One of the advantages of growing up in central Iowa is that there are no professional sports teams that we are expected or obligated to follow.
Around 2nd grade or so, when I was old enough to start collecting football trading cards and I was playing Tecmo Super Bowl with my friends, I realized that the Bengals had the coolest helmets in the league.
I have been a fan ever since.
But I'm not a huge football fan in general.
I don't take time to watch NFL games other than the ones involving the Bengals. I don't have a fantasy football team. When I show up to Super Bowl parties, I'm usually more concerned with the beer and nacho line-up than I am with the teams playing for the Vince Lombardi trophy.
That doesn't mean, however, that I don't get excited for a Bengals game. I was pumped when we qualified for the playoffs last season, and being an optimistic fan, I expect no less this year.
We heard all offseason about what a threat AJ Green was going to be. He had an outstanding rookie season, and it will be fun to watch him continue to develop as a Bengal. But the whole league already knew Green was going to be a tough one to stop.
Now it seems to me that Dalton and the Bengals are making sure their opponents are aware of the depth they have at receiver. Of Andy's three TD passes so far, only one of them has gone to Green, and AJ isn't even leading the team in receiving yards. People were worried that we wouldn't be able to find a #2.
It looks like we found several.
Dalton has been a popular offseason topic as well. His rookie season was about as impressive as Green's, but Dalton seemed to bring about a less optimistic crowd.
Can he forgo the sophomore slump and lead this team to another playoff berth?
As far as I can tell, Dalton is smart.
Maybe I'm being influenced by the CBS commentary team, but Dalton made some smart moves during his game against the Browns. On several occasions, he read Cleveland's blitz, called an audible and ran the ball away from the blitz.
Seems like the kind of thing you'd want from a quarterback, and a good skill to have so early in his career.
But a lot of people question the strength of Dalton's arm and whether he is able to hit the long pass. After Sunday's game, perhaps those are justified concerns.
With the exceptions of his 44-yard TD pass to Tate and his 50-yard TD pass to Hawkins, most of Dalton's long passes looked weak, as opposed to some of the spot-on passes he made to Green for less yardage.
Or do those two touchdown passes justify the number of attempts he made?
Maybe this skill will develop as he continues to play; maybe they need to continue to adjust their offense to a style that supports the short pass. It will be interesting to see how they develop the offense around Dalton and Green over the next couple of years.
Some were concerned with how The Law Firm, BenJarvus Green-Ellis, would mesh with the Bengals. I'm not concerned. I think he's a great fit so far, and the situation will only continue to improve. I have more concerns for the Bengals when our opponents have the ball.
Our defense makes me nervous.
We're going to be facing offenses with guys a lot more dangerous than Trent Richardson and Brandon Weeden, right?
The defense did a good enough job on Sunday—a good enough job for us to beat the Browns, as long as the offense is having a good day.
That's what we need to be able to say against teams like the Ravens, not the Browns.
But hey, how about the special teams?
Everything seemed very solid, very dependable, with the added bonus of a kick return for six points. And I've got to say, I love having Mike Nugent on the team.
On Sunday, the Bengals had possession of the ball with a seven-point lead and seven seconds left in the third quarter. As I was watching, all I could think was:
This is the Browns. This is not the Steelers, this is not the Ravens. We can't just win; we need to defeat these guys. We need a decisive win to send a message.
The offense needs to score on this drive.
Then the special teams needs to avoid any errors.
Then our defense needs to make a decisive stop.
The offense came through with the Hawkins TD. The special teams did everything they needed to do. The defense dropped the ball.
We were back to a single-possession game.
The offense delivers again with a field goal. The special teams continue their dependable ways. The defense lets them score again.
Luckily, this week, it was just the Browns.
Until our defense can play as dependably and consistently as our offense, we can't expect a season any better than last year, where our playoff hopes came down to whether or not another team lost.
It's time for our destiny to be in our own hands.
On a side note, as I watched the game on CBS, we were continually given updates regarding Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers. In basketball, my team is the Cavaliers. When we landed LeBron, everyone thought we were finally on our way to a championship.
The hype was unreal. There was no way he would deliver to Cleveland what the media had promised.
And in the end, we were all disappointed.
That's why I'm glad Dalton was in the same class as Cam Newton, the rookie quarterback that everyone loved last year. The expectations for Dalton aren't nearly as high as they are for Newton. I'm sure the fans in Charlotte are putting all sorts of unrealistic expectations on Newton, as the media analyzes him under a microscope.
Dalton is free to grow and develop in the shadow of Newton's media hype.
That will make it all the more sweeter down the road when Dalton and the Bengals surprise everyone as one of the most serious threats in the NFL.
But we've got some work to do.