by Evan Bruner
The Cincinnati Bengals were the darlings of the 2021 NFL season. After drafting inside the top five in 2020 and 2021, the Bengals’ sudden resurgence into contention made for one of the most interesting storylines in all of football. The team was exciting, flashy, and incredibly successful. After coming so close to winning the franchise’s first-ever Super Bowl, it’s easy to understand why many viewed the Bengals as a team on the rise. But progression in the NFL isn’t always that simple. Just because a team took a step in the right direction the previous year doesn’t mean they’ll continue to do so, and this year’s Bengals team may be the perfect example. The defending AFC champs are 0-2 with losses to Mitchell Trubisky’s Steelers and a Cooper Rush-led Cowboys team. The team’s magic from a year ago is nowhere to be found. In fact, it’s easy to wonder if the Bengals were victims of their own success.
The positives of the Bengals’ 2021 season were obvious. The team took one of the biggest single-season leaps in league history; going from one of the worst teams in football to coming within minutes of winning the Super Bowl is something to celebrate. But success can often be a double-edged sword because it can encourage complacency and entitlement. Yes, the 2021 Bengals were a very good team that accomplished a lot, but they still had their fair share of flaws. Making the Super Bowl, however, created an illusion that those issues didn’t need to be fixed. Cincinnati’s front office seemed to buy into the logic that if they took the same approach to 2022 that they did to 2021, they would achieve the same level of success. The problem is that the NFL is constantly evolving, and those who don’t evolve with it risk being left behind. Simply put, in a league defined by adjustments, the Bengals chose not to make any, and now they’re paying the price.
One of the biggest reasons for pessimism with the Bengals is who they have as head coach. Zac Taylor saved his job in 2021, but there are still plenty of questions regarding his coaching ability. One of the reasons for the Bengals’ 2021 success was that Taylor took more of a hands-off approach to the offense. He understood that Burrow and Chase had great chemistry, and he would be foolish to mess with it. The Bengals 2021 offense lacked innovation and was pretty easy to understand. While understanding and stopping an offensive attack aren’t the same thing, the latter becomes much easier once the former is achieved. Offensive gurus like Sean McVay and Kyle Shanahan make slight tweaks to their offense every year to stop their scheme from becoming or predictable, and Taylor hasn’t proven to be on that level.
The Bengals offense, especially Joe Burrow and Ja’Marr Chase, flourished versus man coverage. This is understandable since Chase’s skill set makes him nearly impossible to cover one-on-one. This had little, if anything, to do with coaching. Talented players will typically beat less talented ones. However, the Bengals’ offense took a significant step back when facing zone coverage. This shows that Zac Taylor was unable to dial up good plays against more complicated defensive schemes. One thing you can always count on the NFL for is exploring any weakness possible. If a team is much better against man coverage than zone, defenses will play as much zone as possible.
The concerns don’t stop there. As great as Joe Burrow is, his play style has hurt the offense several times in the young season. Many fans will point out that Burrow’s tendency to bail from the pocket is due to poor offensive line play, but it’s only fair to mention the other side of that coin. Burrow’s inability to deal with pressure often makes his offensive line worse than it actually is. Surprisingly, the Bengals’ offensive line was rated as the 20th best unit in football in 2021. Though that is still a below-average unit, it’s significantly better than the sack numbers might indicate.
Additionally, Burrow’s skill set isn’t fit to play outside of structure. He doesn’t have the athleticism of guys like Kyler Murray and Russell Wilson, nor does he have the arm talent of Patrick Mahomes or Josh Allen. Therefore, resorting to hero ball isn’t always the best decision.
The Bengals are just as talented as they were last year. However, not getting better is getting worse in today’s NFL. It’s up to Cincinnati to make these in-season adjustments to save their season, or they risk following the paths of previous Super Bowl runners-up like the 2015 Panthers or 2019 49ers and missing the playoffs altogether the next year.