Our Cincinnati Bengals and new head coach Zac Taylor finally won a game last Sunday. After a franchise-worst 0-11 record to start the season, the team got off the schneid, beating the New York Jets 22-6. Cue the Hallelujah chorus. Thank goodness for the Jets, who also lost to the winless (at the time) Dolphins earlier this season and once upon a time became the first team to ever lose to the expansion Tampa Bay Bucs, after that squad lost the first 26 games it played in the NFL. If the season truly doesn’t start until after Thanksgiving, as Bill Belichick (and before him Bill Parcells) always says, then the Bengals are undefeated, baby!
And give it up for Andy D! Our man Dalton came off the bench to earn not only the crucial win that prevents the ignominy of a winless season—which clearly no one wanted—but also a couple of franchise career records (most TD passes and completions) and a well-earned game ball. If it was his last big moment in stripes, it was a dandy, even in a lost campaign.
I was more impressed with the defense, of course. Suddenly, they’re as sharp as they have been in years. Going back to the Raiders game, the unit has allowed a single touchdown in the last 10 quarters: the fluke duck from Duck Devlin Hodges that, thanks to a couple of epic pratfalls by Bengals defensive backs, turned into a long TD pass. Otherwise, it’s been nada, and just 29 points total over the last three games. Granted, the Raiders, the banged-up Steelers, and the Jets don’t pose the same threat that Lamar Jackson does, for example, but it’s unquestioned progress for a team that was at the league bottom in virtually every defensive category (save red zone defense, where Cincinnati is third-stingiest in the NFL). And these same Jets had scored 34 points in each of their previous three games, as hot as any team going before they made the mistake of wandering into the Jungle on Sunday.
Give some credit to embattled defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo for the improvement. As we all know, he wasn’t hired until seemingly five minutes before opening kickoff, so in fairness it’s been a ton of learning on the fly this season. The Preston Brown debacle was indicative—clearly Anarumo didn’t think much of him, given that Brown was jettisoned a couple of weeks ago, but he’d already been given a contract by the clueless front office so there wasn’t much choice but to play him.
Brown’s removal from the premises has freed up Nick Vigil to play vastly superior football the last few weeks. Whether it’s something in particular that scheme-wise he’s being allowed to do now or just the knowledge that he doesn’t have to cover for Brown’s inadequacies, I’m not sure, but Vigil and rookie Germaine Pratt look much improved. The linebacking unit is still in dire need of upgrade and depth, but there was clearly some addition by subtraction. Darqueze Dennard has played well since his return from injury, and ditto Carl Lawson—his presence on the field changes so much about the defense it’s really a shame he can’t stay healthy.
Anarumo also used some interesting blitz packages Sunday that frazzled Sam Darnold, making him—dare I say?—see ghosts out there. Safety Jessie Bates came off the edge at least twice, his first blitzes of the season that I can recall. End Sam Hubbard was used as a standup middle linebacker before twisting around the likes of Carlos Dunlap, who demolished New York right tackle Kelvin Beachum all day (Los was credited with an insane 11 pressures to go with his three sacks). Andrew Brown was used to good effect, worsening Beachum’s day by forcing a holding penalty in the end zone that became a safety.
Of course, the reason the defense’s superb efforts of late haven’t resulted in a winning streak was due to Ryan Finley playing quarterback. As I mentioned last week, if Andy Dalton had been under center in either of the last two games there’s little doubt the Bengals would have won them, as proven by Sunday’s game, when Red played decent enough to get the team in the W column. He wasn’t spectacular, though the TD pass he tossed to Tyler Boyd was a thing of beauty, a rope into a tight window. But that’s what AD gives you: When the defense and special teams are dominant, he’ll get you enough points to win.
There was a ton of “See, Dalton wasn’t the problem!” on social media Sunday, a classic case of missing the point, which commenters in that forum do so well. We all know Dalton is better than the likes of A.J. McCarron, Josh Jackson, Jeff Driskel, or any of the backup quarterbacks who have been in Cincinnati during his career. He’s better than many starters across the league in his time, too. But he wasn’t turning this particular team into anything other than another less-than-mediocre bunch. So why not ascertain what Finley could do? As it turns out, Dalton is better than him, too, which is hardly a shock. But thanks to the Finley experiment, Cincinnati remains in a spot to massively upgrade at the sport’s most important position.
Miami and Washington did us a favor by winning on Sunday as well. Suddenly, the team jeopardizing our top overall pick status is the Giants. Even if Cincinnati should slide past them in the season’s final furlong, Big Blue would almost certainly draft Chase Young and not a QB with the No. 1 pick, given they took Daniel Jones No. 6 overall last spring and their GM, Dave Gettleman, has his job and reputation firmly on the line with this upcoming pick. So the only risk would be another team dealing up to grab their QB of choice ahead of Cincinnati. But that’s a fear for another day.
Meanwhile, because Dalton sat for those three weeks, we aren’t looking at drafting somewhere in the 6-9 hellhole once again. That single move alone could wind up being the proximate cause of a bounce back toward playoff caliber football on the banks of the Ohio in seasons to come. It would be Red’s largest contribution in many a year, and it came by not playing.
Irony can be pretty ironic sometimes.
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.