Gone Fishin' casts its eyes at an amazing team who just needed one more break to go their way: The Cincinnati Bengals. 31 teams are disappointed at the end of every season. It's not a business for the faint of heart. These teams should be proud of what they did. But let's talk about why they lost and what it reveals about them.
If the Bengals were going to lose, it was always going to be about their offensive line
Joe Burrow's two deepest throws of the game went for a combined 121 yards, meaning that on his other 38 dropbacks, he completed 20-of-31 passes for 142 yards and seven sacks. This was an obvious problem that almost kept the Bengals from winning their divisional round game against the Titans. The boom/bust nature of the attack and a defensive line that was always going to be a mismatch put Cincinnati in a spot where they simply had to convert at the end of the game, and they couldn't.
After the leadoff Tee Higgins touchdown catch at the start of the third quarter, where he beat Jalen Ramsey with some extremely fortunate uncalled "jockeying for position," the Bengals managed 61 total yards on their final six drives of the game. Two of those drives gained negative yardage. While they were running the ball adequately, they just couldn't hold on against Von Miller, Aaron Donald, Leonard Floyd, and the other talented Rams defenders. Even sending just four, the Rams were winning too often. It culminated in the final play of the game, one where Donald spun past Quinton Spain at left guard and forced a game-ending incompletion.
The Bengals offensive line obviously deserves some scorn, and Burrow didn't run himself into many sacks as a result of trying to do too much. But Zac Taylor and Brian Callahan probably were an adjustment short all season on what to do against opponents that dominated the line of scrimmage against them on offense. Screens and run plays are great when they work. The Bengals arguably didn't run enough of either, especially with Joe Mixon playing as well as he was. But even just some quick open-breakers where Burrow is comfortable with the first read could have changed the game.
Samaje Perine, really?
Listen, I can't bag on the Bengals defense at all for this game. They competed extremely well once Odell Beckham Jr. went down with an injury and leveled the playing field. Their one big touchdown drive allowed from there was the result of a witchcraft-level Stafford throw to Kupp over the middle and three red zone penalties that I found debatable at best. I can't tell you that there was a lot more that they could've done. They destroyed the Rams run game -- which, by the way, I was actually optimistic about heading into this game. Shut them down entirely.
But what I can bag on is having Samaje Perine on the field on third-and-1 with 48 seconds left, and running the ball right at Aaron Donald. It was a continuation of a theme:
Listen, Perine is an obvious NFL player. I'm not going to tell you that he's the sole reason the Bengals lost this game. But his two runs on third-and-1 on the Rams 49 in the first quarter and third-and-1 on the Rams 49 in the fourth quarter were game-losing situations and you literally have Joe Mixon running into free space when he gets the ball. Perine finished with 0 total yards on three touches. He did have a receiving touchdown against the Chiefs for 41 yards, but his other six playoff touches combined for six total yards. He's a fine, NFL-caliber back; we're not gonna dot this with hyperbole about how he's replaceable or terrible. He might be a little stretched as a go-to guy in a key NFL playoff game.
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And his moments just happened to be crucial as far as the overall pace and tempo of this particular game, in the end.
What does this offseason look like for the Bengals?
I bet you can guess one part of it: The part where we call for them to get offensive line reinforcements. It's regarded as a fairly deep draft for offensive linemen and they will return all of their starting linemen outside of Spain and Riley Reiff, who was 34 and not playing particularly well anyway. The Bengals also have the potential to create a ton of cap space this year. They already have $57 million, third-most in the NFL per Over The Cap, entering the offseason. They can free up another $10.8 million by releasing injury-prone corner Trae Waynes.
Cincinnati has historically not been very active in free agency, but as the revenue money has expanded they've dipped into the pool in a medium-sized way with splashes like Waynes, Trey Hendrickson, and D.J. Reader. When you combine the Super Bowl appearance with Joe Burrow's reputation, I think they probably can make in-roads to that sort of addition on the offensive line. They could probably use another reliable corner and some defensive line depth, maybe another linebacker if they think they can upgrade on Germaine Pratt.
In-house, re-signing safety Jessie Bates, who picked Stafford and Tannehill in the playoffs, is a priority. C.J. Uzomah has been valuable enough that he's probably on the retain radar as well. Otherwise, I think they're mostly looking at guys in-house who will command modest sums or, if they're forward-thinking enough, maybe looking at re-signing some core players early.
The Bengals are in an interesting position. This was truly a lightning-in-a-bottle run. They were 17th in total DVOA in the regular season, and they won three close games to win the AFC. I think there are legitimate arguments to be made that the Bengals took a step forward towards the end of the season and showed what they could be. I also know that teams with this kind of underlying track record tend to be iffy propositions for next year. They could put in a bunch of money this offseason, not improve much in the win column, and still be empirically better. They also could, as Bengals teams have done in the past, put very little money into it and believe that standing pat is merited by the results, and wind up with a team that requires a lot of close wins to make the playoffs. Again.
Fantasy-wise? With or without an offensive line, this team has three guys in Ja'Marr Chase, Tee Higgins, and Joe Mixon that are going to be top-of-draft mainstays. Joe Burrow is absolutely in the QB1 conversation, and maybe even the middle-round conversation. It's a great foundation for success. But it sure would feel a lot more stable if the Bengals made a sizeable offensive line investment this offseason.