The Bengals’ Season Opener Was a Pleasant Surprise

A loss is still a loss, but a new emotion is sweeping through Cincinnati fans this week: optimism.
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Well, I feel a bit better about things, don’t you? Indeed, the fact that I was sizzlingly angry that the Bengals lost to Seattle last Sunday 21-20 despite dominating the game came as a welcome surprise. The only emotion I can recall for large chunks of the last three seasons has been fatalist defeatism. I was actually happy I could get so upset over a narrow Bengals defeat once more.

 

First and foremost, it would appear that the great mystery clouding the new head coach, Zac Taylor, has been cleared. He knows what he’s doing. The team had a plan, executed it (mainly) well, and appeared sharp and ready to play, taking it to a team that were 10-point home favorites. Just noting that Andy Dalton threw for a career-high 418 yards in Taylor’s first outing says it all, not necessarily for the schematic design that racked up so many yards but for the methodology behind it. Running the ball at Seattle’s stacked fronts was clearly folly, yet that’s precisely what the Bengals would have done under Marvin Lewis in a misguided attempt to “establish the run.”

Taylor quickly realized the only plays that would work were passes, and he essentially chucked the run, calling for 51 throws. Despite that, as we talked about in my season preview column last week, the Bengals still used play-action on one-third of their snaps and were effective doing so. Presumably, the team would have used it even more often, but circumstances didn’t allow.

Meanwhile, John Ross is alive! He racked up 158 yards on seven catches and two long scores that put the Bengals ahead at halftime. Prior to the second bomb, Ross had a brutal drop on a crossing pattern that he might have taken to the house. Under Lewis, he would have been yanked and perhaps shot. Taylor went right back to Ross, however, and was rewarded with a stunning score and a wideout with a newly confident mindset.

By calling timeouts near the end of the first half to save time for another possession and being aggressive in trying to get more points in that situation, Taylor proved a welcome change from the far more conservative Lewis. Playing a game in such an unfriendly venue made Marvin clench his bowels tight enough to poop carbon, unwilling to risk disaster for the possibility of actually winning. Taylor, by contrast, seems to realize that the only way to win games like that is to go all out for opportunities when they present themselves.

Of course, that doesn’t mean it always works. Cincinnati’s generational tendency for self-inflicted harm reared its head in the second half, when Dalton fumbled a slick ball, Randy Bullock blew a makeable field goal, and Gio Bernard was stuffed on fourth down on one of the few runs the team attempted. (Joe Mixon’s ankle injury was a factor, it should be mentioned.) The Bengals repeatedly had the ball in Seahawks terrain in the second half yet managed just three points after a halftime, a reminder of the Lewis era that hopefully will be the next thing to change. Throw in a blown coverage on Seattle’s winning touchdown pass and poor tackling on the third and short run that essentially sealed the game for the Seahawks, and there were plenty of Not So New Dey happenings for Taylor to take to the meeting rooms and tell his squad that there remains plenty of room for improvement.

Taylor also pulled back on some of the balls-out approach that worked in the first half, especially after monsoon rains appeared in the Pacific Northwest sky. Once Dalton lost the ball on that unforced error, it felt like the conditions were in the coach’s head. Then there was the decision to punt with 3:30 left. Yes, it was 4th and 7, not an easy ask, and with Kevin Huber punting it well (one of his best games in several years, by the way) you can understand the “pin ’em deep and get it back” strategy. But passing the ball was what the Bengals did best all game, even if they’d squashed Seattle’s running game up to that point (nearly half the Seahawk drives were three and outs, until the most important one). Going for it would have sent a crucial message to the team: We believe in the offense, and we’re going to attack. Short term and long term, Taylor would have been better served by risking it at that point.

But today feels like a time for optimism. Consider last year’s opener, when the Bengals found a way to pull out a late victory in Indianapolis. That felt like fool’s gold, a stolen win that allowed the team (and the fans) to overlook the myriad issues that were as plain as day. By contrast, even in defeat, the strong play of the defensive line and the better-than-expected work by the offensive line (still very much a work in progress but not as disastrous as feared), along with the aforementioned passing attack, felt like the Bengals are in a far stronger position to compete than anyone believed before the team got on the long flight west.

Now the 49ers hop on a long flight themselves, served up for Cincinnati’s home opener on Sunday. The Niners were gifted a win Sunday thanks to the awful play of Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston. San Francisco was horrid offensively, averaging 4.3 yards per play (by contrast the Bengals averaged 6.1). The Bucs sliced them up for 4.7 yards per carry as well, meaning the status of Mixon’s ankle will be key—right now he’s day to day, though the usual bad news that happens when a Bengal limps off the field can come at any moment. Head coach Kyle Shanahan can scheme anyone into the turf, but the Niners’ offensive personnel don’t quite allow him to maximize his strategems. The Bengals have a chance to win on talent alone, but it would be nice if Taylor continues to put his offense in the best possible position once again.

Of course, Week 1 seldom is representative of a full season, so the best approach to Sunday is heavily guarded optimism. Still, there is optimism at least, and that’s something few of us had at this time last week.

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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