For pretty much my entire life, the Cincinnati Bengals have been an endless highlight video—only the wrong kind. Pick any great player from around the league, put together a montage of his greatest moments, and invariably there are the Bengals. It’s a linebacker whiffing on a tackle. A quarterback getting strip-sacked. A wide receiver getting knocked out. You get the idea.
Cincinnati players over the years tend to resemble the Eastern European bad guys with generous facial stubble who John Wick or the Taken star blast through by the hundreds with minimal effort. They are the Washington Generals, never the Harlem Globetrotters.
Sure enough, another bit of striped scenery dressing came last Sunday courtesy of Baltimore and Lamar Jackson, who put together the first reel of his highlight film for a Canton induction ceremony. Forget the pinpoint passing and the contemptuous ease with which he moved the Ravens down the field—all anyone will remember from this game was his insane 47-yard touchdown run, to which I steadfastly refuse to link. Bengals defenders were left scattered like bowling pins across the gridiron, scarcely touching Jackson as he weaved through the secondary. It’s a play that will be shown forever, one we’ll just have to stomach, like the Brett Favre game-winning TD in his first game as a Packer or the Brandon Stokely deflection TD or any of a dozen others that have come at Cincinnati’s expense over the years. (Nope, won’t be mentioning the Super Bowl play.…)
So yeah, the Bengals are 0-9. In case you were wondering, the loss officially eliminated them from the AFC North division title. Bummer.
The big news coming into the game was, of course, the benching of Andy Dalton for Ryan Finley. There was a lot of “In case you thought Andy was the problem, I give you 49-13” on social media during Sunday’s beatdown. But that misses the point. Dalton wasn’t the problem, though he was a problem because he’d been playing well below average for his position. But the switch wasn’t about sending a message to Red—it was to evaluate the other guy.
Finley showed some good traits in the preseason, but that’s essentially meaningless. The only thing worse than a winless team is a winless team that ignores the opportunity to evaluate young players during the otherwise lost season. Dalton is done, and he won’t be on the team in 2020. Finley will, and it would be nice to know about what he does well and what he doesn’t heading into a season in which he’ll almost certainly play, at least a little.
And Finley did some things rather well on Sunday, blowout notwithstanding. He kept his poise against a revolving series of blitzes and displayed pocket presence in a way Dalton has had beaten out of him, doing a nice job of keeping his eyes upfield and finding receivers on the move. While hardly elusive, Finley has a bit of wiggle in the pocket, enough to keep plays alive longer than Dalton has been able to do in some time. He also possesses a deft touch on short passes, rarely causing his intended receiver to break stride or run into tacklers. He was helped by a strong running game (for once!), goosed along by his understanding of the way the scheme junked much of its outside zone principles for more man-on-man blocking. The heavy dose of Joe Mixon carries in the second half at least prevented Finley from throwing every down while way behind, a situation where most QBs struggle, especially rookies in their first action.
On the other hand, Finley’s arm, as per his scouting report coming out of N.C. State, is weak. That was nowhere more obvious than on the out route jumped by Marcus Peters and returned for a pick-six, just when it appeared the Bengals may actually score and get back into the game. Those sideline passes, along with the deep crossers that are a staple of the Zac Taylor offense (what we’ve seen of it so far anyway), will always be a challenge for Finley, given his arm handicap. Dalton was hardly a Red Rifle when it came to those throws either, usually sacrificing accuracy when he muscled up to get the ball there. But even he appears to have a bigger hose than Finley.
In other words, while Finley can be serviceable, and perhaps even muster an elusive win so the team doesn’t suffer the ignominy of a winless season, he most likely isn’t the long-term answer. He can be a high-end backup, which is a valuable position in the NFL, but that seems to be his ceiling after an admittedly tiny sample size.
That’s why the interesting game over the weekend wasn’t the massacre at the hands of the Ravens but the LSU-Alabama clash Saturday night in Tuscaloosa. In the fascinating and entertaining matchup, won by LSU 46-41, the two most likely quarterbacks that the Bengals will have a crack at drafting were on display. And boy, howdy, did they show out.
Tua Tagovailoa is the more known quantity, of course. In terms of what the modern NFL requires of quarterbacks, he’s a fantastic prospect. He is uncannily accurate to all phases of the route tree, lofting bombs with the ease with which he leads running backs on screens. He is a plus mover in the pocket, not wildly elusive like Lamar Jackson but certainly capable of bursting free to make yardage with his feet. More important, he is excellent at manipulating the pocket while making plays “off platform,” as the cool kids say—that is, he can make big plays downfield while scrambling.
Tagovailoa’s only major issue is his propensity for injury, particularly in the ankles, which of course was also on display Saturday. A radical surgery (he now has had the procedure on both ankles) allowed him to play just three weeks after a high ankle sprain, but he was clearly affected and quite rusty in the first half. Watching him limp badly off the field only put into context how incredibly he played despite being at far less than 100 percent.
It goes without saying that, should Cincinnati draft Tagovailoa, his likelihood of being injury-plagued as a pro dramatically rises.
On the other sideline, Joe Burrow continued his rocket ride toward the Heisman Trophy and the top of the draft pyramid. From Ohio State washout transfer to Belle of the Bayou in just a couple of years, Burrow’s dramatic improvement even over last season is remarkable. Certainly some of it is due to the sophisticated passing scheme installed by new LSU offensive coordinator Joe Brady, who rode in from Sean Payton’s New Orleans Saints staff on his white horse to lead the Bayou Bengals into the modern age.
But give Burrow top marks for his pocket poise and awareness, his hyper-accuracy, his willingness to stand in and make throws with defenders in his face, his underrated elusiveness, and his apparently Patton-like leadership qualities. The way he sliced up Alabama seldom occurs at Bryant-Denny Stadium. I’ve seen several commentators compare Burrow to Tom Brady with a straight face—I assumed they meant Michigan-era Brady, but no. There is no replicating the Pats great, obviously, but if he’s even within shouting distance of Brady that would give Cincinnati quite a decision come April.
Which brings up the elephant in the room. The way things are trending, the Bengals will be picking first and there will be two QBs to choose from (Justin Herbert isn’t as good as Tagovailoa or Burrow, in my opinion). History suggests that only one of them will become a true franchise quarterback. History also suggests that regardless of which one Cincinnati selects, it will turn out to be the wrong choice, because the franchise’s horrible infrastructure will contaminate even the greatest of prospects.
Much as having the top choice is the desired outcome of this horrible season, I’d almost rather finish second and not have the Bengals and whomever they choose at the top of the draft be under such relentless scrutiny. But that will require a few victories, and it’s hard to see that happening at this stage, with or without A.J. Green.
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.