For those in Bengaldom who may be wondering, this isn’t 1994. Despite the similarities, it’s actually 2020—the year that will live in infamy for so many reasons.
Zac Taylor took over the Cincinnati Bengals last year, with a lot of work to do. Last year was primarily about roster evaluation, with the first-time head coach figuring out who would be fitting into his long-term plans.
It hasn’t been easy, as Taylor has had to navigate through two of the most difficult offseasons any coach would have to endure. A late start on assembling his staff in 2019 because of his participation in the Super Bowl and the Covid crisis this year has absolutely hindered Taylor in being his most effective.
Throw in some major injuries to a couple of franchise greats and a first-round rookie, as well as ailments to high-profile free agents to start off both seasons and it’s hard to blame him for three wins in almost one and a half seasons. But, as many successes and failures seem to be, Taylor’s 3-18-1 record is a two-way street.
This has become painfully evident this week. After some bubbling, passive-aggressive comments by Bengals players over the past couple of weeks, Carlos Dunlap has led the charge of social media mutiny on Taylor, Lou Anarumo and anybody else patrolling the Bengals’ sidelines with headphones instead of helmets.
We could go on and on in commenting on this situation, but instead we’ll segue it into what’s happening on the field Sunday. After all, these situations play into the individual matchups and overall importance of the 2020 rematch of “The Battle of Ohio”.
A few weeks ago, the Bengals put up a semi-valiant effort against their bitter rivals in Cleveland. Joe Burrow was hit incessantly and the running game productivity for both teams was completely lopsided, but somehow, Cincinnati only lost by five points.
It had a little bit of an element of Fool’s Gold, given Burrow throwing what could be deemed a “garbage time touchdown” to bring it close, but the rookie threw the first of three straight 300-yard passing games against the Browns, and kickstart his ascent into NFL stardom, despite what is now a 1-4-1 record.
Burrow has made a handful of “rookie mistakes” to contribute to that record, but they are far less frequent than many other rookie signal-callers we’ve seen. It’s a myriad of issues and a lack of a “clutch gene” that has continuously doomed the Taylor era.
Frankly, the latter issue is engrained in the DNA of the organization since its inception.
Also engrained in the genetics of the Bengals franchise is its hatred of the Browns. Ever since Paul Brown was unceremoniously relieved of his duties from the team he helped form, his new franchise’s primary goal was to defeat them every single season.
The elder Brown would be spinning in his grave watching Baker Mayfield’s success against the Bengals. We know that the NFL is cyclical and that Cleveland would eventually find its stride in some fashion, but Mayfield’s 4-1 record versus Cincinnati and his 12 touchdown passes are absolutely mind-boggling.
Particularly when it seems that questions on his long-term starting viability arise on many weeks outside of the two “Battle of Ohio” contests.
If there is such a thing as a signature win for a coach who only has three of them in 22 tries, Taylor nabbed one in the 2019 season finale against these Browns. While his job was safe after tying a franchise-worst mark with a 2-14 record last year, this second go-round with Cleveland this year looms large and could provide a major boost to a team starved for something positive.
Mike Brown and Co. are notoriously loyal and slow-moving to change (just look at the transition from Marvin Lewis to Taylor), so it’s entirely possible that Taylor is safe until at least the conclusion of the 2021 season, regardless of the win-loss records over the next two years. Still, if there’s a week wherein Taylor’s seat could get blue-flame hot, it’s this one.
Losing at home against the hated Browns and amassing a 1-3 coaching record against Cleveland in two years just won’t sit well with the Brown family. If an embarrassing loss by a heap of points ensues...?
Many are inclined to think that Cincinnati will improve upon its last performance and for good reason. The Bengals are at home and aren’t coming off of a short week—nor are they under those pesky, bright primetime lights. Nick Chubb, who carved the Bengals up for 124 yards and two scores a month ago is out this week.
But, unfortunately for the Bengals, Joe Mixon and William Jackson are also unavailable. The former is a focal point of Cincinnati’s offense, while the latter is having a great season at corner and is needed to shadow Odell Beckham, Jr.
Throw in the drama with Dunlap, the team still easing Geno Atkins back into more significant snaps and D.J. Reader recently landing on I.R. and Cleveland could easily put up more than the 35 we saw in Week 2. Especially considering Kareem Hunt is the guy relieving Chubb.
Playing into Cincinnati’s corner is the return of Mike Daniels from a brief I.R. stint, as well as the recent emergence of some very important players and position groups. A.J. Green nearly had his first 100-yard receiving game since 2018, while the offensive line has slowly improved the past few weeks—by whatever standards we should use with that group.
There is a sense that the Bengals could be playing angry this week and catch a Browns team being sluggish because of their overlooking of Cincinnati and nursing of their own bruises. It’s definitely possible, but these Bengals just seem to find creative ways to lose games they seem to have sewn up.
In truth, this game for many Cincinnati players is a shot at redemption. Will a potentially-hungry and recently-disgraced Dunlap make explosive plays as a rotational rusher?
Can Taylor and offensive coordinator Brian Callahan coordinate a game plan to make Giovani Bernard, Samaje Perine and Trayveon Williams effective (no fullback dives, please.)? Will Darius Phillips step up in a big way after not backing up his social media talk last week against the Colts?
While Burrow and the offensive line playing well are obvious keys this week, the team’s ability, or lack thereof, to stop the run and subsequent play-action plays by Mayfield will be absolutely critical. In Taylor’s lone win against the Browns, Cincinnati’s defense hit Mayfield eight times and sacked him six, while allowing just 74 rushing yards.
If they can get anywhere close to that from Anarumo’s crew, this is a W. If it resembles something more like evening of September 17th, it’s going to be a Bobby Knight, chair-throwing kind of viewing experience for Bengals fans.
Truth be told, through the first half of this week, I was actually pretty confident the Bengals would pull out a comfortable win on Sunday. In fact, I was thinking somewhere in the two-possession range in a “get right game” for the Taylor’s boys to quiet the masses.
But, with the off-field drama and aforementioned injuries hitting the team from basically Tuesday on, this has all of the hallmarks of Taylor’s 19th loss in 23 games as a head coach.
Browns 34, Bengals 23
AC — Is it?