The Cincinnati Bengals have had a remarkably quiet offseason for a franchise that traded out its head coach for the first time in over 15 years.
The last time Marvin Lewis wasn’t directing the sidelines for the Cincinnati Bengals, America had just launched the Department of Homeland Security, Britney had kissed Madonna on the VMAs, SARS was a thing in China, and we all used Internet Explorer. For the first time since 2003, the Bengals will look to new leadership, a long-rumored move that served as the tip of the iceberg for… the quietest offseason in the NFL.
When the Cincinnati Bengals hired Sean McVay disciple Zac Taylor—formerly a quarterbacks and wide receivers coach with the L.A. Rams—to replace Lewis after 263 games coached in the regular season and playoffs combined, it signaled major changes ahead. At least, that was the presumption.
Lewis had finally been relieved of his command after years of speculation, the result of zero playoff wins in 16 years. The Bengals had enjoyed some regular season accolades, including a streak of five straight playoff appearances ended as recently as 2015, but Cincinnati was also 0-7 in the playoffs during that stretch. The Bungles, as they were affectionately known, never once made it past the Wild Card round, an embarrassing stretch that left fans hungry for more.
Through it all, the NFL’s most patient owner, Mike Brown, continued to let Lewis run the show. It was an unexplainable oasis of sorts in a reactionary league; an incredible display of restraint in a division that also featured the league’s leadership carousel in Cleveland (the Browns had nine head coaches during Marvin Lewis’ tenure in Cincy). Lewis lasted so long that even after winning seasons, rumors of his demise would float after yet another first round exit. It was somehow both surprising and expected when the hourglass finally ran out on Lewis in the Queen City.
When the dominoes started to fall, it was easy to jump ahead a few steps of Brown and company. Lewis was hardly the only long-standing pillar in Cincinnati. The safe assumption seemed to be that starting quarterback Andy Dalton could also go, along with a number of other veterans who didn’t fit Taylor’s vision and scheme. New coaches bring new demands, which means new players for new fits. Out with the old and all that.
Yet we should have seen this coming. After all, the Bengals owner wasn’t replaced. Brown’s tolerant approach was still sitting atop the mountain (or rather one of Cincy’s several hills). You can almost picture the inspirational posters around each room (“Rome wasn’t built in a day!”) as Taylor was tasked with turning this franchise around.
The Bengals, then, are stuck in an interesting position heading into 2019. Let’s be clear, the biggest move has been made. Taylor and his staff have already shaken things up considerably and players seem to be excited about the new approach. That’s good news for a stale franchise that’s averaged six wins over the last three seasons.
But beyond that, the same cast of characters will be rolled out once again in 2019 as if nothing really changed. When it comes to personnel moves, Andy Dalton will look to A.J. Green as his primary outlet (again). The Bengals will cross their fingers on Tyler Eifert‘s health (again). Carlos Dunlap and Geno Atkins will anchor the defensive front (again).
Even when it came to actual moves made, many of the Bengals’ transactions were centered on bringing back their own. They re-signed two of their own free agent tight ends in Eifert and C.J. Uzomah. They brought back linebacker Preston Brown and offensive tackle Bobby Hart as well. Cornerback Darqueze Dennard flirted with leaving, but returned on a one-year deal.
As for outsiders, every transaction was a low-key addition for the Bengals. Former Buffalo Bills lineman John Miller was brought in to bolster the offensive front. B.W. Webb is cornerback depth after signing him away from the New York Giants. Speaking of theGiants, Kerry Wynn was signed to reinforce the defensive line.
In the draft, the Bengals were able to add offensive tackle Jonah Williams along with a handful of interesting prospects (second-round tight end Drew Sample seems like an unnecessary reach), but even that class was short on obvious impact.
Taken together, the Bengals will return the vast majority of their starters on both sides of the ball, not exactly an expected play for a team that finished in the divisional basement one year ago.
With so many familiar faces, it’d be easy for an already somber fanbase to give up on this first year of Taylor’s head-coaching stint, but the players themselves are projecting big things in 2019. During the team’s most recent minicamp, Green predicted a return to the playoffs this year. Joe Mixon holds the same confident view and said, “There’s definitely great things ahead of us for sure.” A group accustomed to losing sounds like they’re ready to win.
Only time will tell how confident these Bengals players should be for the 2019 season, but the team’s overall offseason approach is an interesting and prudent exercise. What if wholesale changes aren’t necessary? What if a change in the coaching staff itself is enough for a team to turn it around? A team like the Browns has gutted itself once again and are finally seeing the dividends, but it’s understandable why Mike Brown has looked north all these years only to do the opposite and stay the course with his head coach.
Taylor said it best from minicamp last week. “We like to take a humble approach to this thing. I think it’s important to not make any predictions, because the NFL is a tough league and you have to come out and focus each game at a time, but I do like our guys to have some confidence, too.”
If the Bengals can make a leap back to respectability, let alone a playoff spot, they might have more franchises looking for a patient confidence of their own.