The 2020 Cincinnati Bengals had a season to forget. The highly anticipated offense fell flat for a multitude of reasons and had fans screaming for multiple coaches’ heads on a platter.
It all began dubious enough for rookie quarterback Joe Burrow and the rest of the team when Randy Bullock blew a field goal in the final seconds of Week 1. The missed kick cemented a win for the Los Angeles Chargers, and started the “New Dey” off on the wrong foot, as it were. Following that, the Bengals would drop a five-point game to state- and division-rival Cleveland before suffering through an ugly overtime tie with Philadelphia.
In Week 4, on the strength of Burrow’s third consecutive 300-yard game and running back Joe Mixon’s first 100-plus yard effort (151 rushing, three total touchdowns), the Orange-and-Black broke through. They beat Jacksonville handily, 33-25, putting the rough start to the season in the rear view. Or so they thought.
Three losses ensued and newly re-signed Mixon was lost for what would turn out to be the remainder of the season. Two of those losses were in division. After a win at home against the Titans, Cincinnati would drop their next five matchups. During that stretch, their rookie gunslinger suffered a gruesome injury that would cost him the rest of 2020 and possibly the start of 2021.
They would win their next two behind the capable arms of household names Ryan Finley and Brandon Allen, with Finley’s win over the Pittsburgh Steelers being the most surprising. After that game, it was time to tank according to many fans. Their goal was to assure a shot at Oregon OT Penei Sewell, only to be rewarded with Allen’s 371 yards and a victory over the Texans. The Bengals did eventually lay down, being blown out 38-3 by Baltimore in Week 17.
Fans wanted Zac Taylor out, like, yesterday. They did not get that, though some of the other glaring issues on the coaching staff have since been addressed. The coaches of each line, offense and defense, have been shown the door and their replacements already ushered in.
What Went Right
If one looks hard enough, there were a few bright spots to the season.
Prior to the season, fans in Cincinnati were already speculating about how to handle Giovani Bernard in terms of using his light dead cap hit for 2021 ($666,668) to cut or trade him and avoid paying upwards of $4.7 million for a backup running back. Some have changed their tune.
After Mixon went down, Bernard looked explosive as the lead back when given the ball on a consistent basis. In their three wins following their star running back’s departure, Bernard totaled 78, 97, and 131 yards from scrimmage. In each of the first two contests (against playoff hopeful Tennessee and AFC North champ Pittsburgh) he found paydirt twice, accounting for four of his six total touchdowns in 2020.
Another positive for Taylor’s squad was the “never quit” attitude. Fans in Cincinnati have been sick for years about their players mailing it in late in a meaningless season. Speaking of Bernard, he was one of the most vocal leaders in a locker room that continued to support the head coach when the fan base did not.
Small victories are small victories, but a downtrodden team decimated by injury going out and putting up a two-game winning streak in Weeks 15 and 16 when all is lost counts for something on the banks of the Ohio. Small victories beget larger victories.
Also: Jessie Bates III. More on that later.
What Went Wrong
Injuries, first of all. It is exceedingly rare to find a team that loses their franchise running back and their phenom quarterback and can expect to compete. And yet, the Bengals still managed to do so in most cases. One of their prized free agents, Trae Waynes, was injured in training camp and missed the season. Their top free agent signee D.J. Reader left during Week 5 at a time when All-Pro Geno Atkins was still missing time with a shoulder injury. Reader went on season-ending injured reserve, Atkins had to be used sparingly, and the middle of the defensive line was barren.
There were a whole host of others, but suffice it to say that the roster for the men in stripes is not nearly as bad as the record would indicate.
The other glaring issue was the play of the offensive line. Again, injuries were a factor. However, they had little relevance to the play as a whole; even when the “best” players were on the field, each took turns blowing assignments.
The NFL is suffering an extreme lack of significant talent amongst offensive linemen, and the Bengals are no different. In fact, they are worse, hence the fans’ desperation to lose that extra game and slot in for Sewell in the draft. Owner Mike Brown and Taylor learned what should be an obvious lesson: When you get one of the best quarterbacks to ever come out of college, you had better protect him.
