The high-water mark in recent Bengals history came, believe it or not, on a Thursday night. It was November 5, 2015. Cincinnati clubbed the hapless Browns 31-10 behind three TD passes from Andy Dalton to Tyler Eifert. After the game, the Bengals were 8-0, flying high with the league’s best offense and what appeared to be their best shot at playoff glory since the Boomer Esiason days. Dalton was short-listed as a top MVP candidate, thanks in large part to the innovations and play-calling acumen of offensive coordinator Hue Jackson.
Man, that seems like a million years ago, even by NFL standards.
Since that banner night against Cleveland, when fans chanted “8 and 0!” at the NFL Network post-game crew, Cincinnati is 10-16-1, counting the postseason Pittsburgh Hindenburg. (Fun fact! The losing actually started with the very next game, against who else but the Texans, Cincinnati’s Wolfsbane). Last Thursday night, Cincy and Dalton were once again godawful on offense, managing just three field goals, bringing their season point total to…nine. Hue Jackson is now head coach in Cleveland, and his replacement, Ken Zampese, lasted just 18 games, sacrificed to the Volcano God (a.k.a an angry A.J. Green) after the primetime flameout. The Bengals new offensive coordinator is Bill Lazor, who previously held the position of quarterbacks coach—the same job Zampese held for a decade and a half before replacing Hue under the headset.
No one doubts Zamp was overmatched in the role of coordinator. One can be a schematic genius, as Ken’s father Ernie was, and a good mechanical tutor, as is Ken’s reputation, yet still struggle in the OC role on game day. Calling plays to accentuate your team’s strengths while simultaneously outfoxing your chess opponent in the neighboring press box is an art form mastered by very few for very long. Mike Tomlin once called Jackson’s playcalling “thoughtfully non-rhythmic,” and that is as good a description of the savant-like skills needed to crank up an offense. As we’ve seen across the league during this initial fortnight, it’s a problem even with established offensive minds.
Zampese was particularly bad, however. His offense was entirely predictable, based in large part on pre-snap looks. Sure, the offensive line’s ineptitude didn’t help, but Zampese effectively took his top playmakers out of the play before Dalton even took the ball from center. If a safety rolled over to Green’s side, and he usually did, than Dalton was coached to look elsewhere. Sound principle on the blackboard, perhaps, but it basically turned an all-time great wideout into a decoy, while counting on other wideouts to beat coverage, which they hardly ever did. And the running back by committee approach has served to neuter all three, in particular Joe Mixon, whose speed and elusiveness has yet to be put into action, in large part because he sits two of every three series by design.
So the question on everyone’s mind, other than “Can the season be saved?” is, “Can Lazor do the job that Zamp could not?”
As it happens, it’s basically the same question.
Lazor is 45 years old, a year older than Jay Gruden when he took over the Bengals gig. A graduate of Cornell (like my dad!), and a star quarterback for the Big Red (not like my dad!), Lazor set a multitude of school passing records while the local media used his surname as a pun to the point of nausea.
He worked his way up the pro coaching food chain, with stops in Atlanta, Washington, and Seattle, before taking his first OC role—in college, with the University of Virginia. He did a passable job in Charlottesville, which has been known for mediocre pigskin long before it became associated with rampaging Nazis. His second season, 2011, was solid, as he took an otherwise nondescript quarterback named Michael Rocco and turned him into a reasonable facsimile of Matt Schaub (the college version). Virginia went 8-5 and actually made the Chick-Fil-A Bowl, clearing the Wahoo Expectation Bar by several spicy chicken sandwiches.
However, in 2012 the Cavs reverted to their natural state, going 4-8. The debacle cost four coaches their jobs, and both quarterbacks who took snaps that season transferred. Lazor escaped being canned, but went back to the pros anyway, to serve as Chip Kelly’s quarterbacks coach in Philly in 2013.
