CINCINNATI (AP) — The Bengals resist making big changes during a season. They’ve done it only a handful of times throughout their 50-season history.
By going against their stripes, they may have saved this season.
After two home games without a touchdown, Cincinnati fired offensive coordinator Ken Zampese, departing from their policy of showing loyalty to coaches during difficult times.
It was a huge change that nobody saw coming. It also turned into a jolt that the Bengals needed to salvage their season.
The Bengals (2-3) have quarterback Andy Dalton back in form after a rough start . They’ve won two straight.
They’re only a game out of first place in the AFC North heading into their bye. The switch to Bill Lazor as coordinator has been their best move so far.
“I don’t think of it as them responding to me as much as I think right now they believe they can be good,” Lazor said. “And I think that’s a starting point.”
The Bengals simply don’t change much during a season, especially not coaches or offensive coordinators.
From 1995-2015, they’ve had only four head coaches — Dave Shula, Bruce Coslet, Dick LeBeau and Marvin Lewis, who is entering his 15th season despite an 0-7 mark in the playoffs.
During that 22-year span, they had five offensive coordinators — Coslet, Ken Anderson, Bob Bratkowski, Jay Gruden and Hue Jackson.
Coslet was promoted to head coach. Anderson lasted four seasons before he was replaced. Bratkowski was fired after calling plays for 10 seasons, a tenure longer than any Bengals head coach except Lewis. Gruden and Jackson left to become head coaches in Washington and Cleveland.
So when they fired Zampese after only 18 games as coordinator, it was a rare moment in franchise history. It got the desired effect.
An offense that couldn’t get into the end zone the first two games has scored eight touchdowns in the past three.
Dalton was last in the NFL with a passer rating of 47.2 after the first two games; he has thrown for five touchdowns and has a passer rating of 116.2 since the change.
Dalton’s resurgence is the most encouraging part of the turnaround. Lazor’s play calling has gotten him back into a comfortable rhythm. In the past two games, he has completed 47 of 66 passes for 614 yards with five touchdowns and two interceptions that deflected off receiver A.J. Green’s hands and chest.
“To be able to rise from any adversity is expected from Andy,” Lewis said. “That’s one of his great qualities — to learn and move on. The whole building had to learn and move on. They’ve done a really great job of that — around him and with him — in every way.”
Dalton twisted his left ankle in the first half of a 20-16 win over Buffalo on Sunday and finished the game limping, with the ankle heavily taped. He threw for a season-high 328 yards and led a late comeback.
“We’re getting better and playing closer to the way we know we can play,” Dalton said.
The defense has kept the Bengals in it, which also is a bit of a surprise. They decided to give their young players significant roles this season — at times, they’ve had three rookies on the line — and they rank second in the NFL in yards allowed.
It’s far better than last season, when a veteran-filled unit repeatedly gave up big plays on the way to a 6-9-1 finish.
“There are less holes in the boat right now — very few, actually,” defensive coordinator Paul Guenther said.
Only two weeks ago, the Bengals were a team under water. They’ve resurfaced as a playoff contender, helped by the rest of the division’s struggles.
They play at Pittsburgh (3-2) coming out of their bye, host Indianapolis (2-3), and then play a telling stretch of games at Jacksonville (3-2), at Tennessee (2-3) and at Denver (3-1).
Those two home losses to start the season have left them with little margin for error, but they’ve got a chance to do something no other Bengals team has done in 49 seasons — start 0-3 and reach the playoffs. No NFL team has done it since the 1998 Buffalo Bills.
“I wish we could have erased the first two games, because that’s not us,” Green said. “We’re trying to get on the road and get hot at the right time.”