In the second quarter of the Texans-Bengals Thursday night game, NBC analyst Cris Collinsworth brought up the connection that Cincinnati quarterback Andy Dalton and receiver A.J. Green have shared throughout their careers. The two have combined for 44 touchdowns since they entered the league together in 2011, the same year the Bengals began a run of five consecutive playoff appearances. For much of the last decade, it seemed that in Dalton and Green, Cincinnati boasted one of the great quarterback-receiver duos in the league, and that only great things awaited. Except, as the 13-9 loss to the Texans that moved Cincinnati to 0-2 made clear, the Dalton-Green connection has always been more of a mask for the deficiencies on offense than an offense in and of itself. The team rode a dominant defense in those playoff seasons, ranking in the top 10 in points allowed in four of those five campaigns, while the offense hit that same marker for points scored only twice over that span. Last season, the Bengals missed the playoffs, and the already-persistent low rumble of “Can Dalton win in the postseason?” turned into a roar: “Is Dalton even good?”Collinsworth also acknowledged that some critics think Dalton is too reliant on Green, forcing him the football too often. Thursday’s loss provided a snapshot of this contradiction: a brilliant result that stemmed from a potentially unwise decision, with Dalton hitting Green on a 50-yard missile that dropped between three defenders late in the first quarter.
When in doubt, look for @ajgreen_18. #HOUvsCIN #Bengals50 pic.twitter.com/QwF7ECyx6G— Cincinnati Bengals (@Bengals) September 15, 2017
It’s the exact type of play that has been such a staple of the Cincy offense for the past six seasons. Dalton throwing into triple coverage; Green elevating to make a brilliant catch. That also makes it the perfectly emblematic play for Dalton’s quarterbacking: Either he’s recklessly forcing the ball downfield or he’s sensibly giving one of the best receivers in football his due. It’s a matter of perspective, and of the results, on any given play. That strategy has helped bring Cincy to all those postseason appearances, but as has become increasingly clear over the past two games, it’s also nowhere near enough to keep an otherwise putrid Bengals offense afloat any longer.
That rocket to Green was the most exciting play of Cincinnati’s season thus far, and it ended up netting only a field goal for the team. The Bengals went on to lose, depressingly, to a Texans team that looked just as sluggish on offense at times. Rookie quarterback Deshaun Watson forced his passes to DeAndre Hopkins as much as Dalton ever has with Green, with similarly poor results. But Watson can do this:
Wow, @deshaunwatson!#DW4 with the 49-yard TD run! pic.twitter.com/QqQS5dH3HQ— Houston Texans (@HoustonTexans) September 15, 2017
Dalton can’t, and that variability was the difference in a game that featured 16 combined punts. But now the Bengals offense isn’t just merely middle-of-the-road. Cincinnati may be fielding the most hopeless unit in the game aside from the Colts, who are apparently still considering once again starting Scott Tolzien.
Through two games, both at home, the Bengals have scored just nine combined points, tied for the lowest total through the first two games of a season since the inept 2009 Rams, who mustered only seven points in their opening contests. After throwing four interceptions in the opener against the Ravens, a 20-0 Bengals loss, Dalton avoided turnovers in Week 2, but his final line—20-of-35 for 224 yards—left much to be desired. Cincy regularly started with favorable field position, but moved the ball into the red zone just three times, coming away with a field goal in each instance. Dalton was sacked on three occasions, and Cincy’s running back trio—Giovani Bernard, Jeremy Hill, and Joe Mixon—generated just 63 yards on 20 carries, a 3.2-yards-per-carry average. Other than Green’s big catch, there was little to get excited about in the receiving game (tight end Tyler Eifert would have had a touchdown to begin the second half had he not stepped out of bounds before returning to grab the ball, an illegal touch), and for the second-straight game, Bengals fans watched their team fail to record a touchdown.
There are a lot of pathetic offenses in the NFL these days, but unlike some of the other units that have started slowly this season, the Bengals have little hope of getting better. Cincinnati has one of the worst offensive lines in the league, and it’s clear that the Dalton-Green connection isn’t as “special” as Collinsworth called it or as it’s been in years past. It’ll be nearly impossible for the team to scratch its way to the playoffs now, something that less than 10 percent of NFL teams that start 0-2 are able to accomplish.
Cincinnati's slide to 6-9-1 last year appears to be no fluke, and maybe their early playoff exits weren’t, either. The team’s current problems start on offense, whether that’s Dalton, the offensive line, or something else. They’re still searching for more of that A.J. Green magic, but one 50-yard floater in two games won’t get the Bengals anywhere near the postseason any time soon.