Updated: Feb 12, 2022
The Bengals are going to the Super Bowl! Seriously! For the first time since 1988, the Cincinnati Bengals will be playing in the biggest sporting event in America. This is not a drill.
For anyone who hasn’t been paying attention to this team, let me make something very clear: forget everything you thought you knew about the Cincinnati Bengals. Forget about the 90s. Forget about Carson Palmer’s torn ACL. Forget about Marvin Lewis and his 7 playoff appearances with 0 victories. Forget about Ki-Janna Carter and Dan Wilkinson. Forget about Dave Klingler and Akili Smith. Forget about January 9, 2015. This Bengals organization no longer resembles those pitiful peons of the past. It’s a New Dey, and with head coach Zac Taylor, quarterback Joe Burrow, and one of the greatest collections of young skill-position players in NFL history, this team is ready to make some noise at SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles.
To figure out how the Bengals got this point, we need to go back a couple years. At the conclusion of the 2018 season, the Bengals parted ways with their longtime head coach Marvin Lewis after three consecutive losing seasons. In his place, the Bengals hired Zac Taylor, a little-known assistant coach with the Los Angeles Rams. Taylor was brought on to reinvigorate the franchise and to install the successful Kyle Shannahan-style offense that was sweeping the NFL. But the hiring was not without controversy. Many questioned Taylor’s credentials, especially compared to some of the other big names that had been mentioned as candidates for the Bengals’ head coaching position. After all, Taylor had very little experience, had never been a head coach, and had never even called plays at the NFL level. Now, he was tasked with turning around one of the most perpetually inept franchises in professional sports.
After a surprising start to their 2019 NFL season where Taylor’s squad nearly defeated the perennial contender Seattle Seahawks, the Bengals would go on to lose their first eleven games. They would finish with a 2-14 record, comfortably the worst team in the NFL. This, however, would be a blessing in disguise for Taylor and the organization. The Bengals would have the opportunity to select the very best player available amongst the college ranks. And it just so happened that the perfect player to turn this franchise around was just completing possibly the greatest season ever for a college football quarterback. This quarterback’s name was Joe Burrow.
Joe Burrow began his college career at The Ohio State University, where he struggled to find his footing amongst a group of talented quarterbacks who also played for the Buckeyes. Burrow spent his first two seasons as a backup to the outstanding J.T. Barrett, who would finish his Ohio State career holding school records for most total passing yards in a season, career passing yards and completions.
After Barrett graduated, Burrow watched as he was passed over as the Buckeyes starting quarterback for Dwayne Haskins. With his college career now in jeopardy of being over before it began, Burrow transferred to Louisiana State University, securing the starting position. He completed his 2018 season leading the Tigers to a 10-3 record. His 2019 season, however, would be one for the ages.
Burrow began the 2019 college football season once again as the starting quarterback for the LSU Tigers. Expectations were high, but Burrow’s performance exceeded them all. He guided the Tigers to an undefeated 15-0 record and a National Championship, broke numerous LSU and college football records, and was awarded the Heisman Trophy, bestowed each year to the most outstanding player in college football, by the highest margin ever in the history of Heisman voting. Many considered this to be the finest season of any quarterback, perhaps of any player, in college football history. Besides his on-field achievements, Burrow also helped raise over $450,000 in donations to his hometown of Athens, Ohio by referencing the city in his Heisman acceptance speech, in which he addressed the issues of poverty and food insecurity that have been affecting Athens and South-east Ohio. Burrow was a full-blown star.
The Bengals would wind up with the 1st overall pick following the 2019 season, putting the team in prime position to select the home-grown superstar, Burrow. However, the pick wasn’t a slam dunk. Many around the league thought the Bengals should pursue Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa or Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert. Both were considered superior prospects to Burrow before his meteoric rise and some questioned Burrow’s body of work in college. Was he a one-year-wonder? After all, before his Heisman campaign, Burrow was an afterthought in NFL circles, destined to be a mid-round draft pick and, in all likelihood, to sit on the bench behind an established starter. Could one spectacular season really make Burrow a #1 overall pick?
Turns out the answer to that question was a resounding YES. Coach Taylor, along with Cincinnati Bengals owner Mike Brown and Personnel Director Duke Tobin, saw Burrow’s potential. They felt that Joe could not only come in and bring a serious injection of talent into the Bengals organization, but he could also give the organization a much-needed face-lift following the unceremonious conclusion to the Marvin Lewis, Andy Dalton and AJ Green era. Burrow would signal a changing-of-the-guard, a step in the right direction.
Recently, Mike Brown, in a conversation with longtime sportswriter Peter King, admitted that back in 2019, the Miami Dolphins had tried to swap draft positions with the Bengals, dangling an outrageous offer that may have included up to five future first round draft choices. However, Brown made it clear that nothing could have compelled the Bengals to pass up the opportunity to select their franchise QB. Burrow has rewarded that faith may times over.
When Zac Taylor was asked what made Burrow such a good fit for his offense, he explained how Burrow fit the mold of the ideal modern QB.
