The truth is, I was worried for a while last Sunday morning. Dallas, the Bengals opponent, wasn’t very good, after all. And I could imagine an inspired effort, combined with Andy Dalton’s just mercy, being enough for the Bengals to eke out a win that would push them down in the draft order.
The imaginary scenario continued to play out in my mind. The Cowboys, not the Stripes, would then get to draft offensive tackle Penei Sewell. He immediately steps into the Dallas lineup and becomes a 10-time All-Pro, an unholy combination of Nate Newton and Mark Tuinei, as the Cowboys return to the Super Bowl at last. Meanwhile, whomever Cincinnati is stuck drafting instead in the first round will get hurt, like all Bengals top draft picks.
Fortunately, I need not have worried. The Bengals played like they’d already checked out for 2020, at last joining the majority of the fan base. They managed to fumble on their first three drives, in the process handing Dallas a 17-0 lead that was more than enough to best Cincinnati’s weekly touchdown. The final, if anyone cares, was 30-7.
The fact that the first of those fumbles, just moments into the game, was by the usually sure-handed Gio Bernard—whose streak of 829 carries without a drop was the longest in the league by miles—was a nice metaphor for the season as a whole. (The streak doesn’t take into account his most notable moment as a Bengal, his fumble near the goal line against the Chargers in the 2013 wild card game.) The Cowboys returned another fumble for a long touchdown, and a third came deep in Dallas territory when the game was still salvageable.
So by 1:30 p.m. on Sunday, we could all relax. Cincinnati was not going to fumble away the chance to draft Sewell, the only thing they didn’t cough up on this forgettable afternoon. It’s not much to live for in this lost season, but it’s all we’ve got.
Cincinnati’s offensive game plan was actually pretty sound, and the running-back-by-committee approach was working for the most part, albeit against a horrid run defense. But the turnovers killed everything, including the usually upbeat Zac Taylor’s optimism. He appeared—for the first time, really—notably downcast after the game, perhaps because he’s seeing his chances of winning again this season disappear, leaving him with just two W’s in each of his first two seasons. Somehow, he went 0-3-1 against the weak NFC East. Next season’s schedule rotation brings the NFC North, for what it’s worth.
Certainly it appears that won’t matter to his job security. Reports emerged last week that Taylor won’t be blamed for the second lost season under his watch, something that surprises no one familiar with Mike Brown’s infinite patience when it comes to retaining mediocre employees and people to whom he’d have to pay money for not working. Whether that means there will be mandated staff changes as a result remains to be seen.
The situation may well still be fluid. Remember a couple of years ago, when Marvin Lewis was all but fired until Dalton hit Tyler Boyd to beat the Ravens and all was forgiven? This would be the opposite scenario, but Taylor may well feel he’s coaching for his job the next three weeks.
Given that two of those final games will involve Pittsburgh (this Monday night) and Baltimore (in the finale), it would seem unlikely that Cincinnati will be in any of the contests save the Texans encounter in the Lone Star state on December 27. Despite Deshaun Watson’s brilliance, Houston—like Dallas—seems like a potentially close game anyway, which made Sunday’s loss so important for those turning to the draft already. Now even a victory over Houston won’t kill Cincinnati’s chances at the best Big Ugly available.
Meanwhile, it was a pleasure to welcome Dalton back for one more afternoon, especially when losing to him wasn’t an occasion for anguish. AD wasn’t exactly great; he looked every inch the backup QB he is, albeit a better one than what the Bengals have on their roster. Indeed, there is a train of thought that has Dalton returning to Cincinnati in 2021 as Joe Burrow’s backup. That would be nice, if unlikely. Certainly, seeing him and A.J. Green palling around brought back great memories of their combination on the field.
It also led to an inevitable, poignant conclusion: This is it for Green in Cincinnati. You couldn’t read their lips due to masks, but I’m sure Green was asking Red about life outside Siberia, and I have no doubt Dalton was extolling the virtues of western civilization. A.J. has some Hall of Fame consideration to help him realize he needs to go elsewhere for a second act—ideally with a quarterback better than Dalton. He’s loyal and steadfast, but I find it hard to believe Green doesn’t close his eyes at night and wonder what life would have been like with a different guy throwing him the ball, despite all the success and friendship they built together.
As with Dalton, should Burrow come back healthy and fully regain (and build upon) the brilliance he was displaying before, then A.J. won’t be missed, as much as we all love him. It’s not like he’s done much this season, even when Burrow was in there. There can be no more ties to the playoff-era veterans who did a great deal for club and city, alas. That page needs to be turned, and youthful talent must be served.
Like, for example, Penei Sewell. Who, of course, will no doubt get hurt.
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.