“A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky dangerous animals and you know it.” – Agent Kay, Men in Black (1997)
When Agent Kay said these immortal words, he was referring to how humanity would react to the knowledge that they aren’t alone in the universe, but he also could have been referring to Bengals fans after a loss in the Zac Taylor era. In both cases, what was at one point a perfectly rational human being has suddenly and profoundly transformed into a raving lunatic after having their expectations popped. In the case of the Bengals, it’s learning that Jake Browning is, in fact, not Joe Burrow, the Bengals are not going to win the division for the third-consecutive season, and a run to the AFC Championship is probably out of reach in 2023.
Wait, is that new information? I’m confused…weren’t there people who wanted the Bengals to tank for draft position after Burrow went down for the rest of the season? What changed? Why the despair and agony now?
I’m going to give it to you straight: the whining and complaining is absurd. Yeah, the Bengals are having a disappointing season – so what?
Have you noticed that their best and most important player was missing against Pittsburgh? Did you notice that their second-best and second-most important player was also missing? And perhaps their best and most-important defender was out too? Or their best and most important cornerback?
But sure, tell me all about the Bengals 0 - 5 record in the AFC North. Yawn. Who cares? It’s misleading and irrelevant. And here’s why:
The Bengals have not had a healthy Joe Burrow for one, single AFC North game this year. Not a single one. It’s been a long season, so maybe some of you need a refresher: Week One, Joe was obviously hampered against Cleveland; Week Two, Joe was still obviously hampered against Baltimore; Week 11, Joe went down against Baltimore and Jake Browning finished the game.
Both divisional games against Pittsburgh? They were quarterbacked by Browning, and Browning alone. Week 18 against Cleveland? That’ll be Browning too. 0 - 6 is definitely in play – and you know what? It doesn’t matter in the slightest.
Because here’s the thing: the Bengals are having a bad year. That’s it. They don’t have bad coaches, they don’t have a bad scheme, they don’t evaluate players poorly, and they don’t have a problem keeping players healthy. This year has been a struggle – but have we all already forgotten that this coaching staff (pretty much down to the last man) got this team to consecutive AFC Championship games? Do you know how many teams would literally break kneecaps for that kind of success? Jerry Jones is dialing up Tonya Harding as we speak…
And yet, in Cincinnati, apparently a team that’s achieved more success than just about any team in the NFL outside of Kansas City and the LA Rams over the past two years just isn’t good enough. What the hell am I missing here?
Why are we like this? Why are we panicking about a loss to the Steelers? Yeah, Saturday was miserable. Get over it.
The truth is: we were gullible. We should have seen this result coming. The Steelers are a proud franchise, and this team was desperate – not just desperate to keep their slim playoff hopes alive, but desperate to make sure their coach, the venerable Mike Tomlin, didn’t lose his job. The Steelers played like their lives depended on it. The Bengals didn’t – but even if they had, would that have really changed the outcome? Have we really gotten to the point where we expect the Bengals to stroll into Acrisure Stadium and pummel a division-rival with a backup QB?
I’m not blaming anyone for having high expectations. I had high expectations too. I thought the Bengals were going to win the Super Bowl this year. I thought they would beat the Steelers handily, even with Jake Burrow, I mean Browning. I can’t ask you to stop expecting the world.
But we can control our response after a tough loss. Hindsight is our friend. Sometimes, teams have bad games. Even bad years. That doesn’t mean winning is over. The Bengals still have a winning record right now. They can still make the playoffs. The ultimate goal is still within reach – no matter how absurd it may feel right now. Joe Burrow once said that the Bengals championship window is his entire career. Have we all forgotten that? Or did we stop believing it? I didn’t.
So, let’s make a commitment to stop questioning this team’s desire to win – a few weeks ago, some were questioning whether they should try to win at all. Let’s stop blaming the coaching staff for everything – before the Pittsburgh game, there were sober individuals who legitimately questioned whether Joe freaking Burrow was a system QB. And lastly, let’s stop questioning this team’s toughness – how many other teams would still be fighting for a playoff spot after the adversity the Bengals have faced this year?
I know as Bengals fans we haven’t technically “been there before,” but can we at least pretend like we have? Back-to-back AFC Championship appearances isn’t nothing: only the Tom Brady-led New England Patriots and the Kansas City Chiefs can also claim that in the past decade – and that’s pretty sweet company. The Bengals may be having a disappointing season relative to preseason expectations, but given the circumstances, fighting for a playoff spot is anything but a letdown.
The season isn't over. We have at least eight more quarters of football to be played. The Bengals will probably have to win out to have a shot at a playoff berth, and the road ahead is not pretty. Still, the Bengals already defied the odds by going on a three-game winning streaks sans Burrow – why couldn't they surprise us again? (Fun Fact: the Chiefs have scored exactly 15 more points than the Bengals this season, and they've had Andy Reid and a healthy Patrick Mahomes the entire time). This season has been a bummer, but as long as Joe Burow, Ja'Marr Chase – and yes, Zac Taylor – are around, the success isn't going anywhere either.