“He’s a proven winner. He throws with anticipation. He’s got a great football IQ. He can diagnose defenses as well as anyone we’ve studied. And he can create off-schedule plays as well…He does a great job of keeping his eyes up in the pocket and being able to elude defenders.”
Now Coach Taylor, a former quarterback himself for the University of Nebraska, had his guy. The real work turning this franchise around could begin. But it didn’t happen overnight.
The 2020 NFL season began with much promise for the Cincinnati Bengals. Behind their new #1 draft pick quarterback, the Bengals were ready to make some noise in the difficult AFC North, the division perennial contenders the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens and frisky newbie the Cleveland Browns called home. Burrow, Taylor and the Bengals would lose their first two games before tying the third against the Philadelphia Eagles. In their fourth game, a home tilt versus the Jacksonville Jaguars, Burrow and the young Bengals would secure their first victory. The back-and-forth game saw Burrow pass for more than 300 yards in his third consecutive game, becoming the first rookie QB since 1950 to accomplish the feat. The Bengals would lose their next three games before defeating the powerful Tennessee Titans to bring their record to 2-5-1, matching their win total from the previous season in only 8 games.
Things started to go downhill fast after the Bengals returned to action following their week 9 bye. The Bengals would be demolished in Pittsburgh against the Steelers 36-10. But the next game versus the Washington Football Team would be their real nightmare. In the 3rd quarter Washington defensive end Montez Sweat and defensive tackle Jonathan Allen would each smash into Burrow, one high and one low.
After the dust had settled, Burrow remained on the turf, writhing in agony, the ligaments in his left knee shredded. Burrow was carted off the field, not before being swarmed by Cincinnati and Washington players alike, all offering their condolences and encouragement. Burow would later be diagnosed with a torn ACL and MCL. His season was over.
“Thanks for all the love. Can’t get rid of me that easy. See ya next year,” Burrow would tweet after being carted off the field, his trademark confidence never wavering. There would be a long rehab process, but Burrow never doubted he would return.
Although Burrow was done for the year, the Bengals still had a season to finish. They would go on to lose the game versus Washington and would continue to lose their next three games, bringing their mid-season losing streak to five. Up next, the vaunted Pittsburgh Steelers came to Cincinnati for the re-match. The Steelers had begun the 2020 season with an 11-0 record before losing twice in two weeks. They were now looking to right the ship versus the hapless Bengals. Amazingly, this wouldn’t be the night to do it.
Behind backup QB Ryan Finley and a strong defensive effort, the Bengals would upset the Steelers 27-17, breathing new life into a miserable season. The Bengals improved to 3-10-1 with the victory and snapped a six-game home losing streak to the Steelers in the process. They would follow-up this surprising victory with another the following week versus the Houston Texans. In all, the Bengals would finish the 2020 season with a 4-11-1 record, having played almost half their games without their rookie QB.
Going into the 2021 NFL season, the Bengals had a huge decision to make. Armed with the #5 overall pick in the NFL Draft, the Bengals were in prime position to select a difference-maker and there were many options available. Many expected the Bengals to select one of the premier offensive linemen available at the top of the draft, namely Oregon offensive tackle Penei Sewell or Northwestern offensive tackle Rashawn Slater. After all, the Bengals just watched their franchise QB go down in a heap in week 9. Logic suggested that the best course of action would be to protect their investment with an improved offensive line. Others, however, wanted the Bengals to jump-start their offense with a playmaker. Two strong options were available at the top of the draft: Florida tight end Kyle Pitts and LSU wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase.
Fortunately for the Bengals, three quarterbacks were selected with the first three picks, with only Atlanta at #4 standing in the way of the prospect the Bengals coveted. Atlanta would select Pitts with the fourth pick, putting the Bengals on the clock. Tension was rising in Cincinnati. Would the Bengals really select a luxury weapon for Burrow? Or would they protect their damaged superstar? Turns out, when the Bengals selected Chase, Burrow’s former college teammate, they were having their cake and eating it too.
The Burrow-Chase connection picked up in the NFL exactly where it left off in college with the LSU Tigers. Chase hit the ground running, catching four touchdown passes in his first three games, becoming the youngest player in NFL history to do so. Chase would continue to frustrate NFL defenses throughout the season, becoming the odds-on favorite to win the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year award. His 754 receiving yards through his first 7 games are an NFL record.
In week 17 versus the defending AFC Champions the Kansas City Chiefs, Chase hauled in 11 receptions for 266 yards and 3 touchdowns, the yardage setting another NFL rookie record. When asked about Chase’s performance versus the Chiefs, Coach Taylor explained that this was what they had in mind when they selected him with the fifth pick.
“The chemistry that (Ja’Marr) and Joe have together has probably allowed for his (performance) to accelerate. He’s a great player. He would have done this for any team.”
Chase’s performance against the Chiefs was a catalyst that helped the Bengals defeat this titan of the NFL and secure their first AFC North Championship since 2015.
The connection that Joe Burrow and Ja’marr Chase share goes beyond pure talent. Their relationship serves as the fulcrum for Cincinnati’s success on the football field. Chase’s pure speed and ability to win contested catches against NFL defensive backs has allowed Burrow’s preternatural ability to read defenses and throw accurate passes downfield to flourish. Chase has also used his agility and strength to become an excellent receiver around the line of scrimmage, adding another dimension to the Bengals offense.
