The Cincinnati Bengals were every analyst’s nightmare last season. Nobody expected them to win the AFC North. They did. Nobody expected them to reach the Super Bowl. They did. Now, in 2022, everyone is expecting similar results, maybe not another Super Bowl appearance, but at least 10 wins and a playoff berth.
Everyone but me.
I’m going against the grain. Have I been burned by the Bengals before? Absolutely, but much like when I rushed into a relationship after the biggest heartbreak of my life, I am ready to do it all over again!
I’m not going to sit here and say the Bengals are a worse team now than they were at the end of last season. They’re not. Sure, they lost T Riley Reiff and TE C.J. Uzomah, but the additions of lineman Alex Cappa, La’el Collins, Ted Karras, as well as TE Hayden Hurst far outweigh those losses. That’s not where I have an issue. My issue lies in believing the Bengals can recapture that magic they had last year. The Bengals’ improbable run to the Super Bowl was fueled by last-minute plays, players having career years, and luck.
There are just too many question marks. For one, do we think Trey Hendrickson will get at least half a sack in 11 straight games again, a feat that’s only been accomplished two other times (in a single season) since the turn of the century? Do we really think Chidobe Awuzie is going to be a top-tier corner again like he was last season after 2018, ’19, and ’20 where his ceiling was just above serviceable? Are we sure the Bengals will be able to handle a first-place schedule in a much-improved AFC?
Let’s talk about that for a second. Let’s think about how many teams in the AFC are either really good, really well-coached, or vastly improved this offseason. The Chiefs are good. The Bengals play them this year. The Titans have some question marks, but they’re pretty well-coached. The Bengals will play Tennessee this year. The Dolphins got better. The Ravens got healthy. The Browns will have gotten better after Watson serves his suspension. The Bills are pretty damn good.
Let’s say the Bengals make the playoffs. They might face the Chargers. They’re better than they were last year. The Broncos improved. The Raiders improved. The Colts improved. Every decent team in the AFC got better, so the Bengals’ additions of Collins, Cappa, and Karras aren’t actually as big a step forward as it may seem. I’d argue that they are one of the lesser-improved contenders in the AFC.
The Bengals’ offense was great last year, but in football, you always have to be evolving. After a full offseason of studying the Bengals’ game tape, teams will adjust if the Bengals’ coaching staff doesn’t start injecting new life into their play-calling. Is Zac Taylor really that kind of coach? The kind that can create new dynamic plays while stretching the limits of his personnel? I doubt it, because as explosive as the Bengals’ offense was last year, it was clear that Taylor was holding them back. Many fans believe Burrow had to win in spite of Taylor rather than Taylor working to make Burrow better. Taylor’s play-calling in the playoffs was less than stellar and fans were well aware. Now that the Bengals aren’t catching anyone by surprise, the coaching is going to become all the more important and Taylor hasn’t shown enough to warrant confidence from me.
The connection between Joe Burrow and Ja’Marr Chase was magical last year. It was explosive, exciting, and most of all, made everyone who said Chase’s preseason drops would be a problem come the regular season (including me) tuck their head between their legs and waddle away from the adult table at Thanksgiving in shame. However, taking a look at some of those catches from last year, I find it hard to envision a world where that same magic is captured in Year 2. Most of the explosiveness between the two came on deep passes. I doubt there was anyone better in the league on go routes than Chase. However, Burrow’s (in)consistency on deep passes has always been a hot topic when discussing the former No. 1 overall pick...until last year. All those worries seemed to fade away because of how good Chase was at bringing those deep passes down. Maybe it was a sign of what’s to come, but maybe Burrow regresses in that department and all of a sudden Chase can’t bring down quite so many. I don’t think that’s an unwarranted concern. I’m not saying it’s going to happen, but it’s another “what if” that lingers in the back of my mind while trying to evaluate this Bengals team.
Lastly, I know it’s been said and observed a million times, but just because the Bengals were in the Super Bowl last year doesn’t mean they’re just a piece or two away from winning it all. Most of the time, a Super Bowl appearance is as high as a team goes. Do you know who else thought they were just a piece or two away from hoisting the Lombardi Trophy? The 2016 Atlanta Falcons, the 2015 Carolina Panthers, the 2008 Arizona Cardinals, Dan Marino — you get the idea. The history of teams losing in the Super Bowl and then underperforming the following season is well-documented.
Just look at recent losers in the Super Bowl. In 2020, the 2019 NFC champion San Francisco 49ers missed the playoffs entirely. The 2019 Rams missed the playoffs. The 2018 Eagles reached the playoffs, only to win one game because of the double doink and promptly get dropped by the Saints. The 2017 Falcons finished third in their division, and lost to Nick Foles in the divisional round. The 2016 Panthers went 6-10. The 2015 Seahawks had their worst season (record-wise) in the Russell Wilson era to that point. The 2014 Broncos saw Peyton Manning lose to the guy who replaced him in Indianapolis. The 2013 49ers became broken after they went after Richard Sherman with a sorry receiver like Michael Crabtree. You get the idea. Most of the time, a Super Bowl loss is the furthest the team goes for several years.
I don’t think this is a bad team by any means, but are they really the best team in the AFC? No. Last year, they squeaked through the playoffs. They won’t get as lucky in the same situation this time around.