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NFL Draft

Bengals Will Have Successful 2021 Season If…

  • The Draft Network
  • July 23, 2021
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As we’ve gone through this successful season series, it’s been pretty clear that some teams’ successful seasons rest on their win total, divisional rankings, playoff berths, and playoff performances for 2021. Those teams have chances to contend this season.

And then some teams… don’t have that. Instead, their successful 2021 seasons are conditional on building a contender. Figuring out if their quarterbacks are legit, who their star young talent is, or if their offseason moves were enough to keep a hot seat general manager around for one more year. Such is the case for the Cincinnati Bengals, who picked in the top five last year, are one of the youngest teams in the league, and have only won six games total in the last two seasons.

Those last two seasons are important because they were the first two seasons of Zac Taylor’s tenure. After 16 years of Marvin Lewis and the stability of mediocrity, the Bengals made Taylor only their fourth coach of the 2000s and immediately got worse. It kinda had to happen; you have to get worse before you can get better when you’ve been stuck in the middle of the road. But the time to get better is now, and faith in Taylor is tough to come by.

And it’s not that things are totally bad in Cincinnati. Joe Burrow looked like a legit NFL quarterback during his rookie season before going down for injury; Joe Mixon, when healthy, has looked like a solid NFL running back; Tee Higgins had a solid rookie season in concert with Burrow; and, you know… Jessie Bates III is good on defense!

But those individual players—good, promising, and exciting in a vacuum—haven’t coalesced into strong units and subsequent wins. So that’s a kudos to the front office, not to the coaching staff. Judging a head coach’s effect on his team can be tricky, but Taylor’s Bengals were 2-5-1 in close games last season, and his offense delivered a fourth-worst 5.9 yards/play across the course of the season. Taylor was aggressive on fourth downs per, which is nice to see, and converted a lot of them, which is even better to see—but his offense also invited a ton of sacks, as his third-down offense was woefully lacking (36% conversion rate, 30th in the league).

In short: Taylor was brought in as a young Sean McVay disciple to fix the offense. Two seasons in and he hasn’t. 

Now, he still has his job, and that’s appropriate. With Ja’Marr Chase added, some (alleged) reinforcements on the offensive line coming in, and Burrow hopefully returning healthy, Taylor will have every tool necessary to build a really impressive offense. There are few deficiencies left on the Bengals’ offense, save for the offensive line that they seem dedicated to neglecting. And if the offensive line is the reason Taylor’s offense struggles in 2021… well sometimes, that’s just the way the cookie crumbles.

Taylor deserves this third season to figure things out in Cincinnati, just for how poor the roster has been for his first two seasons. But there’s little reason to give him another season to figure it out if the results from this season aren’t clearly promising. 

A successful season for the Bengals gives them a firm idea of what they have in Taylor. If he’s bad, great! Fire him and have a really attractive job opening with exciting young offensive talent and ownership that promises long leashes and stability. A bottom-10 offense would surely be frustrating to swallow in the short term, but if you get to hire Brian Daboll next offseason, you’ll get over it pretty quickly. And if Taylor is good, great! Keep him around and try to build that defense into a playoff contender. A top-10 offense could get you to a .500 season and some sneaky wins, but you’ll need more than that to deliver consistent playoff contention.

The nightmare situation? A bad start, a kinda good finish, a six-win season, and enough reason to talk yourself into another Taylor year, but not enough to actually feel good about it. The Bengals have to figure out exactly what their young nucleus of Taylor/Burrow offers this season, and if there’s a weakness there, moving on from Taylor is the necessary move to maximize Burrow’s remaining rookie contract years. If that’s the necessary move, they need to know by the end of this season.

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