A shovel pass to Stanley Morgan. On the goal line. On fourth down with three minutes remaining in the third quarter. That was the play call…
In a crucial AFC North matchup, the Cincinnati Bengals fell to the Baltimore Ravens 19 - 17 on Justin Tucker’s 43-yard field goal that was never, never, ever, never going to miss. Alright, okay, so umm...in the past, I’ve been reluctant to criticize play calling. I’m going to complain about last night.
Let me get something out of the way before I delve into the catastrophe that was Sunday night: I am a huge Zac Taylor fan. I think his genuine enthusiasm and relentless optimism is not only refreshing and inspired, but also necessary. Prior to his arrival, Bengals fandom was permeated by this sense that the worst is always right around the corner. That the opponent’s backup QB is about to have a career day, that a beleaguered defense will, out of nowhere, rise to the occasion and smother an “elite” Bengals offense, that a lame duck head coach that’s already got his bags packed concocts a game plan that absolutely dismantles the Orange and Black.
That’s the mentality of the Old Bengals. Zac Taylor represents New Bengals. The tenor and vibe of Old Bengals versus New Bengals deserves its own epoch.
That is, until last night.
Last night undid a lot of the positivity and good-will that Taylor had earned after the Bengals magical run to the Super Bowl last year. In 2021, it felt like Zac was pushing all the right buttons at exactly the right time. Everything felt organized, efficient, and on-time. This year, there’s none of that. It’s like somebody went into the Bengals war room and deviously and meticulously mixed up every folder, every filing cabinet, every suitcase, every computer, every safe, until everything was out of order.
No play was more emblematic of these issues than the fourth-and-goal shovel pass.
On one hand, it’s exactly the kind of play that people just love to gush on Andy Reid, head coach of the Kansas City Chiefs, for drawing up in exactly that situation. I’m almost certain I’ve seen him run that play - and people nearly passed out from heaping so much praise on the Super-Bowl-winning coach. It worked in the past but now it’s past-é.
On the other hand, what’s wrong with just running straight ahead? Or, better yet, what’s wrong with spreading the field and letting your best player dissect the defense like you pay him to do?
And that’s not all. Why does it take so long to get slot receiver Tyler Boyd involved in the game? Why does it look so, so, so hard to get the ball to Ja’Marr Chase downfield? Why was Tee Higgins dressed for this game if he was going to make a negligible impact? Why is some return guy on the Ravens named Devin Duvernay killing us? Why am I having flashbacks of Cooper Rush to Noah Brown???
On the Bengals second drive of the game, we got to see another toss play to Joe Mixon that was stuffed, again. Anyone got odds on how many more times we see that play this year? We have twelve games remaining, so I’m setting the line at 12.5. Take the OVER.
In the third quarter, we got to see a WR-reverse-pass that was blown up immediately for a huge loss. Two plays later, we got that fateful shovel pass.
So, let’s talk about that play, shall we?
Now, on its face, I don’t hate the play. As I mentioned before, this is exactly the galaxy-brain play design that people trip over themselves to congratulate coaches like Reid, Sean McVay and Kyle Shannahan about, so I like that Taylor can pull this out of his bag of tricks.
But that was not the time for gimmicks. That was the time to let your franchise QB do his thing: spread the field, empty the backfield, give Burrow as many options as possible (including running the ball himself), and let the man go to work.
Also, the Bengals had just responded from an early 10 - 0 deficit to bring the game to a tie at halftime. By holding the Ravens to a field goal on their opening drive of the second half, the Bengals had a perfect opportunity to keep the momentum rolling by taking the points with about three minutes remaining in the third quarter. They were outplaying the Ravens. They chased the points instead, and it came back to haunt them.
They went with the call that required near-perfect blocking (which they didn’t get) and a trick-play-susceptible defense (which the Ravens were clearly not). It felt disastrous in the moment, and it turned out to be the difference in the game.
Of course, I can’t help but remind myself (and you, by extension) that there’s still an awful lot of season yet to be played. Even though the Bengals blew a great opportunity to take an early division lead, they sit just a game behind the Ravens, tied with the Browns for second place in the AFC North. This race is far from over, and they still get the re-match in Paycor Stadium to wrap up the season in Week 18.
But between now and the final week of the season, we’re going to need to see some improvement. Stop playing scared, stop coaching scared. This team had to win consecutive road games in the playoffs over the top-seeded Tennessee Titans and the perennial AFC Championship participant Kansas City Chiefs just to reach the Super Bowl last year. Teams should be fearing you, not the other way around.
It’s not the end of the world, and the Ravens will always be a tough opponent when they’re at full-strength, but this is a game the Bengals are going to regret allowing to slip away. On Sunday night, they were better than the Ravens, just like they were the better team in Week 1 versus the Pittsburgh Steelers and Week 2 versus the Dallas Cowboys. But being the better team doesn’t guarantee you anything - and in this league, you don’t get many second chances.