Well, we made it. Ordinarily, the NFL offseason feels like it lasts an eternity; this COVID-infested spring and summer has made it more like the geologic time used to track continental drift. We didn’t even get the mini-distractions of OTAs and full training camp and preseason games. Just the occasional scrap of practice video shot from a few hundred yards away or slowed into incoherence by the tech department.
As such, the 2020 Cincinnati Bengals are an incredibly unknown entity, even before taking into account all the new faces, starting of course with quarterback Joe Burrow (newly named a team captain, as if there was any doubt). Burrow has never thrown a 10-yard out to A.J. Green, nor taken a hit from an NFL defender (even in practice). This group of linebackers hasn’t tried to lasso Lamar Jackson or even teammates in practice, given the lack of tackling due to COVID. Head coach Zac Taylor has yet to design a game plan with either Burrow or Green involved. There is so much uncertainty that previewing the season is something of a fool’s errand.
Fortunately, I am just that fool! (Or, to quote Romeo, “I am fortune’s fool!”) Rather than do the “loss, win, win, loss, loss” game-by-game stab in the dark so many others do—and I don’t blame them, because they’re popular and I read them all—I figured I’d break this into two sections, what the analytics predict and what I, your humble prognosticator, believes will happen.
First, the numbers. Over at Football Outsiders we play the season out exactly one million times in order to find a reasonable average result range for every team. For 2020 we found the mean projection for the Bengals to be 6.7 wins, or, in essence, a 7-9 season. This would square with a couple of factors: the improvement at quarterback, even with a rookie at the helm, and the extremely low probability of Cincinnati losing all seven of their one-score games as they did last season (a futility matched by only three other teams since 1989). Just based on what we call the “Plexiglass Principle,” which holds that seriously bad (or good) statistical outliers tend to rebound toward the middle the following season, the Bengals are likely to improve by four or five wins.
The overall efficiency projections aren’t as rosy, in part because they factor more than just last season into the calculation and in part because so many new elements to the team are difficult to factor with precision. So only three teams are forecast to have a worse overall DVOA than the Bengals (Miami, Washington, Carolina). The offense is projected to be the 24th-ranked unit, the defense still lowly at No. 31. Defensive efficiency, in should be said, is far more volatile from year to year than offense, so the wholesale changes made on that side of the ball in the Bengals’ frenetic offseason could well pay dividends that aren’t reflected in that projection. Cincinnati’s special teams, the best in the league by DVOA in 2019, falls to No. 9 in the projection.
Despite those weak numbers, the schedule strength comes in at 20th, leaving room for some optimism. FO calculates Cincinnati’s postseason odds at 23.3 percent, with 1.2 percent Super Bowl odds; remember that the playoff field has increased from six teams to seven in each conference. They also have a 21 percent chance to once again plummet into top overall draft pick territory (with 0-4 wins). But the overwhelming projection range is from five to 10 wins, as you might expect.
Of course, there’s a lot of distance between five wins and 10, not just in terms of contention but in terms of perception. Realistically, what matters more than pure number of wins—well, just as much, anyway—is seeing the development of Burrow (and Taylor) arrowing upwards. Losing a few tough games won’t be so painful if they come despite encouraging (or better) performances from the rookie QB. Winning a couple of games when Burrow looks lost might help the record but won’t make Bengals fans feel much better about the franchise’s overall trajectory.
Mainly, I think we all want to see that Things Have Changed. That the Bengals don’t roll over in crunch time when playing Pittsburgh. That they’re a team we are eager to watch play in prime time. That they’re successful and competitive after halftime. That they don’t fold like an accordion when the going gets tough against good competition. That the O-line isn’t a sieve and the defense a pushover. All the things that leaves us muttering “same old Bengals” all the damn time.
This is where my personal feelings enter into the season preview. My unshakeable sensation while watching Burrow play at LSU in 2019 was that this was a special player, and not merely because of the awesome numbers he piled up. Plenty of dudes do that and flame out in the pros. I have infinitely more confidence in Joey B. to buck that trend because of his makeup, the one that has his coaches and teammates raving.
It’s one thing to say all the right things about being the new guy and deferring to veterans and blah blah blah. Burrow has clearly taken command. There won’t be any doubt in that huddle come Sunday at 4:15. He has also made it plain that he isn’t here just to “squeak into the postseason” but to win championships. One quote I particularly liked was when he said that he would “attack every day like it was Super Bowl Sunday.”
“If you waste a day there’s somebody out there that didn’t waste a day and you lost a day,” Burrow told reporters. “I’m a competitor. I want to win every single day. I’m always competing against myself to get better every day. And when I compete against myself I’m also competing against all the other quarterbacks, all the other defenses, all the other defensive coordinators in the league so I can’t waste a day.”
Platitudinal? Sure, perhaps a bit. But he’s convinced me, his teammates, and perhaps most importantly himself that he means it. Cincinnati hasn’t had a guy with this blend of talent, work ethic, and balls-out confidence since Boomer Esiason. The jury is still out on whether Taylor can become Sam Wyche 2.0, but at least in terms of character the new signal-caller appears to be ready for his debut.
How successful Burrow ultimately is this season depends in large degree upon his supporting cast and their health. If, for once, the starters remain mostly upright and in the lineup, this is team that could improve mightily and be a surprise playoff contender, even in a rough division. But as we all know, sadly, that almost never happens around these parts. The depth will be tested and, on occasion, prove wanting. There will be some days when the defense looks lost. A missed kick will cost them a close contest. Burrow may (gasp) throw a key interception.
It says here the Bengals go a respectable 6-10 despite some tough injury losses and set themselves up for true contention in 2021. Hopefully the pandemic will have eased up a bit by then.
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.