Where does your franchise stand heading into 2022? Adam Rank sets the table by providing a State of the Franchise look at all 32 teams, zeroing in on the key figures to watch and setting the stakes for the season to come.
Members of the Bengals' organization, Bengals fans around the world and those who were convinced the Bengals were going to win that game:
I was one of those who thought Joe Burrow was going to capture Super Bowl LVI as that final drive started against the Rams. But I don't mean to dwell on old stuff, because there is so much to be excited about with this Bengals team, who I think will win a second consecutive division title for the first time since 1982. Let's take a look.
One high from last season: The AFC Championship Game. This one is pretty easy. Could anything top the culmination of an unexpected run to the Super Bowl? I want to zero in on one moment, though. After the Bengals rallied back from a 21-3 deficit and the game went to overtime, the Chiefs won the coin toss -- and the fans in Arrowhead were acting like Kansas City basically won right there, just like they had the previous week against the Bills. Instead, the Bengals fended off that energy, forced a huge turnover and clinched their first Super Bowl appearance since the 1988 season. Amazing.
One low from last season: The Bengals' final offensive play of Super Bowl LVI. Just a huge bummer. Sorry, ladies and gentlemen.
Head coach: Zac Taylor. I've repeatedly wondered over the years if we really know Taylor. Joked that it was easy to confuse him with one of the PR interns who popped up on those Zoom meetings with the media. And if I'm being honest, I'm still not sure we know him. The Bengals were the fourth team to make the Super Bowl after recording fewer than five wins the season prior (the 1999 St. Louis team was the only such group to win it all). But even amid Cincinnati's eye-catching success, Taylor seemed to largely stay out of the spotlight, unlike, say, Sean McVay when he made his first trip to the Super Bowl with the Rams in the 2018 season. (Of course, Taylor's presence on McVay's staff that year surely helped propel him to his current position.) Instead, most of the love and adulation seemed to go to the Bengals' quarterback.
One thing we do know, though: Taylor is in place for the long term, having inked an extension through 2026. Yes, his career record so far is 16-32-1, but plenty of top-notch coaches in the NFL overcame slow starts -- coaching legend Bill Wash (once an assistant in Cincinnati), for example, was 8-24 in his first two seasons with the 49ers before leading them to a Super Bowl XVI victory in Year 3.
Quarterback: Joe Burrow. Cincinnati fans! What's going on? You know who had the top-selling jersey in the NFL in May? Russell Wilson. Not a huge surprise. He changed teams and went to a great football market. He was followed by Josh Allen. Again, not a huge surprise. You know who was No. 3, though? No, not our guy Joe -- it was Kenny Pickett. Come on, Bengals backers. OK, so maybe you all stocked up already. I mean, Burrow did rank in the top four in jersey sales between March 1, 2021 and Feb. 28, 2022, so I won't get too bent out of shape.
Joe's popularity makes sense. He's one of those charismatic guys who exudes confidence. I do love that he took time in this interview to relish running up the score on the Ravens. But he's also got this humbleness to him, like when he was introducing himself to various members of the Rams during the Super Bowl. He's sort of heelish like Ric Flair, while also having some general goodness, like John Cena. I love the guy and can't wait to see what he can do this season.
Projected 2022 MVP: Burrow. I know wins and losses are not a quarterback stat -- or so they tell me. But I can't ignore the Bengals' 10-6 record in Joe's starts last year. He's put up 280.7 career passing yards per game, third-most all time. And he's one of just five quarterbacks with a 100-plus career passer rating. Look, I have a whole arsenal of statistics at my disposal. I could list them right here. But I'll save us all the time, because we know Joey B. is the most important player on the Bengals. No disrespect to the rest of the team. But we know this.
New face to know: Hayden Hurst, tight end. I thought losing C.J. Uzomah in free agency was low-key a big deal, if that makes any sense -- Uzomah is a good player. But Hurst, a former first-round pick by the Ravens who spent the past two seasons in Atlanta before signing with Cincinnati, could be a pretty valuable role player. He's got great hands. He rarely -- if ever -- drops the football. He's not the best blocker in the world. But he's a good offensive threat who should have his moments.
And yes, I know the Bengals signed three incredible offensive linemen. I'm going to cover them in a moment.
2022 breakout star: Tee Higgins, receiver. I wrote about Tee last year, and if you want to say he already had his breakout, that would probably be fair. In his final 10 games of last season, from Week 12 through the Super Bowl, the 2020 second-rounder racked up 954 receiving yards, averaging 5.5 catches per game and 17.4 yards per catch, with six TD grabs, in that span. And he was pretty great in the Super Bowl itself, logging four catches, 100 yards and a pair of scores. But he still seems to be sort of flying under the radar. And I think he'll benefit even more in 2022 from the defensive attention Ja'Marr Chase will attract.
