Yahoo Sports is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, counting down the teams one per weekday in reverse order of our initial 2021 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on Aug. 4, the day before the Hall of Fame Game.
The good feelings for the Cincinnati Bengals lasted nine games and a little more than two quarters. That's just how it is rooting for the Bengals.
Through those first nine and a half games, the Bengals had to feel they were finally headed in the right direction. Joe Burrow, the first pick of the draft, was a hit. He was everything he was advertised to be coming out of LSU.
In the third quarter of that 10th game against the Washington Football Team, two defenders converged on Burrow. One hit him low. His knee bent the wrong way, tearing the ACL and MCL. It wasn't just the Bengals and their fans who should have felt they were punched in the gut. Every NFL fan should have been upset to see a potential star quarterback go down.
It's not overstating things to say the next decade for the Bengals will be determined by what comes next.
The news has been good since Burrow's injury, which happened last Dec. 2. Burrow's surgeon Dr. Neal ElAttrache told ESPN in May that the quarterback would be ready for Week 1. Burrow said at the start of OTAs in late May that his knee is about 85% recovered and he expressed optimism for the start of the season, according to the Cincinnati Enquirer.
That's great. It's better than hearing bad news. But it doesn't mean Burrow will ever be the same quarterback.
In 2013, Robert Griffin III was coming back from an NFL offensive rookie of the year award and a major knee injury. He rushed back for the start of the season. He did make it back, but was never the same player. There were other factors involved in Griffin's failure, and they were unrelated to the injury. Griffin and Burrow aren't the same player. Plenty of other players have returned from serious knee injuries and played just fine. But it's a reminder that a return to the field doesn't mean Burrow will be the same player. We'll have to see how he looks when the games start.
The good news is a healthy Burrow could be a top-tier quarterback for a long time. While Justin Herbert's great rookie season hogged the attention, both players were shining before Burrow's injury. Burrow had 2,688 yards, 13 touchdowns and five interceptions in 10 starts. He wasn't a finished product, but he was very good for a rookie.
The Bengals need Burrow to get back on that path. While we don't know if Zac Taylor can coach, considering his thin resume when he was hired and a 6-25-1 record in two seasons, the roster is improving. Tee Higgins had a fine rookie season and the Bengals added Ja'Marr Chase, the obvious No. 1 receiver in this class, with the fifth overall pick. The offensive line has a long way to go but the Bengals are trying to improve it. The defense has been adding pieces, mostly through free agency. The rebuild will take a while, but it seems to be on the right track.
The key piece to any success in the next few years is Burrow. If he has lost a lot after the injury, the Bengals go back to square one. And we won't know if Burrow is truly healthy until he's back on the field, in a game that counts. Hold your breath.
The Bengals are still the Bengals, and retaining their own free agents has never been a strength. But at least it's not just a talent drain; the Bengals have been willing to spend on players the past couple years. Defensive end Trey Hendrickson and cornerbacks Mike Hilton and Chidobe Awuzie were the big additions. Tackle Riley Reiff will help the offensive line. There were some big losses. Defensive end Carl Lawson and cornerback William Jackson III signed big deals elsewhere. Other homegrown players like Geno Atkins, A.J. Green, Giovani Bernard and John Ross are gone too. LSU receiver Ja'Marr Chase headlined the draft class. The second pick was offensive lineman Jackson Carman, and the Bengals need to hit that pick given the state of their offensive line. The next three picks were defensive linemen or edge rushers. Some more help on the offensive line would have bumped up the grade, but the Bengals have a lot of holes to fill and you can't get to them all in one offseason.
Joe Burrow's success, assuming full health, will be tied to the offensive line getting better. Considering how little time Burrow had to throw last season, his success was even more impressive. Riley Reiff and rookie Jackson Carman need to help. The Bengals don't want Burrow taking more hits coming off a torn ACL and MCL, and his development could be stunted if he can't trust his protection. He also won't reach his potential as a deep passer — and properly use Ja'Marr Chase — if he doesn't have time.
