The more things change, the more they stay the same at Paul Brown Stadium. Six wins in two seasons is usually a sign that a team is in need of severe restructuring. Whether it's moving on from members of the personnel department or replacing head figures on the coaching staff, teams are judged on wins and Cincinnati hasn't captured many during the Zac Taylor era.
The Bengals decided to retain the young head coach and are expected to bring back both offensive coordinator Brian Callahan and defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo. This news came down just hours after the Bengals became the first team in 20 years to allow 400 rushing yards in an NFL game. Through two seasons as a head coach, Taylor has the fifth-lowest winning percentage (20.3%) in league history.
“Ownership has always been supportive," Taylor said on Monday after the team announced he would return. "We communicate on a constant basis, which is critical in this league. And so I do appreciate that because we do feel like we’re close to turning the corner."
The Cincinnati front office has been patient for Mike Brown's entire tenure, and this coaching cycle is no different for key decision makers on the staff. The Bengals decided to move on from five assistant coaches, including offensive line coach Jim Turner, defensive line coach Nick Eason and wide receivers coach Bob Bicknell. Yet above them sits the same triumvirate averaging three wins a season.
Callahan and Taylor are the brain trust of the offense, which has flashed well and even won games with backup talent. It would be hard to get rid of Callahan and not have it be an indictment of Taylor. The same can't be said for the defense.
There is no way to put lipstick on this flying pig. The Bengals have ranked in the bottom-third of scoring defenses both seasons thanks to a 2019 last-place finish in rushing yards allowed and 25th place ranking this season. Taking a look at Cincinnati's defensive DVOA, they've ranked in the bottom five across both seasons. The cherry on top is EPA (Expected Points Added) per play allowed; When subtracting garbage time (win probability 20-80%) the Bengals rank 28th since Anarumo took over in 2019.
Cincinnati also shipped out a legend in defensive end Carlos Dunlap after he butted heads with the coaching staff over his role. Dunlap took a liking to the northwest. He's nearly doubled his pressure rate since joining the Seahawks and has five sacks in eight games after having just one in seven appearances with Cincinnati.
Plenty of Bengals fans are scratching their heads at the blind confidence the organization is showing their defensive coordinator after two seasons of incompetence. Of the teams ranked 26-to-32 in the previous EPA metric, only the Bengals have chosen to stick with their current coordinator.
How could this be? Let's start with some of the excuses made for any underperforming defense. Injuries are at the top of that list.
In 2019, the Bengals defense was one of the healthiest in the league. According to Football Outsiders, Cincinnati ranked 10th in 2019 adjusted games lost after finishing in the bottom half over the final two seasons with Marvin Lewis. Anarumo spun that good fortune into the 30th ranked defense by DVOA.
This season, two significant injuries hamstrung Cincinnati. Only five combined games from D.J. Reader and Trae Waynes was enough to stagnate any overall growth from this unit. The Bengals pushed all their chips in on Reader, and they were left searching for street free agents to pick up the pieces. Waynes was supposed to star opposite William Jackson III. Instead, fans watched LeShaun Sims get burnt for the most touchdowns in the league.
A pair of injuries was all it took. There was no reason to think Geno Atkins would stop declining or that Josh Tupou and Renell Wren would be factors this season. The house of cards Anarumo built, fell under the weight of two injuries, which is par for the course in today's NFL. The best coaches adapt and cook up competitive game plans every week. Anarumo hasn't consistently done that.
The other crutch struggling defenses can lean on is offensive competition. Cincinnati has faced a last-place schedule in both of Anarumo's seasons, and it's showed in the opposing talent. The 2019 Bengals defense faced the 23rd ranked schedule by offensive DVOA. This past season was nearly a mirror image, with Cincinnati ranking 22nd. Anarumo has faced one of the easiest schedules a defensive coordinator can work with.
"I do think that there's a heavy and high dose of respect between Zac Taylor and Lou Anarumo," Dave Lapham said on 700 WLW's Bengals Line. "They've coached with each other in the past, and I think they're confidants to each other. They run opposite side of the football ideas by each other. I think they feel like there's trust there."
In a league predicated on accountability and a no-nonsense attitude, Cincinnati is bucking the trend. As the league's worst defenses move on from their leaders, Brown is backing his young head coach's choice for the job. Maybe new voices underneath Anarumo will be the spark this unit needs.
Whatever happens, the brain trust of the 2021 Cincinnati Bengals is back. The Bengals spent in free agency and welcomed in a fresh face as their signal-caller. Yet when push came to shove, they continued to be the same patient franchise that hasn't won a playoff game in 30 years.
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