Cincinnati Bengals 2021 Season Recapby Sam Schneider February 16, 2022 1 comment
The Cincinnati Bengals nearly shocked the football world in the 2021-22 season. In fact, perhaps they did. The team picked to finish last in their own division swept the rival Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens. If that was not enough, the pride of the Queen City took down the Kansas City Chiefs twice en route to an AFC Championship.
It was an up-and-down season for the Bengals. Tremendous victories and troubling losses; pretty much par for the course for the fourth-youngest team in the NFL. The future of the Orange-and-Black looks bright behind Joe Burrow, Ja’Marr Chase, and a young core that is filled out by savvy veterans. Cincinnati lost Super Bowl LVI to the Los Angeles Rams, but this season cannot be termed anything less than a euphoric success for fans of the organization.
Make sure to check out all of our other NFL Season Recaps.
What Went Right
Burrow’s comeback from devastating ACL and MCL tears in 2020 was little less than remarkable. It led to him winning the AP Comeback Player of the Year. While the signal-caller began the 2021 season with some trepidation with regards to re-injury, he grew by leaps and bounds throughout the year. By late in the second half of the season, the LSU product was flashing MVP-caliber play and demanded questions about whether he is the future of the league. Those questions only gained more traction with the retirement of Tom Brady. A league that is seeking the “next big thing” may have already found it.
The drafting of Chase proved to be a wise one. While there were issues on the offensive line, Cincinnati would not have been in the Super Bowl without their new No. 1 wideout. The man that Les Miles said could not play wide receiver averaged over 85 yards per game on his way to 1,455 on the season with 13 touchdowns. The accolades and rookie records are so numerous that it’s nearly impossible to list them off the top of one’s head. Chase deservedly took home Offensive Rookie of the Year honors.
The Bengals also spent wisely in free agency, rounding out their roster with a slew of veterans to get them to the next level. They added Chidobe Awuzie, Trey Hendrickson, Mike Hilton, Riley Reiff, and Larry Ogunjobi, among others. While Reiff’s season ended prematurely, the remaining signees were significantly important to the team’s Super Bowl run. Joe Mixon was the complete package in doing everything asked of him, whether or not it was part of the game plan. It should be mentioned that this team also managed to avoid the injury bug that grows larger for every team each season.
What Went Wrong
Reiff was a key signing to an offensive line that needed desperate help in the offseason. While no one can argue taking Chase over Penei Sewell in the 2021 draft, the remaining puzzle pieces of the offensive line in Cincinnati left a lot to be desired. The protection of Burrow was dismal, leading to a whopping 70 sacks (regular season and playoffs). That’s the third-most ever for a quarterback.
While Reiff played well as an incoming free agent, second-round draft pick Jackson Carman was used sparingly as he adapted to the NFL level. Center Trey Hopkins was returning from injury and struggled terribly in the middle of the line. Isaiah Prince was proven to be a non-factor. Quinton Spain was consistent, but is not an answer. Third-year left tackle Jonah Williams was the most reliable piece available.
Eli Apple was generally a disaster in the secondary (though he did have some good performances). Speaking of the secondary, an extremely disciplined Cincinnati team managed to once again look undisciplined when it mattered most. Cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III will likely never play in the NFL again after rushing the field in sandals despite being inactive for the game. It was 2015 all over again for Bengals fans.
Team Award Winners
MVP – Joe Burrow
What else is there to say? Burrow overcame injury and inspired an entire city that was desperate for something good to happen on the football field. The Athens, OH native tossed for over 4,600 yards while adding 34 touchdowns in the regular season alone. He made every player on offense better, and has inspired everyone to wonder if he is the heir apparent to Brady. While it is far too early for such comparisons, there is no denying that Burrow has taken the league by storm while also garnering more fandom from fans in other markets.
