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The Bengals Rebuild Will Be the Envy of the NFL. How Replicable Is It?

A cautionary note for a woebegone franchise that thinks it can have a two-year rise akin to Cincinnati’s

Getty Images/Ringer illlustration

Dear terrible NFL team,

I have good news and bad news. The good news is that the Bengals turned their franchise around in under two years. Everything they did in that span runs counter to everything they’d done for the past few decades. They won their first playoff game since the 1990 season just a few weeks ago and will appear in the Super Bowl for the first time since the 1988 season. About half of the league’s franchises are annually floating in the abyss, hiring and firing coaches, taking stabs at finding quarterbacks, and generally just floundering—the Bengals changed everything about as quickly as you can do it. If you run a terrible team, understand that this can happen fast. If you are currently rock bottom, you could be playing in the Super Bowl in February 2024.

Here’s the bad news: Large parts of this particular rebuild are unreplicable, even if you have the first pick, even if you have a great quarterback, even if you have tons of cap space. You are likely not finding the next Joe Burrow and Ja’Marr Chase in the next two drafts. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news. But you can take lessons from Cincinnati, and I wanted to share a few. Cheer up, hope is around the corner (sorry, Houston, not you).

1. Know your timetable.

I didn’t know it at the time, but I was at one of the most interesting games in recent years in 2019 in Miami. I’d been impressed with the Dolphins’ head coach at the time, Brian Flores, and had come to do a story on the team’s winning ways despite the widely reported assumption that it was engaged in a 76ers-style tank. I wanted to show how a team grinds through a lost season while trying to build a culture. Huh. Anyway, that Sunday, I took in Miami’s home finale against another team selecting near the top of the draft: the Cincinnati Bengals. A Dolphins win and a Bengals loss would clinch the no. 1 pick for Cincy (already presumed to be Burrow), which was fending off Washington and Detroit, who were threatening to be just as bad as the Bengals.

The game was completely ridiculous: Playing in a half-empty stadium, the Bengals scored 16 points in the final 29 seconds (this is not a typo) to force overtime. The game almost ended in a tie, but instead the Dolphins won with no time left in the extra period. I went to the Bengals locker room after the game and their players were devastated. Here’s what I wrote at the time: “No Bengal in view seemed to care they’d clinched a shot at Burrow after the game. In fact, during [Zac] Taylor’s press conference, frustrated shouting could be heard in the Bengals locker room. The Tank Bowl came and went and no one involved was actually tanking.”

The bulk of the Bengals team playing in Sunday’s Super Bowl was added in the past two years, but some starters remain from the team that played in the Tank Bowl: Joe Mixon, Sam Hubbard, Jessie Bates III, and Tyler Boyd, among others. If you’d told me that the team screaming in the locker room after one of the grimmest games I’ve ever seen would be in the Super Bowl in two seasons, I’d assume something special was going to happen. Well, it did. The team hit on Burrow, hit on Chase a year later, and pulled in one of the best free-agent hauls in recent years, this after using free agency sparingly in previous offseasons.

Now, you, dear general manager, will not have these luxuries. Burrow and Chase were a once-in-a-generation college duo that quickly became a once-in-a-generation pro duo. So you will not be in the Super Bowl as quickly as the Bengals, but their success establishes a general timetable: There is no excuse—none—for not showing you are on the right track by the end of Year 2. Depending on when the rebuild begins—and you can’t start much lower than where the Bengals were—you must have proof of concept midway through your second season, winning games you shouldn’t win, not losing to horrific teams, and not making crippling mistakes. It’s a low bar to clear, but too many coaches and front offices are patient when it’s unwarranted. An NFL rebuild is not over after two years—not even close—but the possibility for success must be apparent by then.

The Bengals were smart to know this, and to know that even though Burrow blew out his knee midway through his rookie season, he’d be ready to go in 2021 and that they needed to spend heading into his second year. They did not wait for Burrow to flash superstar traits before spending as if they had a superstar. From Sports Illustrated this week, explaining their great free agency plan: “In [Trey] Hendrickson, the coaches saw a guy who wasn’t playing as many snaps in New Orleans as he would in Cincinnati, and figured his production would explode if they could afford him more opportunity (correct). In Chidobe Awuzie, [Bengals executive Steven] Radicevic and the coaches found a remarkable level of consistency that was exactly what the secondary needed (correct). And they thought Mike Hilton was, simply put, the NFL’s best slot corner (correct).” Adding these pieces in favor of retaining their own free agents, like Carl Lawson and William Jackson, both of whom departed last spring, was not beloved by all. In fact, even though I loved the Bengals’ path going forward, I thought these free-agent swap-outs were stupid. Oops. “If you bring in once-in-a-lifetime talents, it’ll improve your team,” safety Jessie Bates said on Monday morning. “As long as you have the right people in the locker room.” By hitting on so many veterans around Burrow after investing in young stars at core positions, the Bengals sped up their timeline. You can, too. At least show something.