Three key dates:
- Week 1 vs. Pittsburgh Steelers. You're coming off a Super Bowl appearance, and you're kicking off the season against one of your fiercest rivals, who happen to be on a downswing and will likely be starting Mitch Trubisky. You not only need to win, you need to win big.
- Week 4 vs. Miami Dolphins (Thursday night). I lamented last year that the Bengals had only one prime-time game because I knew this team was going to be fun to watch. Here is my receipt. Well, this year, they're scheduled for five prime-time games, beginning with this one -- but even that feels kind of light.
- Week 13 vs. Kansas City Chiefs. This is a rematch of the AFC Championship Game -- but more importantly, it kicks off a stretch that includes games vs. the Browns, at the Bucs, at the Patriots, vs. the Bills and vs. the Ravens. What a gauntlet.
Will the Bengals be able to ...
... protect one of our nation's most valuable resources (a.k.a. Joe Burrow)? Burrow led the NFL in completion percentage (70.4) and passing yards per attempt (8.9) in 2021. Which is amazing, because our guy also led the NFL in sacks taken (51). He was sacked another 19 times in the playoffs, including seven in the Super Bowl, tying the record for most sacks taken in that game. Not the kind of mark one will be proud of. And that last play of the Super Bowl was blown up because Aaron Donald was able to storm into the backfield and pressure Burrow. You can't completely slow down someone like Donald, but you want to at least give your guy some time to throw. Which is why the Bengals signed three projected starters on the offensive line. Ted Karras is expected to play center, while La'el Collins (tackle) and Alex Cappa (guard) will anchor the unit's completely rebuilt right side. And 2021 second-rounder Jackson Carman, who started five games at right guard and one at left guard last year, is penciled in to start at left guard, meaning there will be four new starters from last year's Super Bowl squad, joining holdover Jonah Williams (left tackle). You might not normally want that kind of turnover on a team that nearly won it all, but it's necessary when opponents are bringing down your QB at will.
To add a further bit of context: In his 10 regular-season wins, Burrow took 2.4 sacks per game. And in his six regular-season losses, he took 4.5 sacks per game. It's really pretty simple.
... take the next step on defense? The Bengals have invested heavily in their defense over the past two years, signing pass rusher Trey Hendrickson, corner Chidobe Awuzie, corner Mike Hilton and corner Eli Apple in free agency last year and spending their first three draft picks this year on safety Daxton Hill (Round 1), corner Cam Taylor-Britt (Round 2) and defensive tackle Zachary Carter (Round 3). Hendrickson led the team with a career-high 14 sacks last season, setting a new club record. His 79 quarterback pressures were second in the NFL only to Maxx Crosby. Cincinnati reached the Super Bowl despite ranking in the bottom half of the league in scoring and total defense in 2021 -- but the Bengals made big plays when they needed to, especially in the AFC Championship Game, where they befuddled Patrick Mahomes in the second half and overtime. Veteran safety Jessie Bates' apparent desire not to play under the franchise tag is something to monitor. But if the defense further gels in 2022, that will only help make life easier for Burrow and Co. on offense.
One storyline ...
... people shouldn't overthink: The potential for a Ja'Marr Chase regression. Fantasy enthusiasts might point out that much of Chase's 2021 production (1,455 receiving yards, a Super Bowl-era record for a rookie) came in a handful of games, including a single-game rookie record of 266 receiving yards against Kansas City in Week 17. And look, I agree Chase might not live up to his average position in fantasy drafts heading into 2022. But as a football player, the reigning Offensive Rookie of the Year makes this team so much better. You throw him in with my guy Higgins and Tyler Boyd, and you might have the best receiving corps in the league. Chase led the NFL with seven deep receiving touchdowns last year, and only Hall of Famer Randy Moss had more total TD receptions as a rookie (17) than Chase did (13). Yeah, definitely don't overthink this one.
... people shouldn't overlook: Joe Mixon finally broke out. I wrote last year that the Bengals needed a big season from Mixon, and the running back delivered in Year 5. He was one of just four players with 1,500-plus scrimmage yards and 15-plus total touchdowns, joining Cooper Kupp, Jonathan Taylor and Austin Ekeler. By the way, Mixon is only the second player in NFL history with 10-plus touches in 20 games in a single season (including playoffs). This is a good spot to note that all of Cincy's offensive stars -- Mixon, Joey B., Ja'Marr, Tee and Boyd -- are homegrown products.
For 2022 to be a success, the Bengals MUST:
- Do well in the playoffs. I'm not saying the Bengals need to get back to the Super Bowl right away. Returning to that game immediately after losing is a tough task -- only the 2018 Patriots have managed it in recent years. Even the Rams needed some time to finally win one after losing to that Pats team in Super Bowl LIII. The good news for the Bengals is that Joey B. is more Tom Brady than Jared Goff, so you have that working for you. Especially with him under center, this Bengals team doesn't seem fluky. I expect them to win the division and be a serious threat in the AFC once again.