Expectations have a presence in football and in sports. We can quantify expectations every single play to give us meaningful data, and that data helps us predict outcomes at an acceptable rate. Expectations are baked into Football Outsiders’ DVOA specifically, and it’s one of the best metrics we have to analyze the game.
Because we have a grip on how to project through expectations, the differences between forecast and output are naturally amplified, whether it be soaring above expectations, or falling well below them.
When the Cincinnati Bengals were sitting at 5-2, they had blown expectations out of the water. They had gasbags like myself hop on radio shows and proclaim them as legitimate threats. But teams who are legitimately great don’t lose like they’ve lost in the last two weeks.
The league-wide picture evolves when the games begin, when projection becomes overshadowed with what’s actually happening. A first-place Bengals team are no longer expected to win six games by betting markets like they were back in August. They established a new standard for themselves, one that had them competing in the playoffs.
They’re crawling well below that standard now. First, the New York Jets took them by surprise with an unexpected offensive attack. That punch to the gut did little to mentally prepare them for the Cleveland Browns, who smacked them in the mouth in the form of a 41-16 dismantling.
Fair or not, the Bengals’ early season success changed how the NFL viewed them. Blowing out the Baltimore Ravens in their nest made the statement they wanted to make. They had achieved progress in the six weeks leading up to that game, but destroying a good Baltimore team on the road validated that progress on a macro scale. It sent shockwaves through the nation.
From the death of 100 Mike White paper cuts, to the evisceration Baker Mayfield and Nick Chubb just performed, the Bengals are playing like they’re getting crushed from the pressure of newfound standards.
But failing to live up to the hype involves more than just intangible factors. There are observable on-field reasons that can be identified as causes for failure.
Cincinnati’s defense have lived on creating sacks at a high rate to compensate for a low overall pressure rate. Much had been made about their new-look defensive line surpassing last year’s sack total, but they entered last week with one of the lowest team pass-rushing win rates. Both White and Mayfield were hardly touched in their dominant performances because they couldn’t convert pressures to sacks well enough.
And then there’s the golden quarterback.
Joe Burrow’s interceptions and risky throws have been a moot point since he’s been adding much more value than he’s been giving away. Sunday’s game is the nightmare example of when risky QB play can kill you. Two interceptions and a pick-six sting like a wasp when there’s nothing on the positive side that comes close to counteract those tragedies. Even last week when he was playing well in New York, his fourth-quarter interception on a telegraphed screen eventually led to the go-ahead score for the Jets. He currently leads the league in interceptions with 11, and that number is legitimate when you compare it to his percentage of turnover-worthy throws. He hasn’t been unlucky, he’s been reckless.
It’s hard to win in the NFL when the other quarterback outplays yours. That’s why Burrow and so many others have been drafted first-overall; you need a quality passing offense more than anything else. The only alternative is dominating opposing quarterbacks and winning ugly. Their defense is doing anything but that right now.
For many, this team is still on track to finish around original expectations. Eight or nine wins, flirt with the playoffs, and build towards next year. That not only remains possible at 5-4, it’s the likely outcome. Arriving at that destination can be considered a success, but only under the belief that expectations should’ve never been altered due to the actual playing of the games.
The Bengals craved respect, and their last two games are proof of why that respect took so long to materialize. It’s not easy to discard your priors when there was credible evidence as to why they existed in the first place.
The beauty of the NFL lies in the parity that exists on a yearly basis. Any team has the chance to go from bad to good in just a year’s time. Getting out of the gutter is innately more achievable than sustaining that success, and the latter is precisely what the Bengals appear incapable of doing. If you can’t meet the standards you create after catching everyone by surprise, then how can anyone assume you’ll be better than how you’ve always been?
Are they who we thought they were? Well, they have half a season to show us.
They’re going back to square one. No one is going to crown them from here on out until they get to where they want to go: playing in January, and winning. Expectations can shift so quickly in either direction, but the change back to original expectations happens a lot quicker.
A much-needed bye week gives the Bengals time to start flipping expectations back in the other direction. Whether they’re capable of doing so after the last two weeks is the million dollar question.