This past offseason, the Bengals marketing department offered up a new slogan to push tickets with the arrival of rookie head coach Zac Taylor. “New Dey!” they proudly proclaimed. Well, after a month of action under the Taylor regime, it’s time for a different motto: “Same Dey, New D’oh!”
Monday night’s epic faceplant in Pittsburgh offered up the same menu fans have been forced to dine from for years. Prime time meltdown? Check. Endless national trolling as a result? Check. Andy Dalton failure? Check. Steelers defenders tossing Bengals linemen and skill players around like practice dummies? Check. Pittsburgh offensive players running wide open through the secondary? Check. The same crap we’ve been living with pretty much all our lives. So, no, not much new other than yet another coaching staff getting indoctrinated into Heinz Field Hell. If you didn’t know any better, you’d have sworn Marvin Lewis or Bruce Coslet or Dave Shula was still at the helm.
If ever there was a batting practice fastball served up so a new coach could declare that the culture was indeed different in Bengaldom, Monday night offered a meatball. A reeling, winless Steelers squad, with Beelzebub (a.k.a. Ben Roethlisberger) in street clothes out for the season and an offense so stuck in the mud it couldn’t win a game the week before despite getting five turnovers. It was a perfect setting for the Taylor Era to put aside the close-but-no-cigar efforts of prior weeks and get down to the business of winning.
Instead, the Bengals look even further from contention than they did under Lewis, while Pittsburgh is off and running again thanks to a little push from their perennial patsies. After this debacle, the Bengals are 31st in DVOA, the efficiency stat we use to measure teams at Football Outsiders. Hold on, Cincinnati was already 31st in the league even before getting stomped by the Steelers. Hard as it is to believe, the team is now well behind even terrible teams like Denver, Washington and, yes, Arizona. Only Miami’s historic, purposeful terribleness is keeping the Bengals from being the worst team in the NFL by a considerable margin.
I have a dozen more weeks to write about this putrid squad, so I’ll spare you the litany of on-field issues. You know them all anyway: the offensive line, the quarterback, the defense, the effort, the discipline, the smarts, the speed, the strength, the lack of ability to make any kind of big-time play when one is desperately needed. This is a recording.
So with the season over before October even gets going—I had originally projected Halloween as the “sell by” date, so call me a blind optimist—it’s time to take stock of what we have here in this rotting carcass of a franchise and whether there is any realistic hope things will ever turn around.
First of all, the Bengals won’t go 0-16. This we know for sure, because it would actually be a good thing to bottom out completely, as the Dolphins are doing, and plan for a complete overhaul. That isn’t the Bengals way. They will win a handful of meaningless games as the season goes along, perhaps as soon as Sunday, when the equally hapless Cardinals come to town, thus depriving themselves of a top-two or even top-five draft pick. What that will mean in practicality is that the Bengals need to hope the teams picking ahead of them won’t need new quarterbacks or aren’t willing to do what Cincinnati never does: trade up to secure one.
It’s high time to bring the Andy Dalton Era to an end. It’s certainly not all his fault, and he remains a true soldier, but all the pressure and hits have turned him into a jittery veteran with pocket PTSD. Hard as it is to believe, Dalton has actually thrown from a clean pocket more than most of the league’s quarterbacks this season. But his success rate when the line actually does its job is near the bottom.
The interception he threw to end the Buffalo game was the most glaring example of a bad pass tossed while being protected, but Monday offered plenty of examples of bad passes as well as hasty and poor decisions even when there wasn’t a black-and-gold uniform in his earhole. The football term for this is “seeing ghosts”—Dalton has been under so much duress the past few seasons that he appears to have cracked. Sure, he’ll still make some good plays and have good games, especially if A.J. Green ever comes back—that’s who Dalton is. But we all know what he isn’t, as well.
So that means the Bengals simply have to find a new franchise quarterback for 2020. Everything depends upon it. The idea that the O-line and other issues should be fixed first, then a new QB brought in when the team’s ready to win, is fantasy. Get the guy under center correct, and everything else gets lifted up. Tempting as it is to pray that Ryan Finley (or Jake Dolegala!) is that player, don’t start genuflecting. The Bengals’ next franchise quarterback isn’t on the roster.
The problem, of course, is that at the moment it’s hard to trust the front office to identify that “right guy” at the most important position in sports. We can save the scouting breakdowns of the various signal-callers who should be available this spring for a later date, but suffice to say that—as in 2011, when Dalton was selected in the second round—there are plenty of candidates, and none of them are perfect. The drafting will be important, but even more crucial will be the development.
So that means the same group that put together this disastrous roster and has “coached it up” to a winless month will be responsible for the rebuild. Unless something truly unlikely happens and Taylor reveals himself to be Dave Shula 2.0 (and it isn’t fair to judge him on these four games alone), he and his staff will be back mostly or entirely intact next season. Taylor will only get better as a game coach and tactician with experience, but many of the players we hoped would improve under the new staff have regressed or remained stagnant. So far, there’s little hope that this group will Belichick its way into contention purely by coaching acumen.
As for Duke Tobin and his tiny group of scouts and the looming hierarchy of the Brown/Blackburn family above him, they have had a fairly bereft half-decade. We’ve said many times that the decision to let Andrew Whitworth and Kevin Zeitler walk in free agency while trying to replace them with draft choices is the poison apple that’s infected the entire franchise. Watching the offensive line get continually overrun would be somewhat easier to take if the team hadn’t invested so much draft capital in trying to build a unit that would keep Dalton from seeing ghosts. But three first round and two second round picks (if you count supposed blocking stalwart Drew Sample in there, which I do) later, they still don’t have anyone who can block consistently except for Trey Hopkins, an undrafted free agent.
Since the team refuses to spend any real money to try to improve, we’re left with the same Buffalo-reject, replacement-level groupings over and over. Yes, the injuries to Jonah Williams and Cordy Glenn have been critical, but are we really sure things would be much different with them playing? And while guys like Shaq Barrett, a free agent readily available in the Bengals’ price range this past offseason, are having great success elsewhere, Cincinnati still struggles to maintain even the barest defensive resistance with any consistency.
There is a lot of gloom in the wake of Monday night’s result that the Lost Era of the 1990s is upon us again. I’d be surprised if things got that bad, but the real problem is that the descent to such depths isn’t exactly a free-fall. It’s not as though the Bengals enjoyed an incredible run under Lewis. The five straight playoff berths (and seven overall in 16 years) constituted an Age of Enlightenment by Cincinnati standards, true, but except for 2005 and 2015 the team wasn’t much better than upper-mediocre. Because the franchise is so dependent on drafting and developing, stacking bad drafts to go with the inevitable injuries and free agent defections was always going to be an existential threat—and here we are.
Either the Bengals change the way they operate (fat chance), the drafts get great again (unlikely), or the coaches start developing players at a Zimmer/Jackson-level once more. So far that’s not a promising bet, either, but it’s just about all we have to hold onto.
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.