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2014 AFC North Postmortem: Cincinnati Bengals

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Evaluating Cincinnati's season by advanced analytic methods

Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

Cincinnati validates prediction as a team to regress

During my preseason predictions, I attempted to put aside my Purple and Black loyalties in examining playoff teams that were likely to improve or regress in 2014. The Bengals were one of the four that I wrote about to regress.  Not only was Cincinnati one of the healthier teams in 2013, finishing 3rd in Adjusted Games Lost, but they had not seemed to make any moves that would make the team significantly better in 2014 unlike their AFC counterparts. They had made some good draft picks, like Jeremy Hill, but had otherwise eschewed Free Agency as is their custom.

I suggested in the offseason that Cincinnati would finish 9-7 and miss the playoffs on a tiebreaker with San Diego. I came within one unfathomable "12 men on the field" penalty by the idiotic Tampa Bay Bucs to blow their game winning field goal attempt of being right.

Thanks to the Buccaneers' screwup, the Bengals retained control of the division for weeks at season's end and needed only to take down Pittsburgh to repeat as division champions. Instead, Pittsburgh swept them.

Mike Zimmer's departure and perhaps more importantly, Geno Atkins' struggle to recover from his ACL injury, caused their defense to fall from a lofty top 5 ranking in 2013 to 14th while their offense stayed exactly the same at 17th. Cincinnati's biggest weakness was on full display in their playoff loss:  a major lack of pass rush pressure on opposing quarterbacks.

Cause for concern in 2015: Pythagorean Win Expectation

Cincinnati fans will point to their injuries at receiver and tight end as a reason for their collapse but it is important to remember that this is an out that every team can and does use. Every team suffers some injuries and some endure unfortuante concentrations of them at one position group (like Baltimore in their secondary) and Cincy was unfortunate to have many of theirs concentrated at receiver.

But as always, injuries don't tell the full story. In fact, Cincinnati may have overachieved.

The Bengals finished with just 8.5 Pythagorean wins. In other words, they had the performance (measured by Points For and Points Allowed) of an 8.5 win team despite winning 10.5 (10-5-1). The data on Pythagorean Wins is overwhelmingly persuasive:  it is a much better predictor of a team's wins the following season than winning percentage itself.  Said another way, in spite of everything Cincy suffered, they were still pretty lucky since they won 2 more games than their performance suggested they would.

Grantland's Bill Barnwell did a study last year to validate the power of Pythagorean Wins. He takes every team between 1983 and 2010 and examines their performance and then their "Y+1" performance of the following year. His table shows compelling evidence for why Cincinnati should be concerned:

Teams that finished between 1.5 and 2.0 wins above their Pythagorean Expectation (as the Bengals did at +1.9), history shows that the average change for such teams is to regress by 1.8 wins the following year.

As Barnwell also notes though, that is the average change meaning that teams do sometimes buck the trend. For instance, maybe Cincy gets through the 2015 season with no injuries and hits big on some draft picks. However, unlike Jennifer Lawrence, the odds are not forever in their favor.

It is entirely possible that Cincinnati is a 10 or even 11 win team next year but what Pythagoras tells us is that they are unlikely to win more games than they are supposed to. It would be a shock indeed to see them win 11 or 12 simply because few teams win that many games without a little bit of luck in close games. Cincinnati had that good fortune in 2014 and history rarely repeats itself in close games from year to year.

Verdict

The main problem is that Cincy will not be improving at the one area that is arguably their biggest obstacle:  the QB/HC pairing. Andy Dalton's performance in the Wild Card defeat to Indianapolis suggests that he is what he is after four years of starting experience. You could do worse but he's also not one to start carrying his team in his fifth year and; therefore, they remain a team in which everything has to go right around him to produce success. Much was made of the absence of weapons but it doesn't take a professional talent evaluator to see that Dalton did almost nothing to elevate his team either. He was content to take checkdowns and avoid costly mistakes that led only to Indianapolis winning a little too comfortably against a team that was playing for the division a week prior. It's not as if the Colts weren't lacking big players in Robert Mathis or the suddenly old Reggie Wayne either.

As for Marvin Lewis, owner Mike Brown is on record of wanting to avoid firing a coach at all costs -- or in modern NFL parlance "mutual parting of ways". He notes that he and his father, Paul Brown, were scarred by his father's termination in Cleveland back in the 1960s. That's a commendable stance for the owner to take especially when other teams are awfully quick to fire a coach even when they have success. However, setting aside my own Ravens' loyalties, I can't help but wonder if it's time for fresh eyes to take over in Cincinnati.

The Bengals have possessed a roster primed to do more than first round exits for a few years now even despite the quarterback's struggles. A mutual parting of ways with Marvin Lewis might be the best thing for Cincinnati sooner than later. Their players deserve it.