Here, Lazor and Kelly did a phenomenal job, taking an otherwise pedestrian signal-caller named Nick Foles and elevating him to among the league’s top passers—for a season, anyway. In 2013, Foles led the NFL in DVOA when not pressured, which led directly to his bombs-away style, which wasn’t really KellyBall but worked. Foles’ average TD pass in ’13 was 17.4 yards, easily the highest in the NFL. A lot of that came from heavy play-action usage, aided by the read-option that Foles (a tall, gawky, not especially athletic white dude) ran with enough effect. By contrast, Dalton is a decent athlete and underrated runner, at least before he was scooting from the pocket at the slightest hint of pressure.
Of course, that was the fabled Foles “27-2” year, as in TD-INT ratio. It’s been dismissed as fluky, and it was, as time bore out (Foles never approached that efficiency again), but one aspect of Foles’ subsequent seasons was that Lazor wasn’t involved in them. In 2014, Lazor, based largely on his success with Foles, was hired as offensive coordinator in Miami.
That first season was successful as well. Lazor coaxed an excellent season from Ryan Tannehill, including 27 TD passes and a career high in both completion percentage and passer rating. Overall Miami was 11th in scoring, and 8th in offensive DVOA (the efficiency metric we use over at Football Outsiders). Another toy we use at FO is similarity scores, comparing players at various points of their careers. After the 2014 season, the QB Tannehill was most similar to was–you guessed it—Andy Dalton, from 2011-13. Tannehill and Dalton are different in terms of strengths, but quite alike in terms of alternating effectiveness with frustrating mistakes. The ’14 version of Tannehill eliminated many of the bad throws. The Bengals are hoping that will happen with his Ginger doppleganger.
Another notable aspect of that Dolphins team was the o-line. After a 2013 disaster up front (58 sacks allowed), Miami improved to a middling performance, in part due to Lazor’s emphasis on quick passing and power running. If he can help mitigate the negatives Messrs. Bodine, Ogbuehi, et al. bring to the field each week, Lazor can unleash the potential in this attack. A big if, granted, but not unprecedented on his resume.
Lazor was canned midway through 2015 in Miami, as the Joe Philbin administration came apart in a spasm of talent misuse and misappraisal and schematic incomprehensibility. Sound familiar? True, much like at UVA, Lazor was caught up in a destructive situation that wasn’t necessarily his fault, though he didn’t coach the team out of the abyss, either. In the eleven games Lazor called, the Fish topped 20 points just twice.
Lazor washed up in the Bengals QB room, hoping for another opportunity. And here it is, thrust upon him far earlier than he must have imagined possible. Can he goose the impossibly static Bengals offense? There’s almost nowhere to go but up, so by that standard, Lazor should improve upon Zampese. The new OC isn’t married to any particular style, based on his previous stops. Like all play-callers, he hopes for balance and getting his skill players into an “early rhythm”—meaning the immense play package specifically devoted to Jeremy Hill, one that brings all rhythm to a screeching halt, will hopefully be shredded.
Of course, much of Dalton’s poor play this season can’t be placed on Zampese, or even the o-line. He’s simply been horrible, missing throws you see easily made in high school games, and making poor decisions on where to go with the ball. Tossing up a few more 50-50 balls to Green is usually a good idea, because that double- and triple-coverage isn’t going away, and was a staple of the offense under Jackson and Gruden, too. Look for Lazor to restore those.
But let’s face it—unless Dalton finds it in him to start firing, ahem, Lazors (see how fun it is!), the Bengals offense probably won’t achieve much beyond marginal improvement. That could mean Lazor will get to handpick a new quarterback in next April’s draft, as Gruden did with a young Andy Dalton.
Or Lazor could be gone as well, flushed away with the entire Marvin Lewis staff. It’s the nature of the NFL. Things change in a relative heartbeat. Just ask the fans who stayed behind to chant “8 and 0” that beautiful night just 22 months ago.
Robert Weintraub is a Fulcher 2 Stay contributor and has written for The New York Times, Grantland, Slate, Deadspin, and Football Outsiders. He is also the author of three books. You can follow him on Twitter at @robwein.