With all the added attention that defenses must provide to Chase, opportunities have been abundant for the Bengals other excellent weapons. Second-year wide receiver Tee Higgins has been a revelation after a quiet start to the season, with four 100 yard receiving games on the season to go with six touchdowns. Sixth-year receiver Tyler Boyd is as steady as ever, serving as a reliable option on third down and contributing the occasional big play. Running back Joe Mixon was selected to the Pro Bowl. Tight End CJ Uzomah is having his best season as a professional.
The offensive line, while still a work in progress, hasn’t torpedoed the Bengals season. It remains a thorn in the Bengals side and will certainly be addressed in the offseason. This year though, the Bengals will be preparing for the Super Bowl, not draft season. Most importantly, the Bengals second-year quarterback is playing out of his mind.
It’s hard to put into words exactly how surprising and special Burrow’s 2021 season has been. Quarterbacks aren’t supposed to thrive after reconstructive knee surgery. Bengals fans know this all too well after watching Carson Palmer’s knee crumble in that ill-fated playoff game on January 8, 2006 versus the Steelers. Besides, Burrow hadn’t even completed a full NFL season. Expectations were low, not just for Burrow, but for the Bengals as a whole. Most pundits and sports talk figureheads expected the Bengals to finish last in the AFC North. Many thought the team would be in line for another high draft pick in 2022. It’s hard to blame them.
Burrow, Chase and these young Bengals have a different idea. Burrow’s confidence has seeped into the team at every level. When asked after the 2019 about Burrow’s personality and how it contributed to winning, Coach Taylor raved.
“He gets the most out of those guys around him and he’s got the respect of his coaches and teammates that he’s played with everywhere. (We) talked to people at Ohio State, we talked to people at LSU…they all loved the guy. And so we’re excited to add him to our building, that’s the type of character, the type of leadership we’re looking to add as we continue to grow this thing.”
This team plays with an edge and focus that is almost completely unrecognizable from past Bengals teams. They back down from no one. They show no fear. They expect to win every game they play, whether it be a divisional opponent, a perennial cellar-dweller, or the defending conference champions.
For many years the Marvin Lewis-led Bengals had success, but they never could overcome the playoff hurdle. The Pittsburgh Steelers, the divisional boogeyman, lived rent-free in the minds of Bengals players and coaches. No more. Burrow and his Bengals demolished the Steelers in both games played this year, and in the process exorcized decades worth of demons from Paul Brown Stadium. The Steelers are just like any other opponent now.
With 34 touchdowns, 4,611 yards and a 70.4 completion percentage, Burrow has undoubtedly had the most impressive season ever for a second-year Bengals quarterback, and perhaps the greatest season the organization has ever seen at the position. Bigger and better things could be on the horizon too. Burrow is only 25 years old. So is Joe Mixon. Ja’Marr Chase is only 21. Tee Higgins is 22. Tyler Boyd is the elder statesman of the group at 27. All are under contract for at least the next two seasons.
Bringing all this young talent together has been one of the most impressive team-building successes in recent NFL history. So much credit has to go to Duke Tobin and his much-maligned scouting department. For years the Bengals have been an NFL laughing-stock for a perceived lack of commitment to winning, and the Bengals' relatively small scouting department was often pointed out as a leading example of this dereliction. Credit also has to go to Coach Zac Taylor. Taylor was an unknown commodity when the Bengals hired him in 2019. After compiling only six wins through two seasons, many wanted him out. Taylor stuck with his plan, however, and continued to lay the foundations for a team and culture that not only has succeeded beyond anyone’s realistic expectations in 2021 but will likely continue to contend for the AFC North and for Super Bowls as long as the Burrow-Chase connection remains in Cincinnati.
This Bengals season has been the most enjoyable in my entire life as a fan. Sure, the Bengals had a better regular season record in 2015, but that season felt like a culmination of the entire Marvin Lewis, Andy Dalton and AJ Green tenure. Everyone expected those Bengals to compete. Even the 2005 team, which was also a pleasant surprise and also won the AFC North, was also considered to be a sleeper by many. The 2021 season has been an absolute joy. There have been ups and downs, including a very disappointing loss to the New York Jets, but this team competes. They are fundamentally sound, which is something you could never say about Marvin Lewis’ teams. They play with aggression, which you certainly could say about Lewis’ teams, but Zac Taylor’s Bengals play with a controlled aggression. They are assassins. They want to rip their opponents’ hearts out, but they remain calm and composed in the process.
As a 29-year-old Bengals fan, I had never seen the Bengals win a playoff game in my life until this year. Now, after knocking off the Kansas City Chiefs for the second time in a month, and this time in Arrowhead Stadium, the Bengals will face the Los Angeles Rams in their building to play for the Super Bowl.
Win or lose, I feel confident that the Bengals will be back. I believe with Joe Burrow leading this team, with Zac Taylor as the head coach and with this front office behind them, the Cincinnati Bengals will win their first ever Super Bowl. And thanks to years of hardship, struggle and doubt, it will be oh so sweet.