NFL teams shouldn’t be consistently bad over multiple decades. The league is not college football, where financial, geographic, and branding disparities can keep a program up or down for generations regardless of its leadership. Nor is it baseball or soccer, where the richest teams can spend their way to a decent chance to win a title. The NFL has had a salary cap since 1994, and the worst team in the league has gotten the first overall draft pick for a lot longer than that. To miss the playoffs more than five or so years in a row takes genuine ineptitude, and to have so many down periods repeatedly over many years is even harder.
Enter the Cincinnati Bengals, who have had five different playoff droughts of five-plus years in their 54 seasons as an NFL or AFL franchise. The Bengals have played in the postseason 14 times and won a combined five games; the last of those victories came 31 years ago. They are 0–7 in Wild Card playoff games since 2005, another streak that is not easy to achieve. That specific run has a bit to do with bad luck, but the Bengals’ overall problems are long-standing enough that something is in the walls—or, more specifically, someone is in the walls. That’s owner Mike Brown, who inherited the team from his father, Paul, in 1991. Paul was one of the best coaches ever. Mike’s most important qualification to run a team was that he was Paul’s child. In his three decades running the shop, Mike has not won a postseason game, and his main achievement was getting local government to accept perhaps the most lopsided public-financing stadium deal in U.S. sports history, and not in favor of Hamilton County taxpayers.
The most recent of those playoff dry spells ends this year, as the 2021 Bengals have demonstrated a fundamental truth: At some point, you can accumulate enough special football players at the right positions that your team becomes good, against all history and as a result of nothing more complicated than a broken clock being correct a couple of times per century. They were fortunate to be at their worst at the right time, giving them the No. 1 pick in a year with a slam-dunk quarterback worthy of that selection. They’ve found him a few great receivers, including one who played with that QB during an all-time elite college football season and has somehow elevated his chemistry with the QB in the NFL. The defense has been average enough not to squander it, and the Bengals have won the AFC North with a week to spare. They’re as potent as anyone in a conference without a dominant team. They are interesting not because of how complicated their path was to building a winner, but how simple it was.
The Bengals, led by quarterback Joe Burrow and receivers Ja’Marr Chase and Tee Higgins, scored 75 points in wins the past two weeks to clinch the division. Chase and Higgins turned in two of the best individual wideout performances of the year in those games: Higgins snagged 12 catches for 194 yards and two touchdowns one week, then Chase pulled in 11 for 266 and three scores the next. For the year, Cincinnati is fifth in the league in both scoring and yards per play.
This might feel both familiar and foreboding. The Bengals have broken through and won their division with a good, young quarterback and talented receivers before, and it has somehow always failed to amount to anything. Carson Palmer was a No. 1 pick in 2003 just like Burrow was in 2019, and he also won the North in his second year as the starter with two of the best wideouts in the league, Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh. The Pittsburgh Steelers exploded Palmer’s knee in the first quarter of his first playoff game and went on to win the Super Bowl, while the Bengals were never quite that good again. They were close, but it felt to Palmer like Brown’s administration didn’t do enough to supplement the roster over Palmer’s seven years as the team’s starting QB. He extensively and bitingly criticized the Bengals years later, saying he arrived in Cincinnati as an “arrogant, young, dumb, 20-year-old kid, and I was like, ‘I’m gonna go there and make a difference.’ ” Palmer said he turned out to be “100 percent wrong” and that “all that matters is the organization.”
The Bengals had a few more good years with Palmer’s successor, Andy Dalton, and another elite receiver in his prime, A.J. Green. But Dalton was never awesome, and they never loaded him up with non-Green pass-catching talent. The defense was often good but not good enough to put the team over the top, as Cincinnati was 11th in yards allowed per play and eighth in scoring defense during Dalton’s 2011-19 run as the quarterback. With Dalton injured, the 2015 Bengals lost a home playoff game, again to the Steelers, in the sort of loss that could zap a fan’s entire enthusiasm for professional football, even if that weren’t the fifth year in a row in which the Bengals lost on the first playoff weekend.
