All Systems Are “Go” for the Bengals

Joe Burrow says he’s not worried about his leg. Should we start worrying about Super Bowl tickets and hotel reservations?
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Looks like we made it! It’s seemingly been decades since the Bengals last took the field in a real contest, that horrible AFC title game in Kansas City. Actually it’s only been seven-plus months, but when it comes to the NFL, that may as well be a millennium. The interminable wait was exacerbated by the idea that the 2022 Bengals were about the finest vintage the southern Ohio vineyards ever produced—yet it didn’t result in a championship or even a trip to the Super Bowl, as happened in 2021.

Joe Burrow, Ja’Marr Chase, Tee Higgins, and the other stars in stripes will at last play some football on Sunday, when the season begins with an away game against the Browns at 1 p.m. Thanks to the preseason’s ever-increasing irrelevancy, most Bengals of interest have been glimpsed only on grainy practice videos from distance over social media all summer, so seeing them running and hitting and leaping on our TV screens—or in person, if you’re willing to get your shots in time for a journey to Cleveland—will come with a surge of adrenaline and warm feelings. We haven’t seen our friends in so long!

Of course, it is Burrow, Cincinnati’s collective best pal, who we long to see the most. The good (great) news is that it appears all systems are go for him to play as normal against the Browns. After the stroke we suffered when he came up lame on that July day during practice, it’s good to know that his recovery from what turned out to be a calf strain (and not something far worse) has gone well. And it’s encouraging that backup QB Jake Browning won’t have to try to move the ball on Myles Garrett and company.

Joey B’s lack of yet another training camp shouldn’t deter him from one more spectacular season at the helm of the offense. But for the paper-thin loss to K.C. last January, it might be Burrow and not Patrick Mahomes who is lauded as the NFL’s consensus best player. He’s obviously the key element in what should be another championship contending team—and, because of that, his health is paramount. I know every time Burrow rolls right, as he did when injuring his leg in practice, I’ll be holding my breath. It’s a tough way to watch a game, but then the alternative is much worse.

[Note: After this column was posted, Burrow signed the richest contract in NFL history to extend his time with the Bengals a further five years.]

With another highly expensive contract (presumably) on the way for Higgins, this is almost certainly the last year that Tyler Boyd will be in the slot as part of Burrow’s “Big Three” wideout group. His largely overlooked contribution to the offense’s success was notable in the AFC title game, when Cincinnati’s offense slowed to a crawl after Boyd’s early injury. Between him and new tight end Irv Smith, the Bengals will need to offset their explosive passing attack with a chain-moving, grind-it-out aerial offense. They were highly successful last season in taking the easy completion when defenses played their safeties deep, desperate to take the away the long passes that worked so well in 2021.

Smith will need to prove that he can replace Hayden Hurst in providing a steady seam target for Burrow and—more to the point—prove he can stay healthy for an entire season. Look for the legally exonerated Joe Mixon to further expand on his pass-catching role from a year ago, while one of his backups (rookie Chase Brown; Chris Evans, who played well in preseason; and Trayveon Williams) needs to step up to replace the key things the departed Samaje Perine did so well.

The defense received a scare when pass rusher Joseph Ossai went down with a sprained ankle in the last preseason game. His contribution alongside starters Trey Hendrickson and Sam Hubbard will be important to maintain a consistent pass rush and provide an explosive element off the edge. Assuming Ossai’s injury doesn’t linger, the Bengals D is extremely deep, young, and speedy. Whether that translates into as impressive a unit as it was in 2022, when safeties Jessie Bates and Vonn Bell backstopped the 11 with a preternatural savvy and intelligence about what opponents were attempting to accomplish, remains to be seen. Replacements Dax Hill and Nick Scott looked strong in the preseason, but what happens when shit gets real will be the true test.

Perhaps the most important cog in the Bengals machine is also its least-heralded: continuity. For all the work I do perusing numbers and applying analytics to the game, it’s most difficult to quantify just how important it is for a team to maintain the same voices and program. A head coach’s message can get stale over time (see: Marvin Lewis) but for the moment the combination of high character, scheme flexibility, and accountability Zac Taylor promotes has reshaped the team into a consistent, harmonious, and—most important—winning enterprise.

His chief lieutenants (offensive coordinator Brian Callahan, defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo, and special teams honcho Darrin Simmons) have all been there for the entirety of Taylor’s run on the sideline. The staff can communicate in shorthand or intuit without wasting time on discussion, and sees things the same way. That’s a rarity in a league where staff turnover is rampant—for example, the Chiefs have a new OC, the Bills have a new DC, and the Eagles have new both. It’s also a potential advantage, especially with so many good teams clumped near the top and desperate for any scintilla of edge.

Playing the schedule game is the height of folly. Games that appear to be stiff tests in August become cushy, and vice-versa, once the season begins, injuries hit, and all our assumptions turn to dust. The good news is that the schedule rotation brings the NFC West and AFC South this season, a group that outside of the 49ers and Jaguars doesn’t terrify me. The bad news is the Bengals remain in the AFC North, meaning six divisional bloodbaths, including a pair right off the bat at Cleveland and Baltimore in the home opener. Their first place finish in 2022 also means rematches with the Chiefs and Bills; this year’s “extra” game is a home date with the Vikings.

With the addition of the powerful Orlando Brown Jr. at left tackle and the flop of Jonah Williams to the right side, Cincinnati has its best O-line in recent memory. Let’s hope it’s at least improved to the point where we won’t have to play the “Uh-oh, how are we going to deal with X pass rusher this week?” game anymore.

While the attention generally goes to the pass blocking, Brown’s addition should make the run game potent enough to achieve a truly balanced attack. In general, the default to “let Joe handle it” is the right move, but only by punishing those two-high safety looks on the ground will the deep passing game be allowed to (re)flourish. That will be something to look for in Sunday’s intriguing test against Cleveland’s rebuilt defensive front, which sagged badly against the run in 2022.

In last year’s season preview, I wrote this sentence: “If Cincinnati is clearly a better team but trips over an earlier hurdle in the postseason, that’s still a successful season.” Ah, but the devil is in the details. I wasn’t counting on a 10-game winning streak (counting playoffs) and a last-second loss to the damned Chiefs. The Bengals were much better in 2022 than 2021, were successful by every metric, and fell at an earlier hurdle—leaving us all incredibly disappointed and unfulfilled.

Every season is its own novel, and while it will be hard to watch 2023 unfold and not relate it back to the unfinished business from the last two seasons (in my heart we are two-time defending champs, damnit!) everything begins anew on Sunday. Will the Bengals continue their rise and become the AFC’s dominant club? Will they take a step back and lay in the weeds for another surprise run in the postseason? Will Joey get injured (or reinjured) and miss a sizable portion of the season, thus dooming it?

The only guarantee is that the 2023 season will be a fun, unpredictable ride. Of course I’m hoping it ends, at long last, with a Lombardi Trophy. After all, for as long as the offseason felt, it isn’t close to the length of time the Bengals have gone without a title….

Starting next week, we are back for a regular look at the team in this digital space. I 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. Listen to him on Mo Egger’s show on 1530AM every Thursday at 5:20 p.m.

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