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Bengals must strive for a winning culture despite losing Joe Burrow

While Joe Burrow begins the recovery process, the Bengals still have plenty of work to do this season.

NFL: NOV 01 Titans at Bengals Photo by Ian Johnson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Cincinnati Bengals came into their Week 11 matchup with the Washington Football Team with a chance to kickstart a strong second half of the season. They failed to beat Washington, but that was not the true tragedy of the day.

It is fair to say that Joe Burrow’s injury was an unfortunate play and that any NFL quarterback risks this type of injury when he steps on the field. It is also fair to say that the Bengals did not do enough this offseason to add talent to the offensive line and protect their new quarterback. For this reason, it makes sense that many Bengals fans are looking forward to the 2021 NFL Draft. As of now, they’re in position to take the best non-quarterback in the draft, and that may be Oregon offensive tackle Penei Sewell.

There is no denying that getting the best offensive lineman and arguably the best overall player in the draft would be a huge win for this team, but let’s think before deciding to go down the same road we went down last season. Last year, many fans wanted Joe Burrow at all costs and were cheering to lose games, so they could get him.

Burrow is an incredible player, and we are all excited that he is here. But even if you surround him with talented players, it’s not enough. There have been many extremely talented teams who have not been successful or whose success has been short-lived because they never developed a winning culture. They were a group of highly skilled individuals, not a team with a common standard.

Look at the Cleveland Browns. In 2019, they supposedly won the offseason by adding Odell Beckahm Jr., Kareem Hunt, Sheldon Richardson, and Olivier Vernon among others, but won just six games that season. Why? Because they didn’t hire a coach to build a winning culture in a franchise that desperately needed it. Instead of going after a legitimate head coaching candidate, they made interim head coach Freddie Kitchens the full-time head coach because quarterback Baker Mayfield liked him (remember that, we’ll come back to it later.).

Conversely, the Miami Dolphins ended up getting it right. Like the Bengals, many expected them to tank last season to get a quarterback. This idea was reinforced when they cut older players and dealt young players for high draft picks. The problem is that nobody told head coach Brian Flores.

After starting the season 0-7, the Dolphins won five of their last nine games including quality wins against the Philadelphia Eagles and New England Patriots and pulling out the overtime victory against the Bengals. Cincinnati may’ve secured the first-overall pick, but Miami won the game and it helped them grow as a team. They learned how to win a close game; something the Bengals are still trying to figure out.

Yes, an improved roster has made the Dolphins a more talented team, but learning how to compete and win became the biggest difference for the franchise, which is why they are an aspiring contender now that their roster is a competitive one.

Burrow is a winner, but he cannot bring a winning culture to Cincinnati by himself, and what happened last weekend only makes that clearer. He may have been the driving force behind the team’s success early in the season, but he’s gone. So what are they going to do now?

What is Culture?

Culture. Just because you can’t measure it and it’s not easy to see, doesn’t mean it isn’t real.

All the greats talk about it.

Bill Walsh had his “Standard of Performance.” Nick Saban calls it Alabama’s “Standard of Excellence.” Bill Belichick, of course, has “The Patriot Way.” And as much as I hate to bring it up, Mike Tomlin has “The Standard is the Standard” in Pittsburgh.

These are more than just catchy slogans. Each is a collection of what a team values that guides everything they do.

It’s not just in sports either. It’s in all organizations. In his book Good to Great, Jim Collins talks about how great companies have a “Culture of Discipline.”

While there may be subtle differences, the basic traits of any winning culture are always the same. There are high expectations and every individual is held accountable for reaching them. In order for this to happen, it can’t just be about one coach or one player, it has to be about everybody. Everyone has to buy in.

Winning is Important

Winning is the goal and when you win it reinforces your behavior.

If you work hard all week and on game day but come up short, it’s harder to show that same effort the following week.

If you work hard all week and on game day and get the win, you will likely show the same or greater effort the following week. After all, you got the reward you wanted. We are all more likely to repeat behaviors that have positive consequences.

I once coached a player who was resistant to the tackling technique that I taught him. It was different, and he hadn’t bought in. Then it came to game day and faced with an open-field tackle at a key moment, he used the technique and made an incredible tackle. He had success (a personal win) with the technique and from that moment on, that was how he tackled. He knew how to do it all along, he just hadn’t demonstrated it. When he did, he was rewarded for it and he bought in.

Culture isn’t about technique, but it is about buying in and everyone believing in what they are doing. If you don’t have that, you don’t have a team. And when an entire team wins, their culture is reinforced, and they gain confidence in what they are doing.

Of course, the opposite is also true. In 2007, I was a full-time college coach and as a result. paid little attention to the NFL. One of the first games I watched that season was the Week 17 matchup between the 15-0 New England Patriots and the New York Giants who were fighting to make the playoffs.

