Let’s start this week’s column with a deep exhale that Auden Tate appears to have escaped serious injury after falling badly on his head and remaining on the Oakland Coliseum field for several minutes last Sunday. In this season of misery, Tate’s acrobatic catches have been a rare bright spot, so thank goodness he’s OK. Otherwise, the depression continues.
Cincinnati is now 0-10, matching the franchise record for futile starts to a season (the 1993 edition was also 0-10 en route to 3-13). The Bengals now have just six games left to grab that first W and avoid the winless season ignominy. Even during the Lost Decade, the team never lost more than 14 games in a single season. Three division matchups (two with the Browns, one with Pittsburgh) and three with the AFC East (Pats, Jets and Dolphins) are all that remain. Certainly it’s an easier slate than the schedule over the first 10 games, which we at Football Outsiders ranked as the toughest in football to date. Cincinnati simply has to find a way to win one of these six games. If Zac Taylor starts his career 0-16, he may not get fired (this is the Bengals after all) but he will have created an instant legacy—being worse than Dave Shula, impossibly—that he might never recover from.
On Sunday, the Bengals were in the game throughout, scoring first (on the team’s first rushing touchdown by a running back of the season, impossibly) and hanging in with a Raiders team that had played well but remains young and not particularly talented in several areas, especially pass defense. The Bengals’ non-existent running game put up gaudy numbers, with 179 yards on just 22 rushes, nearly eight yards per carry. Cincinnati got a good pass rush for once and played some actually decent situational football on defense, despite giving up plenty of yards and completions. They also forced two turnovers after coming up with just seven all year previously.
But of course, when it came time to make winning plays, the Bengals came up short. Randy Bullock missed a long field goal on a crappy field. The running game that clicked early in Joe Mixon’s Bay Area homecoming was shelved. And a last chance fourth down pass went deep instead of merely moving the chains and living to play another series.
Amazingly enough, by covering the 11.5-point spread (an incredible number, given the circumstances of the two teams entering the season), the Bengals went the entirety of the 2010s decade covering every game they played on the west coast. That encompasses a pair of games at Seattle, one in San Francisco, two in Oakland, and three against the Chargers (two in San Diego and last year’s tilt in L.A.). Cincinnati is 8-0 ATS in those games, which is fun to think about in an otherwise dreadful year.
That game last year against the Chargers in the soccer stadium in Carson reminded me of Sunday’s game: west coast, field meant for a different sport, transient crowd, and a tight game the Bengals easily could have won had their backup quarterback not been so inept. Ryan Finley’s output over two games is, of course, a tiny sample, but the overriding factor so far has been the weakness of his arm. He simply can’t drive the ball on throws outside the numbers. He showed good poise and pocket movement once again, and while his accuracy was bad it should improve with time. But with Finley under center, the field shrinks far too much to be able to consistently move the ball, which is why the Bengals were shut out in the second half and ended drive after drive in Raiders territory with nothing to show for it. His inability to get the ball to the team’s best receiver, Tyler Boyd, resulted in Boyd going off on a deserved tirade afterward.
On the subject of quarterbacks, the big news over the weekend wasn’t the loss to Oakland, frustrating as it was, but rather the devastating injury to Cincinnati draft target Tua Tagovailoa. Double-T dislocated his hip when he was crunched by a pair of Mississippi State defenders while rolling out and extending the play, which of course is something he does superbly and is a key trait for quarterbacks in today’s NFL. The fact that he was playing with a 35-7 lead is frustrating, but I don’t get the vitriol directed at Nick Saban for having him in there. Players play, especially in the first half. If there were a few minutes left in the game, that would be a different story, but this was just football bad luck—the kind the Bengals have had in huge quantities of late.
The injury throws several scenarios into play. Tagovailoa could desire to return to Tuscaloosa for the classic “Unfinished Business” and take himself out of draft consideration entirely (leaving the 2021 class with him, Trevor Lawrence of Clemson and Ohio State’s Justin Fields, three can’t-miss prospects the Bengals will, indeed, miss on). Given his injury history, however, it doesn’t seem likely Tagovailoa will wish to play any further without getting paid for it.
More likely is the idea that the Bengals pass on the “high-risk” player and go with Joe Burrow of LSU, a less talented if safer prospect. Burrow was excellent again Saturday as the Bayou Bengals routed Ole Miss, and his stats this year are insane; he’s completing nearly 80% of throws beyond 10 yards downfield, to take but one example. But I remain worried about his lack of arm strength (he’s not a popgun like Finley, but he doesn’t have a cannon like Tua either) and the fact that before this breakout season he was just a decent player, not a transcendent one. Perhaps Oregon’s Justin Herbert, who is inconsistent but possesses awesome physical traits, is still in the mix. But it just feels like Burrow, an Ohio kid, coming home is destined to happen.
Given all that’s transpired with this team of late, it probably doesn’t matter anyway. If the Bengals opt for Tagovailoa, he’ll go down with a series of injuries. Take Burrow, and he’ll become just a slightly better Andy Dalton. Maybe they should take Chase Young or Andrew Thomas and tank next year’s season, too….
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.