degree of certainty?
I looked at this team at the beginning of training camp and I saw a nine win team, which would represent a significant improvement from last season, not only mathematically but also because a nine-win year would mean that the Bengals played games that mattered after Thanksgiving, which I'd gotten so used to being the norm prior to last year that the final six weeks were extra depressing.
I arrived at this total using a formula that I made up on the fly one day after I'd gone to a training camp practice, then walked to a local establishment and drank alone while waiting for one of my friends to join me. I had a lot of time on my hands, and the beer was cold.
I took last year's six-win team and added to it better health, a schedule that seems easier, more speed on both sides of the ball, Burfict beginning to "get it," stability and depth at quarterback, Eifert maybe playing in 16 games to improve their red zone and third down efficiency, the multiplicity that Joe Mixon will given them, and the fact that when Marvin Lewis does his best work when the least is expected from him. With all of that, I temporarily arrived at a ten-win total.
Then, I factored in the defection of last season's best two offensive linemen, an over-reliance on unproven players, my unease with Zampese calling plays, a stretch of three straight road games in November, the fact that Adam Jones and Michael Johnson are aging and still likely to play significant roles, and the fact that Marvin Lewis will be coaching a team with a small margin for error while coming into this season having won just two of his last 13 games that were decided by eight points or less.
So I docked them a win and comfortably settled on a safe, harmless guess of a 9-7 record.
I haven't liked much of what's happened as the preseason has concluded. The Burfict suspension shrinks the aforementioned margin for error early, especially when you consider how much they could struggle without him in Green Bay and how they'll likely have to beat the Texans on the strength of their defense, which is now obviously not as strong.
John Ross might not have projected to have a huge statistical impact, but his injury is concerning, both in terms of how it impacts him physically and in how it keeps him from developing enough to help the way a lot of us hope he will.
Jeremy Hill is going to touch the ball a lot often, and on some levels it makes sense to easy Mixon in now, given how much they might have to rely on him for the duration of his rookie contract. But I don't trust Jeremy Hill to be productive because I haven't seen him be productive since his rookie season.
And until he gives me reason to trust him, I lack faith in Randy Bullock when the kicks matter the most.
Plus, there's a Shawn Williams injury to deal with, some special teams questions to sort through early, and a handful of games that now look a little more tougher than they originally appeared.
So, I have the Bengals at eight wins.
But not eight losses.
If there's one thing that stands out on Marvin Lewis' coaching record besides the huge 0-7 mark in the playoffs, it's that he's one of only two men (Bart Starr is the other) whose career started after 1974 (the first year of overtime) that has led his team to three ties.
Marvin Lewis is more likely to tie a game in October than he is to win one in January.
So take that, add to it the new OT ten-minute which - for risk-averse coaches like Marvin will lead to more games ending in a deadlock - and his team's razor-thin error margin, and I will be the only radio host or blogger to guess that Marvin passes Starr this season, finishing his 15th year in Cincinnati with eight wins, seven losses, and a tie.
Find me someone else coming in hot with that preseason guess.
Will that mean the Bengals make the playoffs? No. Does it mean that 2017 will be Marvin's last on the Cincinnati sideline?
The narrative, more so nationally than locally, is that the Bengals have to win a playoff game this season for Marvin to return in 2018 (This assumes that Marvin will want to come back, and you don't have to go far to find those in the know who wonder if he really will). I prefer to look at it from the standpoint of looking at and judging the work that Marvin does with this team and its group of younger players. Can the Bengals improve their win total from last season and work in a slew of young, talented players in the process? Does the success of their younger players combine with a good, in-its-prime core bode really well for 2018, regardless of whether the Bengals get to the playoffs or win in the postseason in 2017? And most importantly, will enough good things happen this season to earn Marvin both a 16th season and a chance to grab that elusive postseason win?
I don't know.
That answer is a cop-out.
Picking them to go 8-7-1 isn't.