I’m trying not to panic. I know it’s still early. But this 0 - 2 start feels different. And it's got me worried.
It’s not that the Cincinnati Bengals started the season winless through two games. They did that last year. It’s not that they started the season 0 - 2 in the division. They did that last year too. And it’s not that Joe Burrow is banged up to start the season like he was last year, either.
It’s everything else that has me concerned.
Burrow’s calf injury doesn’t explain his shockingly poor decision-making. Their continuity was supposed to be their strength – so why is this team, which for the last two years was one of the four least penalized teams in the NFL, suddenly committing back-breaking penalties? It’s almost as if the Bengals, after silencing doubters everywhere last year, are experiencing a delayed-Super-Bowl hangover (similar to the one I experienced two days after getting back from my buddy’s wedding).
I’m grasping at straws. It feels reactionary to want to blame the offensive line, but by most accounts, the O-line has actually been playing pretty well (even Jonah Williams). Play-calling is always low-hanging fruit, but if we’re going to criticize play-calling, don’t we also have to acknowledge that Burrow has the authority to change plays? Isn't that something we’ve been praising him for over this two-year run of unprecedented success?
And this is not me trying to disparage Joe Burrow. He’s still a great quarterback. He showed some of his laser-like accuracy yesterday and made a few of his trademark squirrely plays with his feet. But overall, he's played poorly and he reaggravated his injured calf on the Bengals last offensive series. Right now, he's holding the Bengals back.
He’s not the only culprit, though. New safety Nick Scott has not been terrible, but he hasn’t been Von Bell’s one-for-one replacement like most of us expected, while Irv Smith Jr. has been a complete no-show at tight end after generating a lot of buzz in training camp. The pass rush is lacking juice, and unless Joseph Ossai can turn into a borderline 10-sack guy after missing the start of the season or first-rounder Myles Murphy shows a ton more than he did during training camp and the preseason, the Bengals could continue to struggle in that department.
In Week One, it was the offense that failed to adjust to the soggy conditions in Cleveland, and in Week Two, it was the defense that failed to adjust to the Ravens quick passing and under-center running – and the Bengals a team we’ve consistently lauded for making second-half adjustments! Ja'Marr Chase has been invisible, and the passing attack has been non-threatening downfield. They've been carved up defensively on the ground after being one of the best run-stopping teams in the NFL for the past two years.
Through it all, they are still only 0 - 2. It’s not the end of the world. The Bengals had a sack/fumble wiped out by an illegal hands to the face penalty, Chase couldn’t haul in a sure touchdown and the Bengals had to settle for a field goal, and Burrow threw an interception at the goal line that the Ravens capitalized on with a touchdown – and the Bengals still only lost by three.
But after this start to the season, the Bengals have likely lost their opportunity at the AFC’s top seed and the conference’s only first-round bye in the playoffs – if they can even get to the playoffs. The AFC – and the AFC North specifically – is better than it was last year. The Ravens will likely not lose Lamar Jackson (who was phenomenal yesterday) for nearly half the season like they did last year. The Miami Dolphins have come out like gangbusters, and if Tua Tagovailoa can avoid injury they might be the best team in the NFL. And after both teams suffered losses in Week One, the Kansas City Chiefs and Buffalo Bills both sent reminders to the league in Week Two that they’re not to be overlooked or forgotten.
It was always going to be a test for the Bengals to win their first two games (and two division games, no less) when their QB missed all of training camp, but even if we grade them on a curve they’ve failed spectacularly. This is a veteran-laden team filled with stars and playoff experience. This is an inexcusable start – period.
Now the Bengals will take on the Los Angeles Rams. The same team that defeated the Bengals in the Super Bowl a little over two years ago. Zac Taylor once again prepares to face his former boss, Sean McVay. In a strange twist, the Bengals season might be on the line in this one too.