Our perception of how an NFL team should go through its internal checklist after a bad season is at once probably far too optimistic and not optimistic enough. There are some owners who steep their organizations in complacency. Some who are more comfortable with the familiar. Some who blow it all up because some middling former quarterback on ESPN told them to. Perpetually good teams don’t normally have that problem because they are good at self-analysis. Of course, some teams get good for a little while and lose the ability to do that as well.
So that’s why we’re here. With each team that drops from playoff contention, we will answer a 10-part questionnaire on where they are, where they’re headed and how to fix the holes along the way. Some projects will be bigger than others.
Which brings us to the Bengals, who appeared to be on somewhat of an upward trajectory before losing Joe Burrow to a torn ACL and MCL back in November. The 2020 No. 1 pick was a shoo-in for Offensive Rookie of the Year before the injury.
1. What went right this year?
Joe Burrow went right. I think there was a fair concern that the No. 1 pick out of LSU was (somewhat) a byproduct of LSU’s turbocharged RPO offense with the brilliant Joe Brady at the helm calling plays (Brady is now with the Carolina Panthers and could soon be a head coach in the NFL; we’ll get to that later). Burrow was pressured on one in every five snaps this year and still managed a 65% completion rate when under pressure. His bad throw percentage was a tidy 14.8% and his on-target passing percentage was just a hair above 75%. You can win a lot of games with a quarterback who plays like that.
2. What went wrong this year?
The Bengals’ defense continues to underwhelm. At the publication of this post, only three teams (Detroit, Houston and Jacksonville) are worse in DVOA, all of which have either already fired their head coaches or are expected to. Their offensive line is too banged up and/or underwhelming from a talent standpoint to support a fully functional offense and the team failed to trade A.J. Green at multiple checkpoints before watching him amass a gigantic portion of the team’s targeted air yard percentage alongside a career-low 46.6% catch rate. Had Burrow not so obviously staked his claim as the future of this franchise and a competitive player who can elevate a middling roster, this season would have been an unmitigated disaster.
3. The Big Question this offseason
Joe Burrow’s surgeon recently told reporters that Burrow is on track to recover for the start of the 2021 season, but at this point in any recovery there is always going to be optimism. Burrow didn’t just sustain a run-of-the-mill ACL tear, and we’ve seen some quarterbacks take more than a year to return to form after rehabilitating serious knee injuries. Even if that doesn’t manifest itself in obvious ways, there could be limitations to what he’s able to do and how the offense can operate.
Beyond that, I wonder if the Bengals are willing to spend again after finishing second in offseason free-agent spending behind the Dolphins in 2020 (they should have around $50 million in space). As it stands right now, it could be a fun market for teams in need of offensive line help, depending on what Washington does with Brandon Scherff and what New England does with Joe Thuney.
4. Coach/GM outlook
It would seem like Zac Taylor is on solid ground, if only because Bengals ownership doesn’t have much of a track record of firing coaches early. It’s not exactly viewed as one of the top jobs in the NFL when it’s open, either. Taylor is interesting, though, in that Marvin Lewis’s turnaround was so obvious and immediate, which made standing by him over the long term an easy decision. Would Brown be less patient knowing that the team is not realizing its potential with a star quarterback under center?
5. Key free agents
• A.J. Green, wide receiver
• John Ross, wide receiver
• Mackensie Alexander, cornerback
• William Jackson, cornerback
• Randy Bullock, kicker
• Josh Bynes, linebacker
• Alex Redmond, guard
• LeShaun Sims, cornerback
6. Top priority
The top priority, unquestionably, has to be a ridiculously aggressive campaign on the part of the Bengals to sign at least one top-tier free agent offensive lineman and secure at least one more via the draft. Cincinnati is not a free agent destination, which means the Bengals will inevitably have to overpay and sell a player in the prime of his career that this is a place worth hanging around. It reminds me a little of when Jacksonville began to find momentum in free agency under Dave Caldwell after years of being laughed off the negotiating table. If the Bengals go into next season with an offensive line resembling the one they tried to weather this season with, they are signaling a very dangerous future ahead for Burrow.
7. Positions of need
It would be easier to list the positions that the Bengals do not need upgrades at: Quarterback, running back, one cornerback spot, one edge slot and one safety spot. Everything else can get wiped off the board aggressively like Brad Pitt during the scene where he pantses all of his scouts in Moneyball.
8. Sensible plan to fix them
Make top-of-the-market offers to Thuney, Corey Linsley and perhaps even Cam Robinson, who, if he hits free agency, may not drive the market like a typical market-resetting tackle but could provide solid long-term value for the Bengals. They could also scan the market for a defensive coordinator, perhaps mining the Sean McVay staff from which Taylor originally came, given the deep pool of smart assistants there.
9. Outside-the-box idea to fix them
Replace Zac Taylor with Joe Brady. While no one is sure how much the Bengals care that they have a capable franchise quarterback—in reality, Brown has been fine with a middling product before—anyone who is viewing the fragility of this situation might want to give themselves some assurances moving forward. Brady, a rising star in coaching circles who was Burrow’s offensive coordinator at LSU, might be the kind of coach Brown was looking for when he plucked Taylor off the Sean McVay tree two years ago. Do I think Taylor should go? Not right now. Not under these circumstances. He deserves a full year with Burrow and a capable offensive line. But the Bengals might regret keeping Taylor over the long term if Burrow’s development stalls.
10. Next time we'll realistically see them in the playoffs
2023. The Browns are back. The Ravens will not be down for long (and still might make the playoffs this year). Pittsburgh is Pittsburgh. When are you breaking through?