A Drool-Worthy Bengals Season Preview

The team roster is clearly better than last year’s surprise stars, but don’t judge “success” just by a return to the Super Bowl.
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I admit it: For the first time in my football fandom, I’m a bit hesitant about a new NFL season getting underway. Usually this time of year I’m like the proverbial puppy after hearing Pavlov’s bell tinkling; the puddle of drool at the idea of football coming back after a long summer reaches up to my knees. This fall, however, it’s only up to my ankles.

That’s because I’m still in thrall to that extraordinary stretch in January and February that brought our Bengals to the brink of the Super Bowl championship. That incredible run to the AFC North title and conference championship and getting this close to winning it all was about as good as it’s ever been for Cincinnati fans. Nothing that happens this season, short of actually winning the Super Bowl, can possibly match the out-of-nowhere excitement and astonishment Joe Burrow and Co. brought us last winter. I just want it to last a bit longer.

But Joey B. will do his level best to make it happen again, and I’m surely excited to see what he can do for an encore. Therefore, onward to 2022!

My general feelings about Cincinnati’s chances this coming season also hint at some ambivalence. The team should be better than it was in 2021, when there was a boom-or-bust element that frustrated me game by game. The offensive line additions will no doubt help unlock the full potential of the skill players, a scary thought for opposing defenses. The defense is faster, more flexible, and deeper than it’s been in some time. And the young players who took the NFL by storm last season—Ja’Marr Chase, Tee Higgins, Logan Wilson, Evan McPherson—should take another step into fully flowering as stars.

Mainly, though, there is Burrow. Amazing as he was last season, he still has plenty of areas to improve. His 14 interceptions were somewhat circumstantial and overrated, but it’s no accident that when he cut them down in the final weeks, the team’s fortunes surged. Burrow has some “Fuck it, let’s chuck this one deep and show ’em who we are” to his game that’s critically important to his aura, and that won’t go away. But eliminate the risky throws by 20-30 percent, and his efficiency should skyrocket.

Similarly, the red zone offense needs to improve, despite how the lack of seven-point drives boosted McPherson’s field goal numbers. Burrow was the NFL’s second-worst passer in the red zone in 2021 by DVOA, bettering only Trevor Lawrence among qualifying QBs. In part, that lack of down-deep quality was tied to the iffy run game; the Bengals felt they couldn’t create the required push to punch the ball in on the ground, and opponents knew it as well. So they played pass and made life hard on Burrow and his targets. A more balanced and higher quality attack in the final fifth of the field will turn more of those drives into touchdowns, and perhaps the team won’t be living on the edge in so many games this season.

Joey Franchise has played just 26 NFL games, it should be remembered, and of course last year he took nearly half the season to fully come back from the knee injury that prematurely ended his rookie year. A fully functional Burrow from the jump, one who isn’t constantly under duress—I’m hoping for last season’s 70 sacks (counting the playoffs) to be cut in half—should be a nightmare for enemy defenses and perhaps an MVP candidate. And tied to him are the wideouts, especially Chase. He will be under increased scrutiny from defenses perhaps, but a player of his incredible ability should thrive regardless.

Defensively, the addition of Joseph Ossai (back after missing his rookie season to injury) rushing the passer off the edge, first-round pick Dax Hill boosting Jessie Bates, Chido Awuzie and the secondary, and good seasons from Wilson, D.J. Reader, and Trey Hendrickson should keep the Bengals in games at least.

Defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo took a big step forward in terms of league-wide perception last year, organizing a unit that carried the team during the postseason run. His national profile remains low, in part because he has no signature style or scheme. Indeed, his signature style is not having a signature style—Anarumo’s ability to change up the game plans based on opponent is his great strength. Perusing their schematic tendencies from 2021 bolsters this idea. Gone are the rigid “corners stick to one side of the field” and “we rush four on virtually every down” base defenses of years past. Cincinnati was middle of the pack in almost every situational tendency, proof of Anarumo’s adaptability and eagerness to avoid predictability.

In short, I can’t remember a time when Bengals fans entered a season with so much reason for optimism. Even when the team was making the playoffs every year from 2011 to 2015, the lack of postseason success and the fact the quarterback was Andy Dalton tempered enthusiasm. One has to go back to the early days of the Carson Palmer era to find such confidence in the team among the fickle fanbase.

Of course, the combination of the Bengals and high expectations rarely proves a good mix. The thought is that Burrow is the negating factor to that history, and so far that is assuredly the case. So from where does the ambivalence arise?

Mainly, it stems from factors outside Cincinnati’s control. The rest of the AFC has upgraded since the Bengals were sweeping them aside en route to the Super Bowl. Just in the North, the Ravens are back to health and restocked through the draft, the Browns are still strong even without their suspended sexual predator quarterback, and the Steelers at last pushed Ben Roethlisberger onto an ice floe. (I have to say it’s strange to open the season against Pittsburgh. It takes away a bit from the usual excitement/dread of “Steelers Week.”)

Elsewhere, the AFC West is four-deep with stacked rosters, Indianapolis brought in a quarterback upgrade, Tennessee is best dismissed at your own risk, Miami turbocharged its offense with Tyreek Hill and a host of lesser names, and the general consensus is that Super Bowl LVII is Buffalo’s to lose. Cincinnati’s schedule is among the hardest by any metric out there. What happens when injuries strike in key areas, which they did not a year ago? The Bengals can very possibly improve a good deal overall and yet not repeat last season’s success.

The key is to be OK with that development. If Cincinnati is clearly a better team but trips over an earlier hurdle in the postseason, that’s still a successful season. The worst thing about losing the Super Bowl is not just the failure to win it all. There’s also the sense that anything other than a return to the big game is a defeat—and you don’t have the championship to lighten the disappointment.

The other side of the coin is that, despite their success last season, many if not most outside the 513 believe it to be a fluke. Being AFC champs and largely dismissed the following year is a nice little pocket in which to reside. Cincinnati won’t be the hunted but will again be overlooked, patted on the head, and told to leave when it’s time for Big Boy Football.

If last season was “Why not us?” then this year could be “Y’all forgot about us?” The Bengals should be good, interesting, and fun as hell. Paycor Stadium will be rocking from the opening drive, and Cincinnati has an honest-to-goodness franchise quarterback on a rookie deal. Embrace the optimism, gang, it’s gonna be another wild ride!

Starting next week, I’m back for weekly temperature takings of the team and the fans. Can’t wait!

Robert Weintraub heads up Bengals coverage for Cincinnati Magazine and has written for The New York Times, Grantland, Slate, Deadspin, and Football Outsiders. Follow him on Twitter at @robwein.

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