BetMGM set the Bengals' win total for the season at 6.5. Even though the Bengals are relatively low in these rankings, that's due to the uncertainty surrounding Burrow. I'll be taking the over of 6.5 and betting on Burrow's health. Because if Burrow is healthy, the Bengals could have a nice breakthrough. There are certainly enough offensive weapons. Hopefully the Bengals end up being one of the NFL's more entertaining teams.
From Yahoo's Scott Pianowski: "When you draft a fantasy running back with an early pick, you’re also investing in the overall offense — and to some degree, the overall team. And as Joe Mixon steps into his age-25 season, he’s surrounded by the best Bengals team he’s ever been on.
"That declaration might not sound like much, but the Bengals did win just 19 games over the past four years. The offensive line probably won't be great but it’s been improved, and the Cincinnati passing game could keep the offense running at a high octane. No one expects the Bengals to be a playoff team, but it's plausible this can be a fun, entertaining fantasy unit.
"The Cincinnati backfield depth is wafer-thin after Mixon; he’ll be given as much work as he can handle. He’s very likely to return value, perhaps even a profit, at his current Yahoo ADP of 24.2."
Zac Taylor's record is 6-25-1. Pro Football Reference's winning percentage rankings only include coaches with four years of experience, but Taylor's .203 winning percentage would be the second-worst in NFL history if he qualified. He's ahead of only Bert Bell. Hue Jackson is third. Taylor didn't have much on his resume when he was hired, but he was friends with Sean McVay and was supposed to transform the Bengals offense. In Taylor's two seasons, the Bengals offense has ranked 29th each time in Football Outsiders' DVOA per-play rating. Has Taylor not had enough talent on hand to do better than six wins in two seasons, or was he a bad hire? His third year should provide an answer.
Why did the Bengals draft Ja'Marr Chase over Penei Sewell?
The Bengals were in a challenging spot with the fifth pick of the draft. It wasn't a bad spot picking between the best offensive lineman in the draft and the best receiver, but it couldn't have been an easy call. The Bengals need to protect Joe Burrow, and Oregon tackle Penei Sewell was a great prospect. Ja'Marr Chase was the top receiver in the class and will help Burrow in different ways.
The chemistry Burrow and Chase had at LSU in 2019 seemed to play into the decision to take Chase. Zac Taylor said he'd watched the film of Burrow throwing to Chase at LSU "10,000 times."
"I remember the first conversation we had about Ja'Marr Chase was watching Joe Burrow play in college last year and saying, 'Oh my goodness, we have this receiver also,'" Taylor said after the pick. "And we found out he wasn't available. He was too young. Me and (Bengals offensive coordinator) Brian Callahan just talked about, 'Man, what if you had that guy on your team? So for it to play out the way it did was exciting for us."
It's a little bit of a stretch to project the Bengals as a playoff contender, even if Burrow returns at 100 percent. For as well as he played, the Bengals were only 2-7-1 in his starts. There's a lot of work to do. But it's possible the Bengals become one of the most explosive offenses in the NFL if Burrow is back to full health and the skill-position talent of Joe Mixon, Ja'Marr Chase, Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd all stay healthy too. If the only positive from this season is Burrow being healthy and playing well, the Bengals would take it. But there could be a lot more excitement in Cincinnati beyond that.
Injury optimism is often misguided. Players can come back, but it doesn't mean they will return to their pre-injury form. It's hard to even put into words how devastating it would be if Burrow looks like a shell of himself after a major knee injury. That's not to say Burrow couldn't look great in 2022, another year removed from the injury, but all eyes will be on him this season. If he never fully rebounds, the Bengals start all over. It also wouldn't be ideal if Burrow looks fine and the rest of the team isn't very good — that was the script last season, after all — but realistically this section is all about Burrow and his knee. That might be too simple of a way to analyze the 2021 Bengals, but it's the overwhelming storyline facing the franchise.
By next offseason, I think the focus will shift from Joe Burrow's health to how soon the Bengals can compete for a division title. This offense should be very good, and even though the record this season might not be great, there will be enough positive vibes to believe Cincinnati is ascending. I don't trust Zac Taylor yet and Burrow needs to prove he's healthy, which is why I can't rank them higher before the season. But there's a clear potential for a fun season, with hope for even better things in 2022.