The Bengals Are on the Run

Inexplicable play-calling and inexcusable mistakes lead to another loss that could have (and should have) been a win.
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Yeah, yeah, Joe Burrow, I know. More losing gets the Bengals the top draft pick. Well, forget it! I was dropping F-bombs last Sunday like I was Tom Brady.

 

If there is anything that makes me as angry as losing to Pittsburgh, it’s losing to the Browns. Maybe angrier. I’m so numbed by all the horrible losses to the black and gold that, for better or worse, I don’t feel the pain quite so much anymore. But losing to the Browns? Not only is it inexcusable, but it’s rare enough for me to feel personally aggrieved when it does happen.

Especially when the Bengals could have—should have—won. When they embark on not one but two unreal 16-play drives, the culmination of which was a grand total of three points. When the offense actually looks functional for large swaths of the game. When they win the turnover battle for the first time all season. I felt confident to the point of cockiness before the contest that Cincinnati was going to win in Cleveland. Maybe it was the far-too-high 9.5 point spread. Losing 27-19 definitely hurt for all the above the reasons, but, hey, at least the Bengals covered.

That’s now three straight wins for Baker Mayfield over Cincinnati, which makes me even more perturbed. What’s particularly galling about this loss is that he was pretty bad in the game: a couple of picks, not to mention a third one that was somehow overturned due to a review finding pass interference on William Jackson. I thought the refs weren’t going to make that call any longer. Mayfield was wild and skittish for most of the game, with the exception of a handful of plays. His TD dive for the pylon wouldn’t have happened with any linebacker speed on Cincinnati’s part, but it was a good effort by the Cleveland QB.

Unfortunately, Andy Dalton was worse. Way worse. Remember back when the social media chorus was all, “See? I told you Andy wasn’t the problem!” Well, as Sunday showed, he sure as hell ain’t the solution either. His air mail on a slant pattern that turned into a pick six for the Browns and jumpstarted Cleveland back into the game was vintage Red: bad throw and critical turnover wrapped into a giant burrito that was crucial in a one-score game.

If Dalton is indeed auditioning for a gig on some other team next season, he needs to petition the league to burn the tape of this one. When Ryan Finlay was under center, my weekly refrain was, “Even decent quarterbacking would have won this game.” The same was true last Sunday. There were at least a half dozen plays Dalton did not make in the red zone that were absolutely crucial: taking the sack on first-and-goal at the 2, getting spooked and tossing the ball away for an intentional grounding, repeatedly throwing underneath when the play was designed for the end zone. The fourth down quarterback draw has gotten must of the post-game publicity, and it was a brutal combination of poor concept badly executed—yet if Dalton makes any of the other plays that are supposed to be squarely in his comfort zone, that fourth down never happens.

Given the afternoon Joe Mixon was having, the clear choice on many of those plays was to hand it off and let the man work. He had 146 yards on the ground and was leaving Browns defenders in his wake all over the field. Instead, Mixon lined up in the slot on that killer sack late in the third quarter, a misuse of resources that should have the coaches slamming their heads into the wall all this week.

At least the Bengals remain ahead of Pittsburgh in red zone offense. That’s about the only place, and that’s the only team we lead in that statistic, but it’s something. Unfortunately, the red zone defense that has been the unit’s sole strength this year cracked a bit Sunday, with the Browns punching it in twice on three trips inside the 20.

I suppose the one good thing about losing is that when the team is in position to get the top draft pick, you can immediately console yourself with a “Smart loss!” comment and go back to watching Burrow highlights. He was phenomenal yet again this past weekend, destroying Georgia’s vaunted defense in the SEC title game in Atlanta. He still has the penchant to underthrow deep shots, and I remain cautious about his out-of-nowhere burst to brilliance, but the tape and the stats don’t lie. He’s been extraordinary this year and, barring a total reversal, should be a good pro QB.

Of course that means the Bengals will botch it somehow. Of the other teams nearly as decrepit, Cincinnati has by far the toughest schedule this season, meaning any ties won’t go our way. The team has to be the worst, outright.

So don’t beat the Patriots, who are once again “On to Cincinnati” after a pasting at the hands of Kansas City. Clearly, New England is petrified, because they were caught illegally videotaping the Bengals sideline last Sunday, hunting signals to steal and personnel groupings to memorize. The Belichick crew bring to mind the old parable about the scorpion and the frog—it’s simply in the team’s nature to cheat to get every edge, regardless of consequences.

Zac Taylor and staff caught the offending video crew red-handed, proving that while he may or may not be able to coach, Taylor is clearly gifted at counterespionage.

The Pats offense is somehow less threatening than Cincinnati’s is at the moment, with Brady averaging a puny 6.6 yards per attempt and the team reliant on blocking punts and drawing up trick plays to score. Of course, we are all accustomed to the Bengals being any offense’s “Get well” team, so expect a host of bombs to our old pal Mo Sanu and Co. on Sunday. And while in the big picture that will be just fine, I’m sure I will be mad as hell about it.

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 three books. You can follow him on Twitter at @robwein.

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