I’m old enough to remember the days of optimism provided to Bengaldom by Andy Dalton and A.J. Green. Watching them lead the Bengals to the playoffs five years in a row was some of the most fun football I have experienced in my lifetime. It’s the reason I feel so passionately about football today.
What I’m not old enough to remember, though, is a Cincinnati Bengals playoff win. I was born in 1999 – 8 years after their most recent postseason win which came in January of 1990.
There was a time when I thought surely the Bengals would push through this seemingly never-ending mental block. To this day, I refuse to believe some of those Andy Dalton-led Bengals’ teams weren’t good enough to make a Super Bowl run. It was never that they weren’t good enough…
The standard just needed to be elevated. The accountability needed by each and every player was never introduced. The culture needed a dramatic shift.
The Bengals could not have picked a better year than to finish 2-14. A repetitive, frustrating cycle of 6 and 7 win seasons was over. Being caught in the loop of perennial mediocrity was over. Being a bad football team is sometimes better than being an average football team. Exhibit A? The 2019 Cincinnati Bengals.
When week 1 of the 2019 season kicked off in Seattle, it was the first time in 256 regular season games that the Bengals weren’t playing for Marvin Lewis. Instead, it was some 36 year old guy named Zac Taylor. Yet another one of Sean McVay’s coaching tree hires. Nobody knew what to expect from the guy considering he had never even been a coordinator in the NFL.
And then all hell broke loose. Two wins in four months of football. The entire city of Cincinnati was ready to move on and try again. But 2019 wasn’t really a fair shot, even when 2-14 was underachieving.
Enter Joe Burrow along with a whole bunch of offseason moves to rally around him. It always seemed like a fairytale – the Ohio native returning to his home state to pull the Bengals out of the abyss. Even a rocky start couldn’t overshadow the light that was Joe Burrow.
A lot of people don’t believe in the idea of the “IT” factor. And by no means am I here to talk down on the Bengals’ teams of the past, but it was something that they always lacked when I look back over the years. Starting in 2020, that changed. The always-confident-never-cocky Joe Burrow had just got done setting college football on fire and catapulting himself into a number one overall draft pick. The rest was history.
Well, maybe it’s history being made as we watch it, but my point stands.
To anyone who is paying attention, all of the evidence needed to prove a change of culture came out in full display late in the 2020 season. You may remember that Monday Night Football game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, where the Bengals were down to 3rd string QB Ryan Finley. In a game that could have meant nothing to the 2-10-1 injury-depleted Bengals, it meant everything. From top to bottom, everyone was bought in and playing hard for Zac Taylor.
Something was still missing. The big play. The offensive line. The pass rush. Surely the 4-11-1 Bengals couldn’t fix any of this through free agency. Wrong. Disclaimer: I’m not saying the Bengals have a perfect roster.
Duke Tobin and Zac Taylor seemed to be having a rough free agency, that is until they went out and got Trey Hendrickson, Larry Ogunjobi, Chidobe Awuzie, Mike Hilton, Eli Apple, Quinton Spain and Riley Reiff. They’ve all bought into what Zac Taylor is selling and have played exceptional when they step on the field.
Fixing the big play was a lot more simple than fixing anything else. All it took was calling Ja’Marr Chase’s cellphone on draft night to tell him he’s now a Cincinnati Bengal. 8 and half months later, “Uno” is the AFC’s leading WR in yards, TDs and Griddy’s performed in the endzone.
After winning 6 games in his first 32 tries, Zac Taylor appears to have found his feet in the NFL. There’s plenty for him to learn, but that’s all he’s done since the day he arrived in Cincinnati. Nothing suggests he’ll do anything different anytime soon, especially with Joe Burrow holding him to the standard he has for himself. Burrow and Taylor lead the young and hungry Bengals into the playoffs on Saturday where they look to break the 31 year drought without a playoff win against the Las Vegas Raiders.