On expectations, plateaus and late September in Cincinnati

Late September 2013 is a strange time to follow Cincinnati pro sports, that’s for sure, so here is something to ponder while we wait to see what October has in store: Who would have thought there would come a day when the Reds and Bengals could both become good enough to be frustrating rather than bad enough to be depressing?

I mean, I guess it was inevitable. No one is bad forever in the NFL – even if the Bengals tried for more than a decade – and the Castellinis have certainly put the effort to build a winner into overdrive since buying the Reds. Still, no matter how many times that might have been said over the year – “They’ll come around eventually” – living it is a whole different matter.

I had the same feeling watching the Bengals on Sunday that I had about the Reds early in the summer – yes, this team has a lot going for it but its flaws seem to be fatal.

For the Reds – well, for both really – it is the offense. They each have the ability to be explosive but fizzle too often. The occasional big games have been followed by dry weeks down by the Ohio River this summer.

Sure, offensively challenged baseball teams have gotten hot at the right time and found enough runs to do something in the postseason, but that doesn’t make it a likely outcome.

Cruising along and taking advantage of most of the bad teams on the schedule is one thing (that the Reds actually stopped doing in September), but winning against the rest of the best in October is another – as the Reds have shown in their last two trips to the postseason by getting swept by a clearly superior Philadelphia team and then blowing a 2-0 divisional series lead against San Francisco last year.

While the Phillies were just a better team with the added advantage of postseason experience, the Giants could thank their manager for a series of masterful moves in Game 4 after that inconsistent offense sunk the Reds in Game 3. Then came a Mat Latos meltdown in Game 5, and that was all she wrote.

(Ironically enough, the high point of this season came in the week the Reds handled the Cardinals and Dodgers in successive series, but they haven’t been the same since.)

I’m left to wonder if the 2012 season might have been fool’s gold as guys like Ryan Ludwick and Todd Frazier produced at the plate at a level that might not be sustainable over the long term.

I thought the move to acquire Choo was brilliant considering they really didn’t give up anything they needed, but after his hot start he proved to be not enough of an upgrade at his position to cover for the decline at others. That’s not his fault, of course, and the move was still a good one. It just wasn’t enough by itself.

Injuries hurt the offense, but so did a complete lack of depth both in terms of replacing the injured Ludwick, pushing anyone in the regular lineup or adding much late-inning production. It prevented getting any rest for Joey Votto, who appeared to wear down as the season came to a close, and it meant Brandon Phillips had to continually play through countless bumps and bruises that hindered his production at the plate. I respect him for being a gamer, but there were probably times both he and the club would have been better off if he had been able to sit for a little while and get healthier.

Even with all the treading of water the team seemed to do for much of the season, I did not foresee the complete collapse of this week, but I guess it wasn’t a long trip from sleepwalk to nightmare.

The Bengals embraced the status quo in the offseason to an even greater degree than the Reds, but the basket they put their most eggs in has looked very shaky in the hands of quarterback Andy Dalton so far this season.

Losing to the Browns is not in and of itself a major shock – parity rules in the NFL and upsets happen every Sunday. I was surprised by how bad the Browns looked the first two weeks of the season because while I did not expect them to contend for the playoffs, I thought the coaching change would do them well and they had some nice pieces on defense.

Dalton’s play in Cleveland was very alarming, especially because the biggest question mark coming into the season was if he could join the group of the league’s top quarterbacks.

They made the playoffs the last two years because of an improving roster and decent-to-good play by their young signal caller, but they lost in the first round both years in large part because he played badly. The reality is, he needs to be more than decent for the Bengals to win a game in January, and right now he is trending in the wrong direction at No. 21 in the league in passer rating with five touchdown passes and four interceptions. That means even if he can return to the form of his first two seasons, there is not a lot of reason to expect different results should the team earn a third consecutive playoff berth.

And that could bring on the same kind of, “Meh” feeling that followed me throughout the baseball season, though following a 162-game baseball season and a 16-game, once-a-week football season is of course different in a lot of ways.

Remarkable as it might be, the Reds and Bengals have both reached a point that doing more than qualifying for the postseason is a reasonable expectation. On one hand, I’m willing to admit that could perhaps classify as a blessing, but on the other it doesn’t make the losses any easier to take.

I keep telling myself it beats the alternative, but that’s not reason to lower expectations now. Expectations can be a funny thing, too, because they are the unmistakable difference between how Cincinnati fans are looking about our 2-2 football squad and wild card baseball team as opposed to how Cleveland fans are viewing their own identical situations.

I’d much rather be disappointed by a good team than continually dragged down by a bad one, but I guess I might have to admit I miss the joy of the surprise success as well. There is nothing quite like it.

You might say there is nothing quite like sustained winning, either, but at least as far as pro sports go, I wouldn’t know.

Of course the hockey season starts Tuesday, so maybe I can find out

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