By declaring Andy Dalton as their starting quarterback (once again), the Cincinnati Bengals are hoping for their own version of both having and eating cake.
You can hear the desperation in the final five words of Zac Taylor’s most recent press conference.
“Just get us some wins.”
The first-year head coach of the Cincinnati Bengals is in ideal position for a losing franchise. Taylor has yet to win a game late in his first season but his seat isn’t even lukewarm. Given that the team’s owner is the most patient in the NFL, Taylor likely has another four seasons before he’ll have to truly worry about job security. He’s had an entire year to assess his current roster (to keep him from making reactionary moves) and find his footing as a first-time head coach (allowing him to grow with his young roster).
Also, as head coach of an 0-11 franchise, Taylor also has the first pick in an upcoming draft loaded with talent at the game’s most important position.
In short, Taylor has a long leash and low expectations. He’s been given permission to trade short-term gains for long-term assets and a promised timeline that he’ll be able to enjoy those rewards all the same. It’s easy, then, to imagine Taylor sort of coasting through all 17 weeks of the NFL season, learning what he can, experimenting as he goes, evaluating the younger guys who might along for the ride with him.
However, that imagined scenario is interrupted when you hear the words of Taylor as he heads into the season’s final quarter.
“Just get us some wins.”
If you think it’s easy for an NFL team to go into tank mode, just watch the teams who are the best-suited to do so. Even they can’t get it right. Brian Flores, of the Miami Dolphins, has switched from Ryan Fitzpatrick to Josh Rosen and back again. Now Taylor has done the same, moving from Andy Dalton to rookie Ryan Finley and, now, back to Dalton—hence the reason for the press conference.
When an NFL franchise has no shot at winning in the present, it’s easy for fans and even analysts to assume the moves that must be made. It’s a list typically led by the notion to play all the kids as much as possible. After all, if there’s nothing lasting to play for, then you play for the future. The effect, then, would be to only play those who will have a stake in such a future.
So why are Flores and Taylor deviating from the script? Apparently tanking is not as straightforward as you might believe.
At this point, the Bengals are 0-11 and two games ahead of any other pitiful franchise for the first-overall pick in the draft—the coveted spot that controls each and every round of the draft. It’s the captain’s chair for the complete offseason, the team in control of all potential waiver claims. The New York Giants, Miami Dolphins, and Washington Redskins are all 2-9. That means the Bengals not only have the first pick in the draft but there’s also some wiggle room in case something goes wrong—such as winning an actual game.
On the surface, Taylor’s decision to remove Finley from the starting quarterback’s role for the sake of reinstalling Andy Dalton makes little sense. The rookie should have as much runway to potentially take off as possible. Dalton is very much a known quantity in Cincinnati after going 68-58-2 as a starter since his arrival in 2011. In the last four years, however, that total has fallen to 18-32-1 and it’s clear he’s not the man to lead them to postseason glory. If Finley has any chance of being that guy, he needs time and experience to sort things out.
But here’s where we, as outsiders, become privy to just how difficult it is to tank. The decision to go back to Dalton—or Fitzpatrick, for that matter—comes down to one thing: losing is very difficult. It’s miserable. It tests even the steadiest leaders. Emotions begin to melt down. Locker room begin to fracture. Doubts about the long-term plan set in because the short-term is so downcast.
For a head coach like Taylor, the goal is definitely to earn the first-overall pick, but if it’s even remotely possible to experience the thrill of winning here or there, you absolutely take that chance. A win would instill belief that Taylor is the right guy even if the season is already lost. A win staves off the sorrowful cloud of failure that looms over every team meeting. A win gives purpose to late-season practices with hope that the hard work poured in today leads to something better tomorrow.
On paper, going back to Dalton makes zero sense for a team with a single objective. But Taylor isn’t playing some simulation. He’s leading very real men who are putting their bodies on the line for a losing cause and they know it. They know the season is over. They know there’s nothing, technically, to play for. But still a win would feel oh so good.
The ideal for Taylor is to have his cake atop the draft while simultaneously eating some too in the form of late season wins. It could be a sign that the tide is slowly turning in Cincinnati, that young players are starting to make the leap and that everyone is buying into Taylor’s ideas. More than anything, after being mired in a state of losing for months on end, it would be nice to pour some Gatorade on someone, no matter what it means in the standings.
Next April, the Bengals will relish the benefits of having taking one beating after another during the previous season. For now, Taylor’s just ready to land some blows himself.
“Just get us some wins.”