The Bengals Are Back, and It’s Already Time to Worry

Pro football is slowly but surely inching its way back into our consciousness.

Ummm, weren’t we promised a “New Dey?” After all this time—after the excruciating waiting and hoping and cancelling of OTAs and the preseason and various other stresses, pandemic or otherwise—the opening of training camp is at last upon us. This annual melange of “Player X is in the best shape of his life!” and beat reporters tweeting out practice plays that mean nothing come the regular season is always an optimistic time, but especially so this year. That’s due to an offseason revamp that included, first and foremost, the top overall draft pick, presumed franchise savior and all-around superduperstar Joe Burrow, last seen winning the national championship with LSU and the Heisman Trophy after perhaps the greatest single season in college football history.

 

And so what happens? As soon as the Bengals take off their masks, put on their helmets and hit the practice field, the bodies started to pile up once again. As with last year, when the season was crippled before it ever got started thanks to crushing injuries, 2020 is beginning with frequent visits to the infirmary.

The main man, A.J. Green, whose future has been the subject of endless speculation this summer mostly due to his inability to stay injury-free (hasn’t played since mid-2018), put Bengals Nation on edge right away with a “tweaked” hamstring that caused him to miss the first padded practices. Another wideout, Tee Higgins, the “other” impact rookie Cincinnati drafted, in his case at the top of the second round, was likewise dinged up with lower leg issues, perhaps in honor of his boyhood idol, Green. And a third receiver, John Ross, was forced to leave camp after his son tested positive for COVID-19. Suddenly Burrow was in the same position as Andy Dalton and Ryan Finley found themselves for most of 2019—throwing to Tyler Boyd and a bunch of extra parts.

Meanwhile, the revamped defense has been dinged as well. Shawn Williams, one of the troika of safeties who are expected to see loads of playing time, was carted off with an as yet undisclosed injury, as was defensive tackle Renell Wren, a valuable depth piece now that Josh Tupou opted out.

That’s just in the first few days. And I didn’t mention the worst case. That would be cornerback Trae Waynes, the priciest of the Bengals’ free-agent acquisitions. He suffered a torn pectoral muscle during a weightlifting session and is likely gone until the icy winds are blowing cold off the Ohio, if he plays at all. Considering the team dumped $42 million (with very little opt-out cash) on Waynes this past spring, that’s a body blow for a team that had mostly sat out free agency after getting burned by the signing of Antonio Bryant (who immediately was injured and never did a thing in stripes) back in 2010. Almost as bad, the complicated, corona-related context surrounding the injury has led to bad feelings between the club and Waynes (laid out by Paul Dehner of The Athletic here).

The early bad tidings has served to somewhat obscure the incredible excitement around Burrow’s long-awaited debut under center. His selection in April may not have been a very exciting moment for Roger Goodell, but for Bengals fans who sweated out the “he won’t play for that organization!” nonsense for months, not to mention a 2-14 disaster in 2019, it was an emotional payoff that almost—almost—made the suffering worthwhile. Considering his crucial role in the future of the Bengals remaining in Cincinnati, Burrow is perhaps the most important player in franchise history—certainly of recent vintage. His every twitch will be scrutinized, so in a bizarro way the spate of wounded players seizing attention from him might be welcome. But it (hopefully) won’t last long.

Replacing Andy Dalton with Joe Cool was the most important offseason move, but it was hardly the only one. The aforementioned cannonball into the free agent pool was a true eye-opener. Waynes was the most expensive signee, but perhaps the player that truly signaled a sea change was nigh in Bengaldom was defensive tackle D.J. Reader, who came over from Houston, choosing Cincinnati over many interested suitors, outbid by the usually penny-pinching Browns/Blackburns. Reader provides longtime mainstay Geno Atkins something he has never had during his illustrious career; a true running mate inside who will command double teams and perhaps allow Atkins, even at his advanced age, to unleash hell in the manner he did when the Bengals were going to the playoffs every season.

The signings kept coming. Cincinnati shopped in several aisles and bought themselves a new starting slot corner (Mackenzie Alexander); a starting right guard (Xavier Sua-Filo); a starting safety (Vonn Bell); a starting (for now, anyway) linebacker (Josh Bynes); and various other bits and pieces in the low-level bin. By Bengals standards, this was like the old game show where the contestant had a minute to run wild in a supermarket or department store and keep everything he or she could jam in a shopping cart. Fans were giddy, if a little worried about the inevitable hangover.

Consider Waynes’ injury the first twinge of the headache. In general, however, the outlook for 2020, if you find a way to get past the COVID-19 sword dangling over the entire sport (and nation), is relatively optimistic. Over at Football Outsiders we project the Bengals win total at about 7, with a strong likelihood of winning 6-9 games. A few breaks and that would mean, with help from the expanded playoff field (seven teams in each conference now qualify), a chance at a return to the postseason, which would be a tremendous shot in the arm for the franchise and its beleaguered fan base. If nothing else, the idea of meaningful football being played in December would represent a giant leap forward from recent seasons, even beyond last year’s disaster.

Of course, it would help if the players would stop getting hurt. Otherwise, the team will likely find itself right back at the top of the draft once more. Trevor Lawrence, anyone?

Robert Weintraub heads up Bengals coverage for Cincinnati Magazine and has written for The New York Times, Grantland, Slate, Deadspin, and Football Outsiders and authored four books, including his newest, “The Divine Miss Marble” from Penguin Random House. You can follow him on Twitter at @robwein.

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