Once Again, the Bengals Win by Losing

With Joe Burrow injured, the Bengals season is reduced to jockeying for a top draft pick. Just like last year.

So here we are, right back where we were a year ago at this time, with dueling mindsets as we watch Bengals games. Root for the team to win, or hope for the close loss so as not to worsen the high draft slot? In the moment, I’m always rooting for the W, and my violent outbursts and fist pumps this past Sunday were in the normal ratios. But in the back of my mind, I know that the better outcome in the big picture is a loss.

This dichotomy was encapsulated by a single moment in the game against the Giants. Closing the gap to 19-17 (after roughly 58 minutes of horrid offense), the Bengals forced New York to punt. Alex Erickson, who hasn’t had a decent return in two seasons, at long last broke one. For a fleeting moment it appeared he would actually score or, even better, get deep enough into enemy territory for the Bengals to run down the clock and kick a last-second, game-winning field goal. But Erickson was brought down by a desperation lunge at his heels near midfield.

You know what happened subsequent: Brandon Allen, deemed less terrible than Ryan Finley in getting tabbed to replace Joe Burrow, was strip-sacked on the next play, and Big Blue escaped with a narrow victory. Or should I say, Cincinnati escaped with a narrow defeat.

With a win, the Bengals might have seen its draft position tumble all the way to seventh, a spot that would leave them unable to get a crack at Penei Sewell and have a knock-on effect for the other rounds as well. Sure, there are times when this winds up counterintuitively working in a team’s favor, but at this point I’ll take the third pick, thanks. A dramatic victory over the Giants would have felt nice, allowing this native New Yorker an opportunity for a bit of (unearned, but whatever) smack talk to the G-men fans back home. But come April, and more importantly next September and beyond, we’d be ruing the loss of Sewell and/or whatever other impact players might come as a result of the meaningless win.

I’m not breaking any new ground here, merely stewing in the fact that, because of one single instant in Washington D.C., it’s Groundhog Day in Cincinnati. At least in 2019 the prize at stake was a franchise QB. Now we just have to hope we can get a moose to help keep Burrow upright and continuing to fulfill the promise he displayed all too briefly.

Will Burrow be playing for Zac Taylor when he returns to the field? Last Sunday’s loss dropped ZT to a gruesome 4-22-1 record since taking over as head coach, with related stories of player unrest and questions about his staff. Forget Dave Shula and Dick LeBeau, the icons of Cincinnati head coaching ineptitude—Taylor is down in the depths of all-time worst starts to a coaching career. It isn’t completely impossible to fight back from a terrible start (did you know Tom Landry was 4-20-3 in his first 27 games?), but it isn’t statistically likely either. Presuming five more losses to conclude the year, that would leave Taylor at 4-27-1, scarcely better than the 1-31 record turned in by Hue Jackson in Cleveland that Bengals fans love to mock.

Taylor clearly isn’t Hue or Shula or Freddie Kitchens, though. He’s seldom been badly overmatched and has actually done plenty of good things on the sideline, virtually all of which has been undone by his horrific record in close games and on the road, where he’s still seeking his first victory. Sunday was a good microcosm of the Taylor Era: In a winnable game against a bad team, the Bengals were the ones making the critical mistakes. Two more critical fourth-quarter turnovers (giving Cincinnati seven on the season; only the Broncos have more) gave the game away.

Brief aside. Drew Sample was responsible for the first turnover, coughing up the ball after a reception. He’s had a decent enough season blocking, but let’s face it, his signature plays this season are Sunday’s fumble and having Myles Jack rip the ball out of his clutches to turn a touchdown into an interception. This is the fella everyone told us was poised for a big leap in Year 2, and it hasn’t happened.

Sunday’s game left me wondering, and not for the first time, what would have happened if special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons had been hired to the big job. It’s impossible to know about the CEO aspects of the gig, but in terms of actual game prep, Simmons continues to be one of the top overall coordinators in the NFL. The Bengals almost stole the game Sunday in the third phase, with Brandon Wilson providing the long kick return for a TD, the fake punt run by Shawn Williams, Erickson’s punt runback, etc. That it came against a special teams coach who took a head coaching job (Joe Judge of the Giants) made it all the more impressive.

I’ve long nurtured a (small, but growing) worry about head coaches who call plays—on either side of the ball—lacking the overall perspective necessary to see the big picture. Taylor has ceded complete control of the defense to the shaky mitts of Lou Anarumo while throwing himself entirely into boosting the offense. Simmons, or any coach who divorces himself from the play-to-play emotions of game day, has the 10,000-foot view of the game and the team perpetually in mind.

And it’s certainly fair to wonder why, after stipulating that any offense lacking its franchise quarterback will struggle somewhat, the Bengals offense—with a supposed offensive wunderkind as head coach—was so godawful without Burrow. Cincinnati actually had 50 more return yards than yards from scrimmage against the Giants, seldom a good sign. And that’s including the Shaun Williams fake punt run in the scrimmage category. QB Allen, unsurprisingly, was indistinguishable in the main from Finley. Another priority for 2021 should be acquiring a better backup.

So now the final Sundays of this most horrible year are reduced to hoping some other teams—Dallas, Philly, L.A. Chargers—win a few games and isolate Cincinnati in the three hole for Draft Day. Jacksonville screwed us doubly on Sunday by not only losing in close fashion but doing so to the hated Browns. The Bengals have a far stronger strength of schedule compared to most of the other weak sisters in the league, and the Eagles tie looms as a non-loss that could haunt Cincinnati in the draft order. So it behooves the team to remove any suspense and lose out, hard as that is to countenance.

It stinks that this is what we have to concentrate on over the final month of the season, but it gets worse. Once the 2020 campaign is over, we’ll be reduced to many months of obsessing over the current status of Burrow’s knee rehab. That’s going to make this painful period seem edenic by comparison.

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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