It’s finally here.
After the conclusion of one of the most anticipated and active offseasons in Cincinnati Bengals history, this new-look squad takes the field for the first time this Sunday. Armed with a new franchise quarterback, around a half-dozen new starters on defense and a coaching staff getting their feet under them in its collective second season together, things are trending up for the team.
Don’t tell the pundits that though, as most prognosticators have the Bengals finishing at or near the AFC North cellar in 2020. “Too much transition for one year”, “not enough talent to compete with Pittsburgh, Baltimore and/or Cleveland” and other reasonings highlight the long list as to why we should expect a fifth consecutive losing season from the Who Dey boys.
Those who actually care to examine the Bengals with a microscope instead of a fun house mirror may see things a bit clearer, though. For years, the argument always centered around what Andy Dalton could or couldn’t do with the talent surrounding him. Now, he’s gone and the most exciting quarterback prospect since “Manning-comma-Peyton” came out of college fell into the Bengals’ laps.
Yet, even in a quarterback-driven league, Cincinnati’s doubters remain.
What these pundits won’t admit is that, at the heart of their doubts, is the age-old “Because it’s the Bengals” argument. Even with the successes seen under Marvin Lewis, as well as the legendary greatness of Sam Wyche and Paul Brown, the massive failures of the 1990s and on recent primetime television have branded a negative image in the minds of the general public.
It’s hard to blame them in many regards, as this franchise hasn’t been a beacon of NFL success. But, on the occasions of when they have been oh-so-close to that pinnacle of football greatness, it’s when they’ve had iconic quarterback play to take them there.
Ken Anderson. Boomer Esiason. Yes, even Carson Palmer and Andy Dalton. And, dare we say...Joe Burrow?
Of the many big moves the team made this offseason, “earning” the right to draft the 2019 Heisman Trophy winner is the one that most moves the needle. The 2020 Draft crop of quarterbacks could rival that of 1983 and Burrow should be the head of this class.
Ironically, the team coming to town to kickoff the season also made a heavy draft investment at the position. Justin Herbert may have been in the conversation for the Bengals at No. 1 overall, but with Burrow being their guy and Tua Tagovailoa being the Dolphins’ a few picks later, the former Oregon Ducks star went to the Chargers at No. 6 overall.
For all of the fanfare small-market Cincinnati had on the city this offseason, the bright lights of Hollywood shined bright upon the other Los Angeles football franchise set to arrive in The Queen City this weekend. Between their opening (and sharing) of a new stadium and an appearance on “Hard Knocks”—both with the Rams—the football-loving world has received a large amount of exposure to Herbert and the Chargers.
And, what we have supposedly learned in the summer months is that Burrow is ready to start right now, whereas Herbert is not. So, Los Angeles turns to Tyrod Taylor, who has not started an NFL game since Week 3 of the 2018 season with the Browns, but will be “the guy” for the Chargers this Sunday.
Taylor brings a bit of steadiness, albeit a low ceiling, while Burrow is the unproven, but highly-gifted commodity. Because of this, a significant portion of Week 1’s focus is on the ancillary talent around both signal-callers.
Both the Chargers and Bengals appear to be loaded at the offensive skill positions. Keenan Allen, Mike Williams (though he’s a little dinged up this week) and Austin Ekeler make up a formidable hydra for Los Angeles, as Taylor will likely rely upon manageable completions to move the sticks from each of these talents.
Meanwhile, Cincinnati’s wide receiver corps boasts NFL top-end starters about five players deep, while Joe Mixon and Giovani Bernard are one of the best one-two running back tandems in the NFL. The cupboard is stocked for Burrow in his first career NFL start.
The issue for Cincinnati’s offense? Its line. Will Burrow, Mixon, Bernard and Co. be able to actually operate efficiently behind a patchwork line?
Another thing clouding the outcome of this game—aside from the supposed storm rolling into Cincinnati for the first part of Sunday—is injuries. Major names are set to be sidelined and, oddly enough, they are their opponents’ positional counterparts.
Bengals’ star defensive tackle Geno Atkins won’t be playing on Sunday, nor will Shawn Williams. Cincinnati can get potentially get past these absences (Atkins’ will be immensely difficult, though), thanks to the offseason acquisitions of Mike Daniels, D.J. Reader and Vonn Bell, respectively, to do enough on defense to stifle Taylor and Co.
The Chargers’ Williams is questionable this week, while another high-profile offseason addition for the Bengals is currently on Injured Reserve in Trae Waynes. In steps Darius Phillips in another example of the medical cat-and-mouse game for Week 1.
However, the Atkins injury writes a terrible twist of fate for Bengals head coach Zac Taylor. After an offseason hampered by a late start because of his participation in the Super Bowl with the Rams, Taylor was without his best offensive player in A.J. Green for the entire 2019 season. Now, he’s staring down the barrel of the possibility of losing his best defensive player (Atkins) for the first part of September one year later.
Speaking of Atkins, the Chargers will be extremely limited on their own offensive lines. Center Mike Pouncey is out, as is Trai Turner, minimizing the sidelining of Atkins to another degree.
Additionally, arguably the Chargers’ best player, defensive back Derwin James, is out for the year. While no one basks in an injury to another player, this undoubtedly allows Bengals defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo to wipe the beads of sweat off of his forehead a bit.
All this said, for you gamblers out there, if it sounds like there are a lot of “pushes” in this game, you’d be correct.
The expectations for the game itself? Sloppy.
Rain is supposed to arrive in Cincinnati in the morning and stay into the afternoon, as of now. Often times after a rain storm, breezes kick up further complicating offensive game plans. Throw in a lack of an entire preseason for both players and officials, and you’ve got a frustrating day ahead for the viewership.
There are a handful of key players to watch outside of Burrow and Taylor, though. Bengals left tackle Jonah Williams is essentially an extra first-round pick for Cincinnati this year after being injured for all of 2019 and he looks the part of the next great Bengals tackle.
His bookend, Bobby Hart, has his share of critics, but he’s hoping to ride a late-season surge from 2019 into this year—after all, he’s only 26 years old while entering his sixth pro season. And, of course, the aforementioned replacements for Atkins and Williams (Daniels, Reader, Bell) will be under scrutiny, especially with the ink still drying from their respective deals this offseason.
Talented Chargers defensive back Casey Heyward noted this week that Cincinnati’s offensive skill position players rival the best in the league. Heyward is an extremely gifted player in his own right and he’s one to watch from the other sideline.
Because of the James injury, Nasir Adderley, Desmond King and Rayshawn Jenkins step into the limelight. They won’t be able to replace James’ Polamalu-ian versatility and prowess, but if they’ve done their homework, they can provide headaches for the Bengals’ rookie quarterback.
In truth, this one is a call-it-in-the-air-type of game. Las Vegas has the Chargers as a 2.5-point favorite, which is a smart call. However, so many elements, including a pandemic-affected preseason throw this into the Riddler’s wheelhouse.
Let’s go with the good guys this week. Call it good vibrations.
Chargers 21, Bengals 23
AC — You ever heard of anything else about me being nervous?