Over the past two seasons, the prominent lingering storyline that took us into the offseason has been about a team not performing up to its ability for a long stretch, then suddenly finding another gear. In 2011, it was the Green Bay Packers, a team that wasn't even in the playoff picture in Week 15 but six weeks later won a Super Bowl. This past season, it was the same story with the New York Giants, who had to play their way into the playoffs on the last weekend of the regular season.
It's a storyline we're starting to come to grips with: The league has lots of parity and plenty of great quarterbacks. If your team is healthy enough and your quarterback is running hot, you never know what can happen. You can be mediocre for stretches, but the potential is always there. That's at least how we look at the top half of the league. If you're not in that group, you're building -- which almost always means a relatively new coach and a new staff.
Then you have the Cincinnati Bengals.
Although the Giants got the "surge" headlines from last season, it was Cincinnati that quietly had the most shocking storyline. Remember, a year ago ESPN.com had the Bengals dead last in the preseason NFL Power Rankings. Then the Bengals went to the playoffs! Which is more remarkable, a good team finding a streak of exceptional play or a team that was supposed to be downright terrible playing well throughout a season?
The second part of the storyline is even odder based on how the league typically operates. As I noted, the dreaded "rebuild" almost always involves a new head coach. But the Bengals didn't keep just Marvin Lewis; they kept everybody. Lewis kept his job; defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer stuck around; Ken Zampese, Jim Anderson, Paul Alexander -- so many Bengals lifers are still there. In an era when being called worst in the NFL means you've either just seen the staff and roster blown up or you can expect it any day, the Bengals went to work with the people they had and the new talent they'd drafted. Only the addition of offensive coordinator Jay Gruden before last season could be considered a staff shift.
I bring this up because a year after we considered the Bengals potentially the worst team in the NFL, they might have as bright a future as any other NFL team.
And thus the two big questions:
1. What's the recipe?
2. Was last year a blip or real?