2. Turn your franchise over to your superstar.

“Ideally,” Bengals offensive coordinator Brian Callahan told me before the season, “you’d love to get to the point where he’s in that Peyton Manning mode, where he can just do whatever he sees.” Callahan was talking about having Burrow operate at the line of scrimmage, where Manning was at his best. But he meant it in other areas of the Bengals offense, too. The staff let Burrow have “free rein” at the line and coaches let Burrow run some of the team’s offensive meetings this year, when he would talk in-depth with Chase about routes. Peter King had a sampling of Burrow’s smarts and his say in the Bengals’ play-calling in his column on Monday:

Taylor thought of Burrow, and the play that put the Bengals into field-goal position to win in overtime. That’s how far ahead Burrow thinks. Early in the fourth quarter, against a certain KC coverage, Burrow told Taylor he wanted to run a 2-by-2 formation similar to a play they ran earlier when Ja’Marr Chase drew a pass-interference flag. Burrow wanted Higgins wide left, Chase wide right, and two receivers inside them, and he wanted Chase to run a shallow flat route to draw coverage, and Higgins ran a slant from left to right, about eight yards downfield.

Anyway, you know how that went. Burrow likes having a say about how the offense operates, and the Bengals have done a really good job of making him comfortable. Both Taylor and Callahan told me that they’ve emphasized a lot of concepts in Cincinnati’s playbook that dovetail with what Burrow did at LSU to help him adjust quickly. (A lot of his LSU teammates went on to become NFL players, so it wasn’t exactly groundbreaking material.)

Taylor was 6-25-1 in his first two seasons in Cincinnati, one with Andy Dalton as his starting quarterback and another with Burrow as a rookie who played 10 games before a knee injury knocked him out. I’m unconvinced that Taylor is a particularly great coach, but the best thing going for him is that he hasn’t gotten in Burrow’s way, which is more than you can say for a hell of a lot of other coaches. Burrow is the rarest thing in football: a legitimate culture-changer, who can erase a franchise’s losing mentality and instill belief where there was none before. When you have one of these rare culture-changers, remember to let them change the culture. The Bengals staff should be commended for doing that. There are more arrogant or stubborn staffs who would mess this up.

There simply aren’t a ton of guys like Burrow. Personality-wise, there are probably no quarterbacks I would comp to him. In Bruce Feldman’s book with Ed Orgeron about LSU’s national-championship-winning season in 2019, Burrow tells the story of getting in a fight at practice. His reasoning was that there’d been a fight earlier in practice he couldn’t participate in, so he just decided to start a different one later with linebacker and future first-round pick Patrick Queen. Uh, that’s different for a quarterback. This is a long way of saying you can’t simply take a first-round quarterback, tell him to start calling audibles, and let him run the locker room. Not every quarterback is equipped for that. But take whatever your quarterback does best and let him run wild with it. Support him. So many franchises don’t even do the bare minimum and are shocked when a guy’s career gets derailed.

Former Titans head coach Mike Mularkey once told me that people who thought he should have run the spread offense with Marcus Mariota—the offense that made him a star at Oregon—“don’t understand the NFL.” Andy Reid didn’t seem to have the same issue with it. Mariota was probably not destined to be a superstar, but sometimes a quarterback is failed immediately upon entering the league

3. Understand where to go from here.

Congratulations. You’ve found your quarterback, assembled a competitive roster, and turned your franchise around. Now what? Well, don’t act like you’ve made it. Duke Tobin, the Bengals’ de facto GM, and his staff, which consists of just six scouts, have done a remarkable job building the Bengals’ roster, and building it so well that the team’s one glaring weakness—the offensive line—hasn’t kept them from beating some really good AFC teams. But then there’s this:

One thing about the modern NFL is that the Rams’ all-in model is going to eventually become the rule, not the exception, for contending teams. The Chiefs trade first-round picks for veterans to augment their roster. The Rams need to start scouting college freshmen because that’s the next time they’ll have a first-round pick. The barrier for entry into the sport’s elite is higher than ever, and the Bengals need to be near perfect to make this sustainable. I was struck this week by a quote in The Athletic from a former GM about Burrow: “You can get on him if you like for getting sacked nine times,” he said, “but he is kind of like the general who said, ‘You know what, we are going to have to take some casualties here, men—I’m going to take some sacks, but I’m not going to turn it over and I’m going to get you 20 points on the board and they are going to beat the heck out of me.’”

What on earth? I understand toughness is appreciated and rewarded in the NFL. But we should not valorize getting hit over and over. Human bodies don’t work like that. We live in a post–Andrew Luck world, where there’s a clear example of what happens when a tough, young quarterback takes one hit too many. The Bengals must continue to invest in their offensive line; the Chiefs are a blueprint in this regard after retooling their offensive line on the fly last spring to much success (even if they still lost to the Bengals in the AFC title game). The best advice to any team on the rise is easy: keep going. There is no next Joe Burrow waiting in the draft. But teams can still catch up to you quickly. The Bengals just showed the league how quickly it can be done.