Offensive Rookie of the Year – Ja’Marr Chase
It is probably better to just name this award Offensive Player of the Year. Burrow inspired a team, but without Chase, the Bengals would have never been where they were. The favorite target of Burrow at LSU was drafted and told everyone that he would break all records for a wide receiver in Cincinnati. He is well on his way to doing just that, and regardless of coverage, Chase only got better and better. Shades of Randy Moss were apparent all season long, and Chase was arguably more explosive than either one of his Minnesota contemporaries, including former teammate Justin Jefferson.
Defensive Rookie of the Year – Evan McPherson
The title is misleading, as the kicker for the Bengals is obviously an offensive player. Cincinnati’s defense in 2021 was largely paid for or homegrown. The linebackers are all at least one year in. The secondary is predominantly via free agency, as is the defensive line. So without a newly-drafted rookie making a significant contribution on the defensive side of the ball, where do we pivot? It almost seems like a crime to not point at McPherson at some point when discussing this historic season.
Drafting a kicker is nearly taboo in today’s National Football League. It is often referred to as a “wasted” pick. But a franchise who has suffered through several years of suffering losses on the foot of an important player, it made sense. All “Evan Almighty” rewarded the trust of the franchise with was knocking through 84.8 percent of his attempts, including 9-for-11 from beyond 50 yards. That was just during the regular season. McPherson tied Adam Vinatieri for the most postseason field goals in history, nailing 14 three-point attempts. To say that he was not a part of the defense (as well as offense) would be to take away from an unbelievable rookie season. He was integral in holding other teams at bay, in addition to scoring points.
Biggest Surprise – B.J. Hill
In one of the most baffling twists leading into the 2021 season, Cincy dealt former first-round pick Billy Price (Center, Ohio State) to the New York Giants for interior defensive lineman Hill. Price had been a tremendous disappointment for the Bengals, and was largely considered a draft bust.
Hill was valued by the team as little more than defensive depth, but the decision by Duke Tobin and ownership proved to be one of the most important offseason moves. The North Carolina State alum started just two games in the regular season, but logged 5.5 sacks with 29 solo tackles (six for a loss) and added 12 quarterback hits. In the 2021 postseason, he played over 80 percent of the team’s snaps, sacked the quarterback 1.5 times and had 13 combined tackles. Hill moved other linemen to the practice squad while anchoring the middle of the defensive line alongside D.J. Reader. He cost just over $2 million to be an immobilizing presence in the absence of Geno Atkins, no shallow shoes to fill.
Biggest Disappointment – Jackson Carman
Carman’s disappointing season has already been documented, but it bears some repeating. The Bengals were absolutely right in drafting Chase over Sewell, but the key to the move was to still add an offensive line talent. Cincinnati traded back to nab Carman (and the move actually netted McPherson), but he did not come through. Burrow was under duress throughout the season, and the Clemson guard was amiss for the majority of it.
In a season where head coach Zac Taylor continued to instill his culture in the team, rookie Carman showed up out of shape. He was subsequently shoved down the depth chart. Rightfully so. There is nothing to suggest that the rookie would have won Cincinnati Super Bowl LVI. In fact, his absence had little bearing on the fact that they were even involved in the big game. Burrow is poised to be the highest-paid player in the NFL in three years (if not sooner), and the offensive line is a big part of it. Carman barely broke the starting lineup until injuries forced him into service. What he provided when called upon was less than stellar. The Bengals will be looking for him to take an enormous step forward in 2022.
One Burning Question
All any fans of Cincinnati can do is beat the dead horse. The lack of offensive line talent has been well documented. Really, this should still be “Two Burning Questions”. Maybe three. The good news for fans in Bengaldom is that falling just short in the Super Bowl means they are on the right track. No one expected them to be there.
Cincinnati has the fourth-most money available under the salary cap. In the last two years, ownership has done an about-face and demonstrated a willingness to spend. Jessie Bates needs to be under contract without a tag. C.J. Uzomah has meant so much to the leadership of this team, Taylor (newly re-upped through 2026) should just give him a blank check. The Bengals organization has always been about re-signing their own guys. If they continue that while adding to the offensive line, they are not going anywhere anytime soon.
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