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Bleacher Report – Vikings

What Cincinnati’s downfall tells us about the Vikings’ window to win

By Matthew Coller

The 2015 Cincinnati Bengals were the culmination of an arduous rebuilding effort. They were the vision of a head coach who had been given more patience than anyone in the NFL expected. They proved to be the peak of Marvin Lewis’s mountain.

In 2003, Lewis took over a team that had gone 2-14 the previous year under Dick LeBeau. The Akili Smith era had gone over like clear Pepsi and you could count the “core” of young talented players on one hand. There were no signs of life. Running back Corey Dillon was nearing the end of his prime and star linebacker Takeo Spikes elected to leave for Buffalo in free agency.

Lewis made them quickly relevant, taking a Jon Kitna-led team to 8-8 in his first year, then drafting Carson Palmer, who led the Bengals to an 11-5 season in 2005. There were ups and downs for Lewis throughout the 2000s. He went 4-11-1 in 2008, then quickly bounced back to the playoffs the following year. Drama with Palmer ultimately led the Bengals to trade their franchise quarterback to the Raiders, which brought Cincinnati into the Andy Dalton era.

Through the first four years of Dalton’s career, the Bengals made the playoffs and were one-and-done. He was decidedly mediocre, but rode quality defenses and rushing attacks to the postseason.

Until 2015.

Dalton was surrounded with magnificent talent. Receivers AJ Green and Marvin Jones combined for 131 catches and the supporting cast of tight end Tyler Eifert and Mohamed Sanu added another 85 receptions. Running backs Giovani Bernard and Jeremy Hill posted over 2,000 yards from scrimmage.

That group was entirely built through the draft. Green was the fourth overall pick in 2011, Sanu and Jones were selected in the third and fifth round, respectively, in 2012. Eifert was a 2013 first-rounder, Bernard was a 2013 second-round pick and Hill was a 2014 second rounder.

The Bengals’ offensive line was anchored by future Hall of Famer Andrew Whitworth, then Cincinnati drafted star guard Kevin Zeitler in the first round of the 2012 draft and picked two more tackles in 2015.

Lewis also had a bright offensive coordinator in Hue Jackson to maximize the skill players’ talent.

All the while, the team was stockpiling defensive talent to support a veteran group with Geno Atkins, Adam Jones and Rey Maualuga by drafting Carlos Dunlap and Dre Kirkpatrick.

The Bengals finished the year 12-4 and ranked seventh in points for and second in points against. Dalton posted a 106.2 rating, 75.3 QBR, 25 touchdowns, seven interceptions and 8.4 yards per attempt.

Unfortunately for Lewis, Dalton got hurt and AJ McCarron was forced into duty, losing 18-16 to the Pittsburgh Steelers in the Wild Card round – one day before Lewis’s protege Mike Zimmer lost 10-9 to the Seattle Seahawks on a wide-left field goal.

That was the end of Cincinnati’s run as a contending team. It will likely take them years to replenish the assets that were lost. Over the following two years, the Bengals saw Jones leave for Detroit, Sanu land in Atlanta, Whitworth sign in Los Angeles and Zeitler end up in Cleveland.

Now they are 5-8 and Dalton has regressed back to his old self. This year he’s averaging only 7.1 yards per attempt with a 90.4 rating and 43.5 QBR.

One takeaway from the Bengals’ story under Lewis is that winning windows without an elite quarterback only last a few years. The Bengals were a double-digit win team four years in a row and had Super Bowl-contender type underlying numbers twice during that span. Compare that to the Patriots, Packers, Steelers, Saints etc. whose window stretches for a decade or more.

Even the most ardent Keenum Krazy would have to admit that Case Keenum is in a similar tier among NFL quarterbacks as Dalton. And the Vikings are having their version of Cincinnati 2015 this year, ranking 13th in points for and third in points against. They have a strong offensive line, two top-20 receivers and two quality running backs who are driving their success on offense.

Still the deck is stacked against teams led by so-so quarterbacks – even when they’ve had good regular seasons. Over the last 10 Super Bowls, we’ve seen Tom Brady, Eli Manning, Peyton Manning, Ben Roethlisberger, Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Colin Kaepernick, Joe Flacco, Russell Wilson, Cam Newton and Matt Ryan appear in The Big Game.

The Bengals also show is that things could change quickly for the Vikings. Adam Thielen could ask for a raise after this season, Stefon Diggs is set to become a free agent in 2018, Joe Berger is likely to retire, an extension for Anthony Barr could be very costly, as will Trae Waynes’ fifth-year option. Offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur could get a head coaching job.

Minnesota’s core is still going to be strong, but in order to compete for a Super Bowl it has to be at this level or better over the comings years.

Of course, the required roster strength to win depends on the quarterback situation. Things are wide open for the future. Teddy Bridgewater may still end up as the franchise quarterback or it could be a number of other established QBs like Kirk Cousins, Eli Manning, Tyrod Taylor or even Sam Bradford.

None of this the Vikings are at the end of their window this year. They are probably in the middle, but with both the offense and defense healthy and clicking, this might be the best shot under Mike Zimmer that they have to reach the Super Bowl. And for the future, locking into Keenum would put the Vikings in the same position Bengals, needing to keep all of their stars and have things fall their way in order to contend.

The post What Cincinnati’s downfall tells us about the Vikings’ window to win appeared first on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.

Source:: 1500 ESPN Sportswire

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