Team Award Winners
MVP – Jessie Bates III
The safety from Wake Forest who grew up in nearby Ft. Wayne, IN was named as an honorable mention by Pro Football Focus behind T.J. Watt and Aaron Donald for Defensive Player of the Year. The same site also named him second-team All-Pro, though he was inexplicably passed over for a Pro Bowl nod.
Bates started all 16 games and was a key cog in an otherwise unstable defense. He had three interceptions and a forced fumble while racking up a whopping 15 passes defensed, nearly twice his total from the previous two years combined. Add to that 109 tackles (two for a loss) and it is obvious why the team MVP (typically awarded to an offensive player) goes to a man on defense. He had a stellar season and established himself of one of the top safeties in the game.
Offensive Rookie of the Year – Tee Higgins
No-brainer, here. Higgins demonstrated early chemistry alongside franchise quarterback Burrow and continued to play at a high level with two mediocre backups. To ask that of a rookie is nearly inhumane, and yet Higgins finished his season with 67 catches for 908 yards and six trips to the end zone. He averaged 13.6 yards per catch en route to accounting for 52 first downs on his receptions in 2020.
Defensive Rookie of the Year – Logan Wilson
Wilson missed four games in 2020, but when he was on the field seemed to have a knack to often be in the right place at the right time. He had a pair of nifty interceptions in 2020 to go along with his three passes defensed in coverage. He wrangled 33 tackles (four for loss), delivered two quarterback hits, and was credited with one sack. Most satisfying for fans of the team, he was charged with only two missed tackles, just 5.7 percent of his chances to wrap a man up.
Biggest Surprise – Darius Phillips
After doing very well in limited duty in 2019, Phillips saw action in 12 games (eight starts) in 2020 after the injury to Waynes in camp. Being thrown at repeatedly, he had 12 passes defensed, an interception alongside two forced fumbles, 38 tackles (two for loss) and two quarterback hits. He was beaten several times as DBs are, but never once looked out of his element.
Darius Phillips (24 years old) last two years in coverage have been pretty good in relief duty.— Goodberry (@JoeGoodberry) January 18, 2021
5 TDs allowed
68.6 passer rating allowed
73.6 average PFF grade pic.twitter.com/OlR5uH8p4T
Phillips often outplayed his counterpart, William Jackson III, who commanded a $10 million salary in 2020 and is an unrestricted free agent this offseason.
Biggest Disappointment – A.J. Green
In an article prior to the season, the contention was that Green is a case of “sometimes, you have got to let go.” Football is a business, and the point is to win. Tossing around “team friendly deal” is relative. Is team friendly $10 million per season? $8 million? It does not matter whether Green loves Cincinnati or not, that is still too pricey for a guy who is going to want 3-4 years. The Bengals already have Green, in the guise of Higgins.
In 2020, over $18 million dollars bought 47 catches for 523 yards with two touchdowns and a catch percentage of 45.2. Less than 50 percent. Green made over $380,000 per catch pulled in.
One Burning Question
Brass tacks: Is Taylor the guy? The Cincinnati faithful will find out soon enough. He’s moved out most of the “old guard” from the Marvin Lewis era, and the rest will likely be gone soon. Geno Atkins (though not if Brown can help it) and Shawn Williams being two of the most notable names likely to be sent packing. Carlos Dunlap was already traded and stopped loafing in Seattle. Sometimes separation is good for both sides.
Taylor is left with a team getting younger and who have a real belief in the locker room that he is more than capable of motivating them. The “never quit” attitude says a lot about him as a head coach but not necessarily his head coaching ability.
The hiring of Marion Hobby for the defensive line after he had success in Jacksonville and was building a tough Miami unit will help. So will the return of Frank Pollack as the offensive line coach, who last coached the Bengals line three seasons ago. Under Pollack, the Brown family has already stated a commitment to going after linemen to protect their star quarterback when he returns.
If Taylor is to succeed, these are the type of veteran names to see in charge of the trenches.
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