These are the cautionary tales. As good as things seem with Burrow, Chase, and Higgins, in some ways, the Bengals have been here before—multiple times, and recently. It’s not new for the franchise to have a good, young quarterback and good, young receivers, win the AFC North, and then fall into a pit of sadness. But the point of this long windup isn’t to cast doubt on the future of this core of Bengals players. It’s to say that these receivers and QB might be so good that even Mike Brown’s team cannot mess this up for a long while.
It starts with Burrow, the NFL’s leader in yards per throw (8.9) and Pro Football Focus grade among quarterbacks. His 14 interceptions are a lot, but his barrage of pinpoint downfield passes has made him a star anyway. Last year, Burrow had an up-and-down rookie season on a bad team, ending with a torn ACL in late November 2020. He’s been healthy this year, second-year receiver Higgins has made a leap, and slot man Tyler Boyd has been one of the better inside receivers in the league. The Bengals also have a pretty good running back in Joe Mixon, though the run game has not been an especially productive part of the 2021 team’s offense.
The most glaring addition to Burrow’s game this year, though, has been Chase. At LSU in 2019, the pair did extraordinary damage together en route to a 15–0 national championship season for what might reasonably be considered the best college team ever. Burrow won the Heisman Trophy, and Chase caught 84 passes from him for 1,780 yards and a hilarious 20 touchdowns.
Chase is an unusual talent and can crumble a defense like a stick of dynamite. Last weekend, he ran a sample hitch route and caught a pass from Burrow for what’d ordinarily be a 12- or 15-yard completion. But Chase ran 61 yards with the ball instead, evading seven Kansas City Chiefs in his vicinity for one of the coolest touchdowns of the season:
He also lives on a high plane of communication with Burrow, which makes sense given their shared history. Back-shoulder throws like this one into tight coverage (for another Chase touchdown) aren’t supposed to look as easy as the two make it look here:
Watching Burrow and Chase collaborate is like watching art. I would place a joke here that they’ve treated NFL defenses like Vanderbilt’s, but a complicating factor is that the 229 yards Vanderbilt gave up to Burrow and Chase in 2019 are less than the Chiefs’ 266 last week.
For the year, Chase has 1,429 yards and 13 scores on 79 catches. He is not the team’s only 1,000-yard wideout; Higgins also cleared that threshold and has gotten less attention than Chase mainly because he’s a second-year man rather than a rookie, and because fewer of his catches have gone for touchdowns. Boyd probably won’t get the 172 yards he needs in Week 18 to give the Bengals three thousand-yard receivers, but that he’s this close makes one understand why Burrow walked into the Kansas City game wearing a shirt with all three receivers’ faces on it. And it’s not just that they’re so productive together, but that they’re a blast to watch. Burrow throws more frequently into tight coverage than any other QB, with an “aggressive throw” rate of 19 percent, according to NFL Next Gen Stats. And his completion percentage is 6 percent higher than it “should” be based on the coverage and location of his throws, the best figure in the league. He’s a gunslinger, and his receivers help make it work.
A big reason for future optimism is that Burrow and his receiver trio have done this despite relatively little help from everyone else. The Bengals have a lousy offensive line, which made it a somewhat controversial choice when they took Chase instead of Oregon offensive tackle Penei Sewell with the fifth overall pick last April. They’re 30th in ESPN’s Pass Block Win Rate, a measure of how well the line protects the quarterback. The running game has been below the league average in expected points added per play, per analytics site RBSDM.com. The defense is 12th in the same statistic, 20th in yards allowed per play, and 17th in scoring.
The only exceptional things about this team are Burrow, those receivers, and tremendous rookie kicker Evan McPherson, who’s 9-for-11 on field goals from 50 yards and beyond. The Bengals won their division while giving these guys little help. The medical gods can always intervene, as fans of this team know too well, but it’d be quite difficult for the Bengals themselves to mess this thing up as long as Burrow and friends are in their early primes. The quarterback and his receivers are under contract for at least the next two seasons each, and it’d be hard for the Bengals to give them much less assistance than they got this season.
That’s why the issue around the Bengals probably is not how long this run of winning can last (probably a while) or whether Brown will eventually, in the end, mess it up. (We should not put it past him.) A more pertinent thing to ask is: If the Bengals can build a team this fun with so few players doing the heavy lifting, why can’t the more qualified people running your team?