Obviously, I had heard that the Patriots were on the verge of a perfect season and I knew about the overwhelming talent they had on both sides of the ball, but as I watched that game I did not see what I had expected. At one point I even said out loud: “Oh my God, they’re not good!” Needless to say, I got some very confused looks from those around me, but when watching that game I saw a talented Patriots team that didn’t know how to compete.

The problem with having that much success is that you start to buy your own hype. You think you are better than everyone else, so you start to let the little things slide. You don’t work as hard as you did at the beginning of the season. You watch a little less film. You start to get sloppy in your technique. You leave the office a little earlier than you once did. You start to think, “Why should I worry about this? It’s just a little thing, and we are going to win on Sunday anyway.” To make matters worse, you don’t see the problem, which makes it impossible to correct.

I told everyone in the room that day that if the Patriots won that game they wouldn’t win the Super Bowl. Of course, there was no way to know that it would actually be a rematch with the Giants in the Super Bowl, but in the end, one of the most talented teams of all time lost sight of its winning culture. They weren’t doing the little things and because they were still winning, they didn’t fix the problem.

How do you Build a Winning Culture?

Bill Walsh wrote a great book called “The Score Takes Care of Itself: My Philosophy on Leadership.” The title of the book says a lot.

We tend to look at winning games as a thing that teams do, but it’s not. It’s the result of a lot of smaller things that teams do, over and over again.

Winning does not happen overnight. It takes time to build a culture of winning that sets high expectations and holds each individual accountable. A team that goes 4-12 one year and 12-4 the next is not an overnight success. The seeds of the 12-4 season were sown in the way the team competed in the 4-12 season.

Can a team or a company have short-term success without a winning culture? Absolutely. If you have a great product and a market for it, your business will make a lot of money. If you have an incredible scheme and good players, you will win a lot of games. But it won’t last long.

The Bengals showed some fight in 2019, but they couldn’t turn the corner. They couldn’t win close games. Fast-forward a year and it is the same story. A great quarterback may have made this team more fun to watch, but he can’t change the culture by himself.

Remember that winning isn’t what you do, it is the result of all the things you do. This team can’t win as many games without Burrow as they could have won if he was healthy, that is a fact. But they can still do all the little things right and become a more competitive team. If they do that, maybe they can steal a game or two in the last few weeks. If they can learn to win without Burrow, just imagine how good they will be once he comes back.

This team needs to come out every week and fight for the win. They don’t have Burrow, but that has no impact on the expectations they should have for themselves and their accountability to everyone else on the team.

In all likelihood, it isn’t going to be pretty. The Bengals will probably get blown out in at least a few games, but there are other games on the schedule that they should be able to keep close. If they can do that, it comes down to situational football. Can they be better on third downs, in the red zone, and at the end of the half than they were earlier in the season? If they can improve in those situations, they will build confidence, and maybe they’ll put themselves in a position to pull off the upset.

These small steps can snowball and play a huge part in the development of the team’s culture. There will be mistakes, but it’s not about not making mistakes. It’s about not repeating mistakes.

This team needs to improve while Burrow is sidelined. They cannot afford to punt on the season and be happy with their high draft pick. It will put them another year behind.

That’s why the expectations for this team should not change. They still need to fight for wins and build confidence heading into next season.

Losing Joe Burrow

All indications are that Burrow likes head coach Zac Taylor. Burrow and Taylor seem to be on the same page, which is a good thing. It also means that the strongest leader on the team has the coach’s back.

There have been reports that the players in the Bengals’ locker room are not happy with Taylor and his staff. Burrow’s support may have been keeping that in check, but with the team captain out, Taylor will have to win the team over by himself. There were concerns earlier in the season that Taylor may have lost the locker room, but with Burrow’s support this could never truly happen. Now that Burrow is not on the field, we will quickly find out if there is a problem.

When I talked about the Browns above, I alluded to how the quarterback liking the head coach can sometimes be a bad thing. It was why they had the wrong guy in Cleveland. It is important that ownership’s faith in Taylor does not stem solely from Burrow’s support for him. Burrow has his own job and the front office has theirs.

Without Burrow, this team will have to change. Everyone must step up their game for them to have any chance of winning. Taylor must be perfect as a play-caller because Burrow isn’t there to create if the play breaks down. The receivers need to get more separation because they can’t rely on Burrow’s pinpoint accuracy. The offensive line cannot rely on Burrow’s pocket presence to prevent sacks. The defense cannot give up scores knowing that the offense can counter.

This is a terrible situation, but with adversity comes opportunity. This coaching staff should not be excused from winning the rest of the season. They have a tremendous opportunity to prove their worth. They need to come up with creative plays to make the most of the talent they have. Don’t forget that the West Coast Offense was first put into use because the Bengals lost Greg Cook and had to figure out how to win with Virgil Carter.

Joe Burrow’s rookie season has come to an end and it absolutely sucks. While the outlook is grim, the Bengals have six games left on their schedule. That is six opportunities to get better and prepare for 2021. They cannot afford to waste them.