It’s that time of year when some NFL teams have started looking toward next year. As each is officially eliminated, The Ringer will examine what went right, what went wrong, and where the franchise could go from here. Today it’s the Bengals, who despite beating the Raiders on Sunday, were eliminated from the playoff hunt at 6-8.
What Went Right
A few of the Bengals’ young offensive playmakers stepped up this year. Third-year wideout Tyler Boyd is in the midst of a breakout season, having racked up 1,028 receiving yards and seven touchdowns. The former second-round pick looks like he’ll be a perfect complement for A.J. Green moving forward. And sophomore running back Joe Mixon has recorded 1,279 scrimmage yards and nine touchdowns in 12 games.
On the other side of the ball, Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap continue to anchor a great defensive line. But other than those two, there wasn’t much else to write home about.
What Went Wrong
The optimism surrounding the Bengals’ 4-1 start evaporated in a hurry. The team lost by a touchdown to the Steelers in Week 6 and got blown out by the Chiefs in Week 7. From there, it all fell apart, culminating in a five-game losing streak following the team’s Week 9 bye.
Injuries have also plagued Cincinnati this year. Quarterback Andy Dalton’s season ended after he tore ligaments in his thumb in Week 12. A.J. Green followed him to the injured reserve list in Week 13 with a toe injury. Most recently, Boyd sprained his MCL in this week’s 30-16 win over Oakland, and that injury could be season-ending. Other notable players have also missed time, including offensive tackle Cordy Glenn (back), linebacker Vontaze Burfict (concussion), corner Dre Kirkpatrick (shoulder), and linebacker Nick Vigil (knee). But don’t be fooled—this team was mediocre well before the injuries began piling up.
Perhaps the most ridiculous thing that went wrong for this team in 2018, though, is that it hired former Browns coach Hue Jackson midway through the season, seemingly because Cincinnati had two games left against Cleveland and wanted some inside information. That plan did not work out.
Now, the Bengals will face a decision regarding head coach Marvin Lewis. He’s been with the franchise for 16 seasons, compiling a 131-120-3 regular-season record but an 0-7 résumé in the playoffs. That’s not a record worth getting excited about, though it’s also been the most successful stretch in franchise history. In the 35 seasons prior to Lewis’s arrival, the team had made the playoffs just seven times and was one of the most hopeless franchises in sports. Since he’s taken over, the team has ceased to be a laughingstock. But that may not be a high enough ceiling anymore, as this will be Lewis’s third straight year missing the playoffs.
This franchise needs a jolt of life. Cincinnati ranks 31st in attendance this season after finishing in that same spot last season (both years the Bengals beat out only the Chargers, who play in a stadium that is less than half the size of any other in the league). Even if the roster was at full strength, the Bengals are one of the least interesting teams in football. Cincinnati may decide that to turn a new page for the franchise, it’ll need a new head coach.
Cincinnati is projected to have $53.2 million in effective space in 2019, per Over the Cap, the 10th-highest figure in the league. That gives the Bengals significant flexibility this offseason, especially since many of their star players are already locked in to long-term contracts, including Atkins and Dunlap. Michael Johnson, a longtime starter at defensive end, will need a new deal at the end of the season. And virtually every tight end on the team—Tyler Eifert, C.J. Uzomah, even Tyler Kroft—will also hit free agency. But those are the only notable names set to enter the market this offseason.
The Bengals are in a tough spot. Though the team has been eliminated from postseason contention with two weeks to play, it has recorded six wins, which means it may not even get top-10 pick—11 teams currently have five wins or fewer.
Cincinnati could use its early picks on offensive linemen or linebackers, but don’t be surprised if the Bengals jump on a quarterback. Dalton has two years left on his contract, and remember—this team desperately needs some excitement. Grabbing a rookie quarterback would be one way to make that happen.