Just when the garbage fire that was the Bengals 2020 season glowed with a faint hint of optimism, after a couple of meaningless but nevertheless feel-good wins, a river of gasoline was poured onto the flames last weekend. The finale was another butt-whipping at the hands of the Ravens, who have reeled off five straight wins against the team that spent most of the past decade handling them.
The last three losses to Baltimore have been fugly: 49-13, 27-3, and then 38-3 this past Sunday. The lads in purple rolled up unholy numbers on the ground, even by the new standard set since Lamar Jackson joined the team and the Bengals stopped tackling. The Ravens rushed for 404 yards, setting a franchise record and narrowly missing an all-time mark.
Meanwhile, Brandon Allen, who had a memorable day throwing against the porous Texans defense the week before, struggled mightily against the real thing, posting a 0.0 quarterback rating. A.J. Green spent what was most likely his final game in stripes watching balls force-fed to him get knocked down or intercepted. For a guy who spent his career torching the Ravens, it was a sad ending. And just to cap things off, center Trey Hopkins, one of Cincinnati’s few reliable offensive linemen, tore his ACL and will certainly be affected for the beginning of next season, at the very least.
In every way, it was a Sunday to forget. But was it enough to re-re-evaluate Zac Taylor’s status as head coach?
Clearly not as far as the Bengals are concerned. On Black Monday, team owner Mike Brown put out a statement reading, “The Zac Attack Is Back, Jack!” or words to that effect. Taylor, despite his 6-25-1 record, would be back on the sideline for Year 3. It had been a fait accompli since the Pittsburgh win on Monday Night Football and was most likely always the case. But the downer against the Ravens put Taylor’s return back in question, at least in theory.
At least some changes were mandatory, however, namely the firing of the favorite whipping boy of the masses, O-line coach Jim Turner. We’ve gone over Turner’s shortcomings seemingly weekly since his hiring, which even at the time seemed wrongheaded, especially with Bill Callahan supposedly ticketed for the spot. Someone had to take the fall for the beating Joe Burrow took, culminating in the season-ending injury. Even had Burrow made it through the season without needing surgery, Turner needed to go, given his horrific people skills.
A handful of other, far less prominent assistants are to be relieved of duty, but the two coordinators, Brian Callahan and Lou Anarumo (plus of course the staff’s best coach, special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons), will apparently return next season, at least according to unofficial reports. Anarumo in particular is a controversial choice, especially given Sunday’s debacle. Yes, there were multiple injuries to deal with, and Anarumo did have some moments of fine work this season, one in which few teams actually played much consistent defense. But the unit finished 27th in defensive DVOA (up from 30th in 2019!), and far too often was overrun. In the end, Anarumo might well have kept his gig partly due to the fact that few other candidates would find the job particularly attractive.
Cincinnati’s six wins are the fewest in the NFL in the two-year period that ended Sunday. Adam Gase, the codeword for coaching futility over the past couple of seasons, was just fired by the Jets, as expected—and he won nine games over the same span. Even Jacksonville, fresh off losing 15 consecutive games, won more than the Bengals (seven).
In this case, victories are not the be all end all. Even had Taylor won a few more games over the past couple of seasons, the same issues regarding his continued employment on the sideline would still apply. Indeed, it’s fair to ask what can be expected to change next season.
Obviously, there is one big reason for optimism on that front: Joseph Burrow. If the status of his knee injury will keep us all worried for the next six to 24 months, the long-term outlook for his play is certainly rosy. Indeed, his vote of confidence in Taylor, issued via Twitter on Monday, likely held more weight with the front office decision makers than anyone else’s, perhaps even Brown.
The “other guys” on the team were solidly in Taylor’s corner, too, sounding off in a monolithic vote of approval that almost made you forget all the veterans, like Carlos Dunlap, who led a midseason revolt at their treatment. Certainly, there are things about Taylor to like, and obviously Burrow’s absence changed what seemed like an upward trajectory that would have completely rearranged the narrative.
At the end of the day, given the patience and cheapness and loyalty Brown is legendary/infamous for, only a complete disaster would have resulted in Taylor’s firing after two seasons. What has transpired has bordered on that, and many fans might justifiably consider it as such.
The rope is short for next year, regardless. That might well put undue pressure on Taylor and the team to rush Burrow back ASAP, given the importance for them to try and put some numbers in the “W” column. Needless to say, that will be a talking point going into and continuing on through the first month or so of 2021, or until Burrow is clearly back to being the Tiger King we know and love.
Another difficulty moving forward is the fact that all three AFC North rivals made the playoffs, with Cleveland doing so after a swift reckoning with a bad coaching hire—or, to be more precise, the most recent bad coaching hire. After a massive underwhelm under Freddie Kitchens, the Browns chucked him aside after just one season (in which he won as many games as Taylor won over two seasons), hired a well-respected coordinator in Kevin Stefanski to take over, and had their best campaign since the franchise’s return to Ohio. Miami, which aggressively dealt assets for draft capital, just missed out on a playoff berth after a Bengals-like start to 2019 as well.
Swift turnarounds are what the NFL is all about, at least in most provinces of the league. The key pieces are head coach and quarterback. At this time last year, optimism in Cincinnati about both of those spots was far greater than it is today. In other words, it’s going to be a long offseason.
Next week, we’ll break down what the Bengals might and should do over the next few months to make a turnaround happen.
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. Follow him on Twitter at @robwein.