Sunday’s game between Cincinnati and the Arizona Cardinals was all tied up at 23 with two minutes to play, after the Bengals had pulled off an unlikely comeback, scoring two touchdowns in the fourth quarter after going nearly eight quarters without cracking paydirt. Cards rookie quarterback Kyler Murray led his team on to the field. The Bengals crowd—what was left of it, anyway—was making a nice racket. Winning time had arrived. The question that ran through my mind was: Who am I rooting for here?
In most other situations, I’d have been snatched up by the bishop and burned at the stake for heresy for entertaining such a thought. Of course I want the Bengals to win. And yet I found myself already thinking ahead to next year’s draft and wanting to pick ahead of the Cardinals, meaning I should be rooting for a defeat. So when Murray threw a 24-yard, pretty-as-a-sunset lob down the sideline, then burst up a giant chasm in the Cincinnati D for another 24 yards to cinch the game-winning field goal, I wasn’t exactly heartbroken.
This line of thinking, of course, is full of holes. At no point should I actively want the Bengals to lose, draft position be damned. A first win for head coach Zac Taylor, after all the close calls, would be nice, changing the national narrative about the Bengals being on a par with the other dysfunctional messes in Washington, Miami and New York. Arizona, as we saw firsthand, already has its quarterback, so getting ahead of them in the draft doesn’t matter greatly in the end. The Bengals will no doubt foul up the draft regardless of where they pick. The 2021 draft is the one to be eying anyway, with Trevor Lawrence and Justin Fields. And on and on.
Such is the defeatism and apathy of BengalsNation in these dark days.
Murray is just the latest in a long line of running quarterbacks to make great hay on Cincinnati’s defense; anyone remember Kevin Hogan and his 104 yards rushing in relief for the Browns a couple of years back? And with Lamar Jackson on tap twice in four games, it doesn’t figure to improve. Even Gardner Minshew of Jacksonville, the opponent in two weeks, has shown more improvisational genius in a few games than Andy Dalton has shown in his career.
The difference between watching mobile quarterbacks extend plays and make things happen when primary reads are unavailable, as Murray did often on Sunday, and watching Dalton crumble at the first sign of abuse is stark. The utter lack of pressure on Murray was partially due to the respect Cincinnati’s defensive front needed to show for his ability to escape. The league demands a QB who can maneuver in and out of the pocket and turn chicken salad into that spicy chicken sandwich from Popeyes no one can get. The Bengals are at a handicap in this department and compound matters by asking Dalton to do things like run that hideous fourth-and-one play straight into a stacked front.
What has truly killed the Bengals all year is red zone proficiency—or, rather, the glaring lack of it. We talk here all the time about “four-point plays,” NFL-ese for those moments that determine whether you get a touchdown or settle for a field goal. On Sunday, obviously, the Bengals came up a cropper on those four-point plays, with Auden Tate dropping a potential score on Cincinnati’s first possession of the game and a false start and missed connection with Tyler Eifert ruining a strong drive at the beginning of the second half. Punch in those opportunities, and the game looks far different.
The Bengals have scored on a mere 28.6% of their drives into the prime real estate so far this season. That’s good for 31st in the league, ahead of only the hapless Dolphins. Cincinnati’s failures in the red zone have led directly to two losses, and even the Steelers game would have been much different if the Striped Crew could have taken advantage of their opportunities.
What’s particularly maddening is that, if there was one thing Cincinnati did well last year, it was score in the red zone. They got seven, not three, on 71.1% of their chances in 2018, trailing just the high-powered Chiefs and Steelers. The fact that the Bengals brought in a supposed offensive guru as head coach and yet have been singularly unable to score touchdowns is less than ideal.
If we want to find some good players from Sunday to highlight, there is Tyler Boyd, of course, who stood out even though the only other receivers available were practice squad call-ups. The offensive line actually had some moments in the run game for once, though as the game wore on that disappeared, hindered by Michael Jordan getting increasingly outmatched. Whipping boy Dre Kirkpatrick played well, even in the tackling phase of the game, where he usually struggles mightily.
In the blind grasp for optimism, there is also the fact that this is the third game in five that the Bengals could easily have won, those losses coming by a total of eight points. Win even two of them, and the narrative would be much different; heck, the Bengals would be playing for first place this weekend against the Ravens! The fact that the AFC North is so lousy is a double-edged sword. Sure, it’s great that our rivals are also struggling, but that highlights how easily the division could be taken this season if it truly was a New Dey.
Right now the Bengals remain caught in between feeling that they’re closer to competing than their record indicates, due to those close games and the injury factor, and the harsh reality that a total teardown and subsequent trade of A.J. Green, Geno Atkins and any other piece that would earn a draft pick are necessary. The team isn’t just bad—it’s blah. They aren’t even comically awful like the Jets or the Dolphins. They’re just spinning their wheels and falling further behind any opportunity for an actual bounce back year in 2020 or, more realistically, 2021.
Winning the draft lottery with a top-flight quarterback would ease a lot of ills, but this is the Bengals we are talking about. They aren’t a lucky bunch.
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.