Happy New Year, everyone! A combination of holiday activities and a raging case of the flu pushed this column back a bit, but I didn’t want the last two games (really, last five quarters) to slip away for good without acknowledging them, plus the positive signs for the future that at last emerged through the murky fog that was the 2019 Bengals.
Never have I had such a bizarre, whipsawed feeling watching a game as when the Bengals pulled off that miracle fourth quarter in Miami, scoring 23 points—including 16 in the final 29 seconds—to force overtime. At the same time part of me was going wild, another part was screaming, “What are you doing???” As we’ve discussed at length, the one thing that would make this hellish season worthwhile is coming away with the No. 1 draft pick and drafting a franchise-changing quarterback. Winning the last two games would put that scenario in jeopardy. For the better part of three hours on December 22, that top spot (and presumably Joe Burrow in Bengals stripes next year) was locked up.
But Andy Dalton doesn’t care about who replaces him, where the team drafts, or any long-term stuff. He’s out there, rightfully, for himself. And though he was a major reason why the Bengals were in a deep hole in the first place, he started to sling it around against Miami like Good Andy, including a laser beam to Tyler Eifert with no time on the clock, followed by a scramble to the corner to tie the game.
But these are the Bengals, of course, so even as I was screaming YESNOYESNO!! I knew in the pit of my gut Cincinnati would find a way to botch it. Sure enough, after looking unstoppable moments before, they couldn’t conjure anything offensively in overtime despite stopping Miami twice. A tie would really have been the best result, ensuring the top pick while preserving at least some dignity. Alas, it was not to be. Only the Bengals could score three consecutive late-game touchdowns, two two-point conversions, actually recover an onside kick, and hit a 57-yard field goal to boot—and still lose.
Regardless, that loss left the team free to demolish Cleveland in the season finale, which I was resolutely convinced they would do, even after the Browns scored on an early long pass. As with the Miami game, there were mixed emotions; reports from Brownstown indicated head coach Freddy Kitchens could save his job with a victory. I certainly wanted Coach K’s unqualified butt to stay in command of Cleveland, but I wanted a Bengals win more.
As it turned out, we got rid of both Kitchens and GM John Dorsey with one deathblow. For the first time since Baker Mayfield took over, Cincinnati’s QB played better in the head-to-head matchup. Dalton wasn’t great, but he was good enough, including a scramble and dive for the pylon touchdown that touched off a wave of “We love you, Andy!” glad tidings around Paul Brown Stadium. It was a worthy valedictory for Dalton’s solid but hardly inspiring career in stripes, if indeed it was his final game with the Bengals. He finishes his time with the club as the holder of several franchise passing records, but always was the element that held back the potent teams of the early 2010s. He also received his share of bad luck, most notably the fluky thumb injury in 2015. If he winds up a starter somewhere else in the league next year, we will wish him good fortune—but also good riddance, hoping we can at last move on to someone better.
Joe Mixon pounded the Browns for 162 yards, miraculously finishing the season with 1,137 rushing yards and 4.1 yards per carry, incredibly good numbers given where he was at midseason, when the team was on pace for historically low rushing numbers. We’ve discussed the bye week blocking scheme course correction the coaching staff undertook previously, which allowed Mix to be Mix. If he hadn’t have been suffering the stomach flu for the Miami game, he would have piled up even more yardage (though theoretically would have undone the No. 1 pick, so good job, influenza, my mortal enemy).
A couple of young players really showed out versus Cleveland. Tackle Fred Johnson was given a crack to play left tackle and was outstanding (he was good versus Miami, too). Rookie Germaine Pratt provided the kind of high-speed and high-impact linebacker play we haven’t had since Reggie Williams was attending City Council meetings midweek. Neither are cornerstone players, but it’s good to see young guys have excellent games; Billy Price has yet to play this well, for example. Another player who was really good, again, was Darqueze Dennard, and of course the pass rush was highly active. The team finished 2019 with 31 sacks, also not a great number (26th overall, 24th in Adjusted Sack Rate) but, given where the defense was at season’s midpoint, not bad at all.
I’m not usually one for moral victories, and at Football Outsiders we have research indicating one season doesn’t bleed into the next, for good or bad—roster outweighs momentum in this area. But you have to be encouraged at the fight the team showed right down to the end, when quitting on Zac Taylor and the empty stadium would have been pretty easy, if not forgivable. Given all the factors Taylor was up against entering the season—including injuries to his best player and his top draft pick, shoddy quarterbacking, a blocking scheme that didn’t fit his personnel, and a defensive coordinator who was hired about 10 minutes before kickoff—it becomes clear that keeping up the team’s fighting spirit each week despite all the losses was a victory in itself.
The Bengals were an unfathomable 0-8 in one-score games, and there was a handful that should have been one-score games, or better, in there too. That can only improve next season (it’s math!) and the next step for Taylor, beyond the upcoming roster overhaul, is to convert the team’s fighting spirit into making winning plays at crunch time. Still, with Joe Burrow out there (I attended LSU’s semifinal game against Oklahoma, and I haven’t been so giddy in years), I’m glad the Bengals will wait until next year to find that winning ethos.
A final note on the passing of Bengals legend Sam Wyche. I was fortunate enough to talk to Coach Sam on several occasions for pieces I wrote and TV shoots I worked on. Many of you on Twitter were kind enough to bring up this one, which I wrote as a specific ode to Sam. His kindness and generosity were the equivalent of his unique and creative football mind. He went through a lot health-wise over the last couple of decades, and of course working in Cincinnati was tough on him, too.
Hopefully the team can get back those late-’80s vibes by wearing SW patches or something next year. And I really hope Taylor, who seems to possess something of Sam Wyche the person, reveals that he has a lot of Sam Wyche the coach.
And always remember: You don’t live in Cleveland, you live in Cincinnati!
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.