The Bengals Remain Stuck in the Middle Again

The 2019 Bengals are too talented to truly bottom out, but hardly good enough to threaten the big boys.
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Welcome back to another season aboard the thrill ride we call the Cincinnati Bengals. Keep your arms inside at all times and buckle up—the 2019 version embarks this weekend with a brand new captain at the helm.

 

Long gone are the days when the Bengals won 52 games over five playoff-bound seasons between 2011 and 2015. Since that fateful evening in early 2016 when the dreaded Steelers stole what should have been the Bengals’ first playoff win since 1990, Cincinnati is 19-28-1; it hasn’t been a return to the horrors of the Lost Decade of the 1990s, but nothing to get excited about either. Indeed, the failure to truly bottom out and reset, a la the newly dreaded Browns, continues to haunt the franchise, as they remain Stuck in the Middle With You, as Stealers Wheel once sang.

So it’s “good news” that the Bengals enter the 2019 season forecast by most pigskin intelligentsia to be at the NFL’s nadir. With Andy Dalton back yet again at quarterback, stellar receiver A.J. Green injured once more, and first-round draft pick Jonah Williams also on the shelf, there is precious little to get excited about down at Paul Brown Stadium. Last season’s weak links, offensive line and linebacker, don’t figure to be better and may actually be worse, especially the line. The defense as a whole was so putrid last year that an improvement won’t be anything to scream about from the rooftops.

So why bother? Why not merely put all your time and fan energy into the UC Bearcats and wait ’til next year when it comes to the striped brigade?

Well, for one thing, matters aren’t quite as dire as they appear. Hard as it is to recall, last year started well: a 3-1 record and a late lead over the Steelers. Then Pittsburgh got away with an illegal offensive pick play to win in Week 5, and the Bengals suffered a cyclone of injuries that ended any realistic chance they had to compete for a playoff spot. But the talent that got them those victories remains on hand, save for Green of course. (The Bengals feel he’ll return sooner rather than later, but those of us who are more pessimistic assume we will see #18 around Halloween.)

There is, of course, the sea change on the sideline. Zac Taylor is Cincinnati’s first head coach other than Marvin Lewis since 2002, when Dick LeBeau was el honcho numero uno. The former Bearcats offensive coordinator and Sean McVay disciple is the Bengals’ equivalent of Harry Truman: a little-known entity taking over for a figure who seemingly would remain in charge forever. Truman had his ups and downs (hence the phrase “To err is Truman”) but is today remembered as a tremendous president.

Is it possible history will be as kind to Taylor after his tenure in Bengaldom? He’s brought a youthful energy and a refreshing change to many of the back-office systems that went stale under Lewis, first and foremost the refusal to stick with players not pulling their weight just because they were drafted highly. Last year’s first-rounder, Billy Price, is on the bench, and a third-rounder, Malik Jefferson, is off the team entirely. That doesn’t speak well of the draft process, but one of the Bengals’ chief issues under Lewis was the consistent “sunk-cost” theory of team-building. Taylor’s insistence on playing what he views as the best guys bodes well, even if it remains to be seen if he’s correct in doing so.

Taylor was brought to town to juice up the offense with some of that Rams magic, and his first challenge will be to try to boost Dalton from cruising altitude into orbit. That’s a lofty goal, since few players improve drastically past their age-30 seasons. Dalton has led the team in Approximate Value, Pro Football Reference’s metric to gauge effectiveness across positions, just once in his career to date: 2016, when the team fell apart despite his valiant efforts. It’s a handy way to point out that Andy D. needs the cupboard to be fully stocked around him or the team won’t be doing much. (Ken Anderson, criminally not in the NFL Hall of Fame, led the team in AV in seven different seasons; Boomer Esiason, Carson Palmer and Jeff Blake did twice each.)

But Dalton is hardly without skills, especially in the pre-snap phase of the game. He has also improved his passing numbers against the blitz, a perennial bugaboo earlier in his career. While he isn’t the type of player to make magic happen out of thin air, when healthy he’s certainly capable enough to win games.

Taylor’s task will be to maximize throwing windows and scheme receivers open in Dalton’s comfort zones. While the preseason offered a heaping tablespoon of vanilla, it was possible to discern parts of the likely approach: heavy bunch formations, vertical routes that work the seams, and of course lots of play-action. Dalton’s numbers when A.J. doesn’t play aren’t great. If Taylor can have his quarterback remain effective while his top target is in rehab, he may just be a coach worth keeping around.

