Thanks for Nothing, Bengals

A winnable game against the Steelers’ scrubs drops Cincinnati to 0-11. Will Andy Dalton’s return as starting QB spark at least one W?
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I really, really wanted the Bengals to win last Sunday. I know, that’s counter-productive. Dumb, even. Cincinnati shouldn’t be taking any chances with the No. 1 pick in next year’s draft. Winning a meaningless game in November when you’re already 0-10 won’t help the future cause.

 

But I disagree. We need a win, badly. A 1-15 season, while an excruciating nightmare, ain’t 0-16, especially if the one win comes against the Steelers. Washington actually managed to win Sunday, so there was a cushion in place for getting that elusive first victory and still picking first. We’d already lost nine straight to the goddamn black and gold. Enough already.

Forgetting my feelings, which is hard to do, the team itself desperately needed something, anything to feel good about. Zac Taylor needed to show he can do something besides stand stoically on the sideline. The players needed to show they can do something in the fourth quarter of games that actually leads to winning. There needed to be a happy locker room for one frickin’ Sunday. Going winless is an infamy that a team can recover from rather quickly, as the Browns have shown—but it’s a stain the players and coaches will always have on their resume, and something we’ll never live down as fans.

And it was right there for the taking! Pittsburgh didn’t have anything going for it. Mason Rudolph was impossibly bad, perhaps still felling the effects of getting smashed over the head with his own helmet by Myles Garrett. James Conner and JuJu Smith-Schuster were also out. I follow the sport pretty closely, and I had never heard of many of the skill guys the Steelers were running out there. It was the rare occasion where Cincinnati had a talent advantage over Pittsburgh, at least at certain positions.

But alas, not at quarterback, where Ryan Finley was godawful. Granted, the Steelers’ defense tends to make quarterbacks look bad, especially ours, but any semblance of decent play from Finley would have resulted in an easy W. He completed a pair of jump balls to Tyler Boyd, who made sensational catches to give Cincinnati the lead at 7-3. That was about it. He displayed poor pocket presence and zero ball security, and his noodle arm frightfully constricts the offense.

Honestly, just those two catches by Boyd would have been enough had Rudolph stayed in the game. Instead, Mike Tomlin wisely yanked his starter and put in “Duck” Devlin Hodges, the Pittsburgh equivalent of Jake Dolegala, except of course we won’t ever use him. Duck mainly threw ducks, but because the Bengals exist to provide folk-hero moments for players who are otherwise nonentities, he managed one good play.

Even that pass was a duck, a wobbler that William Jackson inexplicably settled under like a punt, allowing James Washington to streak under him, make the catch and take off. Jackson compounded the mistake by taking a header instead of making the tackle. It still should have been only a decent gainer instead of the game-changing 79-yard touchdown, but B.W. Webb turned in a display that if I didn’t know better would make me think he was throwing the game on purpose. Webb allowed himself to get stiff-armed backwards about five yards, then tripped over his own feet and fell as well. Washington strolled into the end zone with just the latest back-breaking bomb the team has allowed to Pittsburgh over the years.

This one was right up there with all the disastrous, embarrassing, ugly moments in the history of Steelers-Bengals games, and boy there have been some doozies. Even Boyd’s critical late-game fumble was incredibly Bengal-esque. Having beaten Devin Bush, Boyd was racing inside the 10. Bush desperately flailed for a punch out with his right arm, only to miss the ball and hit Boyd in the, uh, groin area. But his left arm blindly nicked the loosely held ball, and of course Boyd coughed it up. Cincinnati never threatened again and lost its 11th game of the year. It’s now officially the worst start to a season in franchise history, and that’s saying something.

So now the team is switching quarterbacks again. Andy D. is back, baby! In the big picture, the switch makes little sense. Dalton would certainly have won the last two games had he started, and may well pull out one or more of the remaining five (two with the Browns, Sunday’s game with the visiting Jets, Christmas in Miami, and a certain slaughter by the Patriots). Don’t jeopardize the first overall pick, not to mention the top selections in rounds 2-7, which will be crucially important in rebuilding. Going to Dolegala actually makes more sense from that perspective—he can’t be worse than Finley, and maybe he puts up something positive that makes him a commodity worth keeping or trading.

But the fans, and I include myself as well as the Brown family members that are slamming this plane into the ground, are desperate for a win. And as I said earlier, I get that, fully. Can we play Dalton, win a game, and then go to Dolegala? That would actually make the most sense. Clearly, this wasn’t a Zac Taylor decision—he said multiple times that three games aren’t enough to evaluate a young quarterback. Although, in this case, I think it just might be.

Finley’s implosion allows us to update the status of the team’s 2019 draft:

Round 1: Injured, missed the season.
2: Reach who couldn’t really do the one thing he was supposed to do well, now hurt.
3: Decent enough.
4.1: Can’t play.
4.2: Fine in tiny sample.
4.3: Can’t play.
6.1: Injured, missed most of the season.
6.2: Cut.
6.3: Injured, missed the season.
7: With the Jags.

Yikes. Makes you wonder whether tanking for that first pick is worth it, doesn’t it? Especially when I remain unconvinced that Joe Burrow is a slam-dunk at No. 1. I’m not one of these Chase Young truther-types, mind you. You don’t draft a defensive end when you have a shot at a franchise quarterback, period, the end. I don’t care if Reggie White or Deacon Jones is available; you don’t do it.

Look at the Browns, who took Garrett first overall in 2017 and left DeShaun Watson and Pat Mahomes on the board. They went 0-16. Garrett, when not losing his mind, is a tremendous player—if anything he was more of a sure-fire prospect than Young coming out. But it wasn’t until the Browns went through another agonizing season and drafted Baker Mayfield first overall that the team began to rise from the ashes.

Can Burrow do that for Cincinnati? His game against Arkansas last Saturday was typical for him: Insanely efficient and hyper-accurate, yet he underthrew some deep balls that left me concerned. Burrow simply doesn’t have the arm strength one would like to see in a first overall pick. More to the point is that the aerial system installed by Joe Brady at LSU has receivers wearing purple, gold and white running free all over the secondary. Burrow is doing a fantastic job hitting them in stride, make no mistake. But I fret that when he won’t have those gigantic windows at the next level, he won’t look quite as good.

Can we get Brady to come with Burrow? That would be the hire of a forward-looking team, so of course it won’t happen here.

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.

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