As Etta James once sang, “At laaaaaaassssssttttt.” Yes, the long, long awaited first victory of the Joe Burrow Era finally arrived this past Sunday courtesy of the hapless Jaguars. The 33-25 win was more emphatic than the score indicated. And they did it without either a Geno or an A.J. sighting! Cincinnati is now 1-2-1, which would be good enough to lead the NFC East, a division they unfortunately don’t play in.
If you were one of the 6,000 fans in attendance at PBS, I hope you saved your printed-out piece of paper with the bar code (some things we call “progress” are hardly that) that allowed entry and were properly masked and distanced, for you got to witness history. Some day, let’s hope, when Burrow is getting measured for his yellow Hall of Fame jacket, that mildewy sheet will be worth something. Or if you can somehow get your ancient iPhone working to see the screen that held your digital ticket, that will be a keeper as well.
Incredibly, Cincinnati scored on all of its second half possessions and on seven drives total. The 4/3 field goal/touchdown ratio indicates the work that remains on red zone offense, though not all of those kicks were from inside the 20 (two were). After four games, only the Jets and Giants have a worse percentage of scoring touchdowns on red zone drives. Cincinnati still struggles to convert third downs as well, which of course plays into those four-point swings when they settle for three. But hey, at least Randy Bullock hasn’t missed a kick since his crucial botch against the Chargers!
But we come to praise the stripes, not bury them. Burrow shone once again, with his third straight 300-yard passing performance, the first rookie to ever do so. Of far more importance than the yards accumulated was the surgical precision of his passes and the overall command of the offense. Even when his receivers didn’t get much separation, Burrow threw them open or fit the rock into tiny windows. Were it not for a couple of drops, most significantly the apparent Drew Sample touchdown that was wrestled away as he landed in the end zone, Burrow’s line would have looked even better.
Then there was Joe Mixon. Three touchdowns and 180-plus yards from scrimmage is a helluva day, especially when you spend the night in the hospital, struggling to breathe. Apparently he slept in a funky position that nearly cracked his ribs, so I recommend that Mixon pry into that new contract of his for a Sleep Number bed. Luckily, he wasn’t hugely affected, and the O-line more than held its own against a poor Jags defense. Indeed, we may look back fondly at Sunday as Jonah Williams’ breakout game, for he was tremendous all afternoon, showing athleticism to get to the next level on runs while also displaying good anchor power in pass protection.
If the Bengals can ride the Joe, Joe, and Joe-nah trio (there’s a marketing jingle for you) to respectability in 2020, the team will be set up as we hope for next fall.
Cincinnati has now scored 99 points through four games; they’d be into triple digits but for the OPI/missed FG combo to end the Chargers game or that Sample play last Sunday. It took the 2019 Bengals seven games to crack 100. We should note that the first quarter of the season has been record-setting in terms of offense across the NFL, so factor that in, but even the casual observer can tell that the 2020 Bengals offense is night and day better than last year’s model.
The defense played mostly well Sunday, except for the usual allowance of points before the half. Overall, the trend is pointing in the right direction. The Bengals are just outside the top 10 in points and yards allowed per drive despite not getting much pass rush or turnovers. That number will be sorely tested by this weekend’s opponent, Baltimore, who are 14-point favorites as we speak.
Rookie linebacker Akeem Davis-Gaither spoke for all of us this week when he said he was “sick of watching” the Lamar Jackson highlight run against Cincinnati from last season. The entirety of that game was pretty gross, a 49-13 flaying that highlighted the huge distance between the two rivals. Less remembered was that the first matchup between Cincinnati and Baltimore a month or so earlier was much tighter, a 23-17 final. Granted the Bengals scored with 90 seconds left to close the gap. And, of course, before Lamar arrived to supercharge the Ravens lineup the Bengals dominated this rivalry.
For all the “not that impressive” vibes the Ravens have given off thus far this season, they’re nevertheless the third-ranked team in DVOA (11th on offense, ninth on defense, first in special teams). The Bengals remain the 20th-ranked team overall by that metric, with the expected tumble in defense from last week’s lofty heights of the top 10 due as much to the Jags’ low expectations as to what Jacksonville actually accomplished offensively against the Bengals on Sunday.
One thing to keep in mind as we move past the “shakeout” part of the early season: Cincinnati has, by our measures at Football Outsiders, played the sixth-easiest schedule thus far. Ahead lies the sixth-hardest, mainly thanks to four dates with the Ravens and the Steelers plus an encounter with what’s been the NFL’s best defense after one month, the Colts.
Starting on Sunday, what we all should be looking for is improvement across the board, a team that can stand in there and mix it up with Baltimore and Pittsburgh if not defeat them outright. No one likes to talk about “moral victories,” but there is a method of assessing performance independent of record. NFL executives like to say, “Don’t get caught up in the tyranny of wins and losses,” which runs counter to the famous Bill Parcells line, “You are what your record says you are.” But there’s truth in the former, especially for a team in the rebuilding mode Cincinnati finds itself. They’ve bottomed out, retooled, and now appear to have bounced back some. The all-important question is whether the rebound is genuine or a dead cat bounce, with the team ready to plummet back to a top five draft pick once more.
The answer to that question begins on Sunday. If the final result more closely resembles the first Ravens game from last year rather than the second, that will be reason for optimism despite the L.
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.