The Bengals are back, baby.
No, not the Carson Palmer or Andy Dalton-led Bengals, which both managed a playoff appearance every other year and an occasional AFCN title. No, we’re referring to the illustrious David Klingler or Akili Smith eras, which featured a bizarre willingness of the front office to embrace and stand by mediocre rosters well past any opportunities to progress. The old Bengals kept trotting out the same characters every week with little hope of redemption due to a lack of depth, talent or even marginally acceptable coaching from the sublime triumvirate of Dave Shula, Bruce Coslet and Dick LeBeau (combined record: 52-124).
The current version finished their 2019 campaign at 2-14, which merited the #1 overall pick in April’s draft and a whole lot of abuse along the way. Current head coach Zac Taylor may or may not have been overwhelmed in his first year at the helm, but unlike his deposed counterpart with the Cleveland Browns, Taylor handled himself well with media and managed to keep a respectable PR approach despite the general awfulness of the roster he inherited. Given some of the team’s head-scratching personnel changes and emphasis on playing rookies, I’ll posit Taylor, belying his youthful appearance, knew what he was doing all season – deliberately tanking – to secure the #1 pick and a shot at redeeming the team’s future with a true rookie difference maker. This would appear to be the same approach the Dolphins also employed, but the Dolphins made their intentions known publicly at season’s outset and proceeded to trade multiple veterans for draft picks. The Bengals eschewed any such opportunity despite multiple assets they could’ve moved for solid compensation (WR A.J. Green, TE Tyler Eifert, DT Geno Atkins) and still finished below the Dolphins in the standings. Congratulations?
There’s just not much of a narrative to follow here. The Bengals were, for lack of a better term, screwed when their 2019 first-round pick, offensive tackle Jonah Williams, suffered a torn labrum before the opening of training camp and missed the entire season, continuing an unfortunate recent trend of the Bengals having to “redshirt” rookies due to injury. The team proceeded to lose their first 11 games in uninspiring fashion, at one point benching QB Andy Dalton in favor of fourth-round pick Ryan Finley, only to reinstate Dalton a few weeks and ugly performances later. As mentioned before, the team maddeningly resisted calls from all corners of the NFL to use their dwindling assets in trades to bolster the team, which smacks of the one common thread through all of the Bengals’ woes – ownership (more on this below).
Regarding the draft, the Bengals are expected to select LSU QB and 2019 Heisman Trophy winner Joe Burrow first overall. If his prolific Heisman campaign is any indication, Burrow’s a true NFL-level competitor, and he would slot nicely into a team with a returning Jonah Williams as a cornerstone for the rest of the team’s future. Nothing is certain with this Bengals team, and despite most indications they’ll stay put at #1 and draft Burrow, this is the Bengals – a last-minute trade for more picks or a sack of peanuts is equally plausible. Given the striking needs of this team across the board (offensive guard, wide receiver, linebackers of every description, durable cornerbacks), more picks may be preferable if only for depth purposes, but if the Bengals pass on Burrow and he becomes the megastar many project him to be, it will underscore the futility of this front office, which is arguably the worst in the NFL through its sheer, stupifying inaction. I say this with all sincerity: I have absolutely no idea what the Bengals will do with their remaining picks…and, most likely, neither do you.
The Bengals have never been much for dabbling in free agency, but they’ve shown an interest in retaining their own potential offerings to the market. The aforementioned A.J. Green has expressed his desire to stay in Cincinnati, but after a missed season, one has to wonder if Green was simply spouting agent-speak. Despite his age (31) and injury history, he’s expected to command a lot of attention, and the notoriously cheap Bengals aren’t known for matching or exceeding other free agent offers. My prediction: Green walks and the Bengals eventually secure a compensation pick for him, deeming that equitable enough. No wonder Bengals fans live in a perpetual state of low-grade resentment.
So, where to now? Until their ownership structure or style changes, I fear the Bengals are doomed to repeat, at best, the travails of the (former head coach) Marvin Lewis era, which may have been more of a tribute to Lewis’ stewardship than most would have realized. With Burrow on board and some quality depth, this team could conceivably claw their way to a .500 record in 2020 (stop laughing). To be cliche, the cupboard isn’t entirely bare here, but unless the Bengals fatten up their roster depth considerably, they stand to be the same injury-ravaged bunch we’ve seen for almost two decades.