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Examining the current Bengals’ culture and needed future direction

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Cincinnati has shown improvement in the second half of the season, but it hasn’t resulted in wins. Is what Zac Taylor building a solid foundation, or might they need to model themselves in the mold of one of their fiercest rivals?

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It’s pretty hard to feel good about the 1-12 Cincinnati Bengals right now. Really, the only folks who seem to be optimistic about the club at the moment are those who are excited at the prospect of a No. 1 overall pick next year.

Even so, some things have been trending in the right direction the past few weeks. Whether it was Andy Dalton or Ryan Finley under center, Cincinnati has been able to achieve their first win, while also having three one-possession losses in four post-bye losses.

The defense has shown improvement, even if marginal, while some of the team’s 2019 draft picks are slowly blossoming with increased playing time. These are the types of baby steps needing to be witnessed toward the conclusion of a rookie coach’s campaign.

Still, the Cincinnati Bengals are just 2-14 in their last 16 games dating back to last year, having just one victory in the new coaching regime. Gold stars aren’t given out for somewhat-minute moral victories.

As we dissected the most recent loss by the Bengals at the hands of the Browns, one fan who tuned into the postgame wrap-up live asked about culture. It was an interesting and well-timed thought, given the conclusion of the season being right around the corner.

Taylor attempting to emphasize character and “the best man plays”

Since his arrival, Taylor wanted to bring in guys to the team who “do things the right way”. It was a stark diversion from the early days of Marvin Lewis, where off-field arrests made the team a punchline in the mid-to-late 2000s.

Aside from hiring Jim Turner on the staff, Taylor stuck to his word. The draft picks were largely good character guys, while he also showed impatience for stunning off-field unawareness, as evidenced by the release of running back, Mark Walton, after his three spring arrests.

Preston Brown, largely thought of as an “NFL good guy” and one of the team’s big free agency (re-)acquisitions, was released before he saw a full year of his new contract, pointing to an intolerance for ineffective play. The same was shown at quarterback, whether it was Andy Dalton or Ryan Finley being placed in the lineup.

Perhaps the biggest example of “the best guy plays” is on the offensive line. Taylor and Turner were forced to use a turnstile at left tackle until Cordy Glenn returned, but left guard has been an ever-evolving experiment between Alex Redmond, Billy Price and rookie Michael Jordan. As a reminder, Price was a first-round pick just last year.

Some criticisms on just how effective this practice has been can be debated, but Taylor has stuck to his word, to an extent. Some in the locker room probably respect this, while others—especially those being rotated out of the lineup—may not be fans of the approach.

We’ll see if this is something that holds water in the years ahead, but for now, it’s logical, at least in the sense of evaluating the roster.

If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em

A little while back when Lewis’ seemingly-everlasting job security was questioned, Bengals owner Mike Brown noted the Steelers’ preference on continuity with head coaches. Since 1992, Pittsburgh has employed just two head coaches—Bill Cowher and Mike Tomlin.

It has paid off in the form of 18 playoff appearances from 1992-2018, 17 double-digit win seasons, four Super Bowl appearances and two World Championships. What’s even more impressive is just the three seasons with a losing record over the past 28 years.

Crazy.

However, what seems to be lost on Mr. Brown and Bengals’ ownership is the embedded culture within Steel City and the way they build their team. Quarterbacks and “the meat” of the roster (AKA offensive and defensive lines, pass-rushers) take precedence over flashy skill positions, while robust scouting and operations departments make it a flagship NFL franchise.

This is another family-run organization, folks.

After yet another sweep at the hands of the Steelers this year, it capped a 10-game losing streak by the Bengals to their division foe. A .646 winning percentage against Cincinnati in the head-to-head history shows just how far away these two teams are, in terms of operations, much less competitiveness.

This year, Pittsburgh was written off as a team that wouldn’t make much noise this year. It heightened with the season-ending injury to Ben Roethlisberger.

They were also laughed at for giving up a first-round pick in a trade for Minkah Fitzpatrick, as pundits wondered why a team seemingly out of the playoff race would give up such a big commodity.

Yet, here they are, on their third quarterback, sitting at 8-5 and in the thick of the Wild Card race. Oh, and Fitzpatrick co-leads the NFL with five interceptions.

Given the 18 playoff appearances, one would think that a team would largely build their team in a way to go through a team that largely presides over the division. And, given that two of Cincinnati’s past seven postseason appearances featured a clash with Pittsburgh, it’s also a formula to get them through the postseason.

Looking at the coaching continuity is only part of the equation to resemble the Steelers’ success. Accumulating more internal assistance and doling out the proper resources to build a winner resembling Pittsburgh is what’s needed.

It starts at the top

We’ll try not to beat a dead horse here, but, as it goes with any organization, it starts at the top. Lewis turned the Bengals around with his dragging them into modernity and Taylor seems to be expanding on that notion, but it takes managerial backing for any culture change to truly take shape.

This offseason will tell us a lot, in terms of how seriously ownership is taking this four-year tailspin. The 2019 season has seen record-low attendance at home games and relying on just the selection of Joe Burrow probably won’t immediately bring fans back in droves.

A sage free agency approach, potential beefing up of internal staff and wise maneuvering in the draft for immediate impact players would also be good starts. But, as we know with this team, change will come slowly.

But, that’s okay, as long as it eventually comes. The past two coaches the Bengals have employed have been younger, Super Bowl-experienced guys, attempting to bring a fresh set of eyes to an outdated M.O. Cincinnati needs to trust their own moves, get out of their own way and operate like other successful franchises.

Our thanks to the live listeners for the postgame show! Join us for that after every contest, as well as our weekly show, listener questions episodes and the other great programs on the Cincy Jungle slate of podcasts.

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