There is a sweeping change afoot for us Bengals fans. No, not the overdue franchise reboot that we desperately desire. I’m talking about fandom in the negative sense—opposing players we love to hate.
The clear-cut No. 1 object of our antipathy, good ol’ Ben Rapelisberger—er, Roethlisberger—is still around, still haunting us, and, like a biblical Golem, reappears again this Sunday, plodding and unstoppable, ready to rip out our collective hearts as usual (as he did back in week six, when the world was young and the Bengals were playoff hopefuls). He will no doubt still be around in a decade, pushing 50, threatening retirement each season only to resurface, shrug off injuries that would send Andy Dalton to IR, and throw late TD passes to sink the Bengals well into the 2020s.
But he’s in danger of being supplanted, with astonishing quickness, as Cincinnati’s archenemy. Baker Mayfield is rising rapidly up the “most hated Bengals opponent” charts, currently No. 3 with a bullet, behind only Roethlisberger (I refuse to call him “Ben” or “Big Ben”) and JuJu Smith-Schuster, the Hines Ward clone in black and gold. It’s not just because last Sunday saw Mayfield become the first Browns QB to sweep the Bengals since, incredibly, Vinny Testeverde in 1994 (Cleveland swept the series in 2002 and 1995, but with different starters each time). It’s not just because as the first overall pick and a rookie of the year candidate he represents an existential threat to our divisional hopes for the immediate and long-term future. Mainly it’s because he’s such a douchebag.
Of course, he’s a folk hero in Cleveland. Mouthy, jerky players usually are beloved in their towns while loathed elsewhere. Heck, many Bengals fans still cover up for Vontaze Burfict, even as he’s as popular as nuclear waste around the NFL. So it’s hardly a stunner. Maybe some of you even secretly admire Mayfield’s “competitiveness” and “keeping it 100” attitude, even as he stares down Hue Jackson after throwing a pass that should have been a crucial interception if only Jessie Bates could have gotten there 1/100th of a second earlier.
This whole “Baker vs. Hue” thing is so overblown, especially when it gets framed as “the Bengals are 1-6 since hiring Hue.” People, Hue isn’t the head coach—though of course I fear he may be soon. He’s not a coordinator. He doesn’t put in game plans. Mainly, he’s the guy who sits up with Marvin Lewis late at night, lamenting the fact that today’s players don’t accept coaching and wondering why they don’t make ’em like Ray Lewis anymore. He’s basically there so Marvin doesn’t decide to end it all with some ritual seppuku while watching his defense try to tackle. Yes, Hue ran the Browns into the ground for two-plus seasons—why wouldn’t the Bengals reward him with a place to go every day?
I suppose the only question is whether or not Cleveland finds some extra motivation by seeing their erstwhile coach on the Bengals sideline, staring blankly into the middle distance while wondering why his current club can’t figure out how to friggin’ block. It seems unlikely. The Browns are much more talented than this current incarnation of the Bengals, and, on a related and crucial note, much healthier. That’s why they raced out to 28-0 and 23-0 leads in the two meetings this year. Hue’s presence on the opposing sideline may make it more enjoyable, but the Browns aren’t hammering Cincinnati because Hue is sending in bad play calls or something.
I suppose the best way to test this hypothesis is to send Hue packing at year’s end, thus depriving Mayfield and the Browns of their supposed reason for wanting to beat the Bengals. Regardless, if I were coaching Cincinnati next season, I’d offer to pay the fines of any of my defenders who committed blatant roughing the passer penalties on Mayfield. He needs to be taught a violent lesson and, unlike Roethlisberger, doesn’t have the size or the potent painkillers on hand to allow him to slough off multiple big hits. Indeed, it is our duty as fans to start a GoFundMe campaign to raise a slush fund for the express purpose of bailing out Bengals who take the law into their own hands out on the field.
In other news, a statistical oddity, pointed out by Jay Morrison of The Athletic, caught my eye. By giving up 16 points to the Browns on Sunday, Cincinnati has now relented an even 200 second period points this season. That’s tied for the most points allowed in any single quarter of football since 1940, which is as far back as the stats on Pro Football Reference go. The Bengals are last in the league in points allowed (439), and nearly half of those have come in the second quarter.
That’s amazing, though I confess I’m at a loss as to the precise cause. We all know the Bengals reliably give up points just before halftime, but that doesn’t begin to cover the avalanche in the second stanza. It may be the lack of depth hits hardest just before the halftime rest period comes, or the inconsistency on offense tends to strike after the scripted portion of the game is spent, or maybe—probably—it’s just an unusual anomaly. Whatever the cause, in a season full of terrible numbers, that really stands out.
The season comes to a merciful end Sunday in the Steel City, and ordinarily I’d be worried about a fluke Bengals win that would eliminate the Steelers (though a Baltimore win over the Browns renders the result meaningless), hurt the Bengals draft position, and give Mike Brown another reason to keep Lewis around. But, as I suspect all of you are, I’m numb to it now. There’s little to no chance the vaunted combo of Jeff Driskel to C.J. Uzomah puts up enough offense to outslug Pittsburgh. The Bengals can draft as high as ninth or as low as 19th, depending on Sunday’s action, but the poor results of the last few drafts have beaten me down to the point where I find it hard to get worked up. And of course Lewis is staying put for yet another year—we all know that.
It’s what I feared the most from this season: not being bad but being dull, and losing all hope for the future. It really sunk in while watching Pat Mahomes and Russell Wilson tangle this past Sunday night. Not only does Cincinnati not have dynamic playmakers like that, with creative and fun schemes designed to fit their talents, but they won’t even try to obtain them. That is the worst result of all.
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.