The Dull Pain of Ugly Bengals Football

Neither the refs nor the national media cut Cincinnati any slack in a lackluster loss to Miami.

I suppose it was generous of Cincinnati’s and Miami’s NFL teams to provide fans with a hockey-style series of cheap shots, nose-to-nose battles, and all-out brannigans to at least keep us all from snoozing away on the couch this past Sunday. Sadly, even that didn’t really work; despite the five ejections and goonish behavior by Dolphins players and coaches, the Bengals’ 19-7 loss was nevertheless an achingly dull encounter. What at one point promised to be an exciting duel between highly drafted rookie quarterbacks was instead another abject failure by Cincinnati to play two-way football.

A brief word on the extracurricular nonsense that went on at Hard Rock Stadium. I don’t think I’m being partisan when I say the Tyler Boyd ejection and resulting penalty were totally absurd, and yet in complete keeping with the way this season has gone. Somehow, the net result of Boyd getting hit from behind while out of bounds and taking exception to it was a dual ejection, while only the Bengals got hit with a 15-yard penalty. The predictable ensuing missed field goal meant that instead of taking a 10-3 or even a 14-3 lead into halftime, Cincinnati led 7-6, and anyone who has watched this team for any length of time knew what was coming next.

Meanwhile, the tired, classic narrative “The Bengals are always out of control!” kicked into gear after Brian Flores lost his mind and led his team out onto the field to challenge Cincinnati’s sideline. Michael Thomas’ two personal fouls hardly rose to the level of your garden variety Steelers cheap shot—the first wasn’t a penalty at all, and the second simply a bang-bang play by a gunner coming in a bit too soon. A Bengals trainer attempting to attend to an injured player was punched by a Dolphins player in the melee, but the only thing anyone wanted to talk about was how badass Flores was in “sticking up for his guys.” Of course, he wasn’t penalized either. It just gets so old.

Meanwhile, if you throw out the butt-kicking by Pittsburgh, the Bengals have—somewhat shockingly, given the injuries and personnel limitations—held their opponents to 20 points or fewer in four of the past five games. Certainly the defensive unit, despite remaining flawed in various ways, has played well enough to win over the last month. While DC Lou Anarumo takes potshots from critics after every completed pass against his defense, he’s done a pretty good job keeping opponents off the scoreboard with virtually no pass rush, a poor group of tacklers, and scarcely any healthy cornerbacks.

It throws into relief what might have been if Joe Burrow were still out there slinging darts instead of lying in a post-op ward. I feel pretty confident that Cincinnati would have won each of the last three ballgames and would be staring a .500 record in the face with the highly beatable Cowboys (welcome old pal Andy Dalton!) coming to town this weekend. Alas. Instead, another mixed emotion Sunday is on tap, as the two teams will be trying to win while keeping an eye on the 2021 draft order.

Even as Cincinnati was going down to Miami, that part of the weekly calculation got quite exciting for a while, as both the Jets and Jaguars—battling the Bengals for the top draft pick—threatened to win. The Jets, a franchise even more tragicomic than the Bengals, lost when they called an all-out blitz with seconds to play. The culprit behind this insanity, defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, was fired on Monday in an act of accountability I think would be welcome in BengalsLand these days.

It would be hard for the Bengals to get past New York in the draft, but they could already be in the No. 2 spot had Jacksonville converted a 2-point conversion against Cleveland or not blown a lead and lost in overtime to the Vikings. While of course no one actually wants to be the worst team in football after the Jets, who generally seem to be playing a different sport altogether, getting into that second position would allow the Bengals to command tremendous value in a trade with any team that wants to secure a quarterback like Justin Fields. A trade down to accumulate a bounty of extra draft capital and still grabbing an elite offensive tackle would kinda/sorta make this season’s hell worth living through.

Seems like the 2015 playoff meltdown against the hated Steelers was only yesterday; in fact, it’s been almost five long years since the last time Cincinnati played in the postseason. Sunday’s loss officially eliminated the Bengals from the playoffs; I know you were thinking there was still a chance. The good news is that there were two other five-year droughts from Bengals history, 1976-80 and 1983-87, that resulted in a Super Bowl run in that sixth season.

The 1980 Bengals were just generically bad (though they did manage to sweep Pittsburgh that year, believe it or not), but the 1987 Bengals maintain some superficial similarity to the 2020 hot mess. That year was bizarre, like this COVID-hampered campaign, due to a player’s strike making a mockery of the season when scabs were brought in to replace the union rank and file. The resulting politics bitterly split the Bengals locker room, which in a backhanded way laid the foundation, thanks to some excellent culture-building by then-HC Sam Wyche, for the great ’88 season in response. If you want to read more, check out this account from yours truly.

Is anything like that replicable in 2021? Will Zac Taylor even be the guy allowed to attempt a Wyche-like rebuild from within? So far it’s fair to say his “culture,” which Taylor stresses at every available opportunity, has curdled like weeks-old yogurt.

Those Bengals had the great Boomer Esiason at QB, and the ’21 edition will presumably have a less experienced but potentially more talented Burrow at the helm (fingers crossed). The key difference, of course, is that the ’88 Bengals had one of the all-time great offensive lines; next year’s Bengals, regardless of potential off-season improvement, will almost certainly not.

Nevertheless, all we really have to cling to in these dark days are statistical oddities that provide a glimmer of hope. So let’s all summon 1987, please!

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 four books, including his newest, “The Divine Miss Marble” from Penguin Random House. You can follow him on Twitter at @robwein.

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