It is a myth that an offense needs to “establish the run” in order to make play-action work, which is good, because Cincinnati’s run blocking is tragicomic. At Football Outsiders we have clearly shown the numbers that indicate play-action works regardless of yards per carry. The Rams used it a ton, and the Bengals were actually quite successful when employing it last year, believe it or not. That’s where the second-round selection of tight end Drew Sample becomes relevant. A tight end who can both block well and threaten in the passing game is key to the sort of variable scheme Taylor (presumably) wants to employ. The surfeit of quality tight ends on the roster, even assuming Tyler Eifert’s annual trip to injured reserve, makes it likely Taylor will use them more often than the Rams did. L.A. stayed in “11” personnel formations (one back, one tight end) more than any team in the NFL over the last two seasons.

The offensive line’s weakness, compounded by left tackle Cordy Glenn’s lingering concussion issues, figures to be a drag regardless of how crafty Taylor’s Xs and Os are. That puts the onus on the defense to improve mightily from last year’s grease fire. The good news is that the D-line is stacked with quality players; the bad news is that they can’t use nine linemen and two defensive backs as a base unit.

The Bengals kept only four linebackers on the initial 53-man roster, which indicates they’re likely to follow league trends and employ six defensive backs more often than not, even in running situations. There is something to that idea, especially against the likes of Lamar Jackson and other mobile quarterbacks or zone-based offensive lines. Mainly, the Bengals need to be able to stop the underneath and seam passing game, which has crippled them in recent years. Without any apparent speed at linebacker (rookie Germaine Pratt has the potential but has thus far been rookie-slow to diagnose plays), Cincinnati will be forced to try matching up with extra DBs, leaving them vulnerable against power running formations, especially with Darqueze Dennard, their best run support corner, hobbled.

Nearly forgotten in the Zac Taylor whirlwind is the fact that the Bengals also have a new mind running the defense. Lou Anarumo was brought aboard late in the hiring process but has a good reputation around the league. He has talent to work with, but the defense is likewise in the fog of uncertainty regarding how the new coach plans to attack. One step in the right direction would be to let corner William Jackson travel with enemy receivers and match up, rather than playing sides as the team did under Lewis. A full season from star-in-the-offing Carl Lawson would help mightily, as will the further development of highly promising players like safety Jessie Bates and lineman Sam Hubbard.

In some ways, I’m reminded of the 2011 season when I assess this year’s squad. That was Year One A.D. (Andy Dalton), coming hard on the heels of Carson Palmer’s “get me outta here” routine. The team was apparently bereft of talent—though it was clear Green was going to be good straight away—with a rookie quarterback and an outlook so grim many forecasters picked the Bengals to go winless.

But those people missed the reboot in the organization, hard-won by Marvin Lewis as his demand for remaining to coach the team. There was much overdue modernization, which was similar to the effect a new coach like Taylor would have. The 2011 Bengals surprised one and all, of course, by going 9-7 and claiming a wild-card berth.

A similar result in 2019 may be the top end of expectations for this bunch, especially with six tough games in the division now rather than four, as we can no longer bank on sweeping Cleveland. Indeed, somehow scraping to nine wins and another first-round playoff loss may hardly feel like an accomplishment, given all that’s transpired in the past. But think of the good things that caromed off of that 2011 campaign. A stunningly strong season in Taylor’s first year can only have positive effects and would really set the team up for something going forward.

Far more realistic, of course, is another year of mediocrity—too talented to truly bottom out, but hardly good enough to threaten the big boys. Which means it would take a trade or something unpredictable to happen in order to draft one of the potential franchise quarterbacks (or left tackles) coming out of college in 2020. Of course, with our history of recent first-rounders, said draftee would just wind up injured anyway…

Injuries will likely determine the final record, as it happens. While we can hope against a recurrence of last year’s 104.9 Adjusted Games Lost (Football Outsiders’ metric to weight the number of games missed by how often the player is used), which was fifth-highest in the NFL, the team’s injury luck has seldom been good. If the Bengals lose more key guys, especially as the season progresses, another high draft pick becomes more and more likely.

On the other hand, the schedule projects to be rather easy, with the caveat that you never know about these things in the NFL. Frightful dates with the Seahawks, Patriots, and Rams (in London) are offset with games against the Cardinals, Niners, Raiders, and Dolphins. The “who knows?” Jets, Bills, and Jags are on there, too, and I find it hard to believe the Bengals will be swept by the Browns again. Cincinnati’s mediocrity may actually look compelling when matched up against some of those crews.

So let’s split the difference and predict a 7-9 season—better than expected by some, perhaps, but also not awful enough to be a laughingstock. Alas, also a fourth consecutive season without a postseason berth.

However the season plays out, I’ll be here on Cincinnati Magazine’s digital pages for analysis, stats, and most likely a joke or three. Look for the column every Wednesday as the season unfolds!

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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