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Cincinnati Bengals' Season is a Hunt to Regain Respect

by Warren Sharp
Updated On: August 4, 2021, 1:01 pm ET

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No team has underperformed more often than the Cincinnati Bengals. For five straight years, they’ve gone under their win total. No other team is on such a streak. These projected win totals didn’t present a high bar to clear:

9.5 wins in 2016
8.5 wins in 2017
7 wins in 2018
6 wins in 2019
5.5 wins in 2020

Every single year, linemakers dropped the projected win total. Every single year, the Bengals failed to meet the projection. How are they so bad at meeting these projections before the season? Linemakers know the team is bad, they set lines knowing the team is bad, and the team is worse than bad every year. How?

One reason relates to their ability to be “clutch” or play well when it matters most. In the Bengals’ last 20 games decided by one-score, they’ve won just two. This dates back to mid-2018. 

Over the last five years, no team has a worse win rate in games decided by one-score than the Bengals (24% wins) and no team has won fewer games (nine wins in 39 games).

Bad teams will lose more one-score games than good teams. But to compete in games where the final score is close and to lose at this rate is not to be brushed off and blamed on a cursed franchise. It can be improved. It must be improved by Zac Taylor if he’s going to keep his job.

In Zac Taylor’s tenure as Cincinnati’s head coach over the past two years, the Bengals have remarkably held a lead at some point in 24 of their 32 games. But they won a total of six games in the two years combined. No team since at least 2000 has led in more games in a two-year span but won fewer than Zac Taylor's Bengals.

I’m perfectly fine with giving Taylor a pass on his Year 1 results in 2019 with Andy Dalton starting 13 games and the team going 2-14, because those results landed the first overall pick, Joe Burrow.

I’m perfectly fine with giving Taylor a pass on his Year 2 results in 2020 with Burrow going down in Week 11 and the team losing four of their six without him to drop to 4-11-1 on the season, because the injury is out of Taylor’s control and the Bengals now landed WR Ja’Marr Chase with the fifth overall pick. 

But there are no more excuses to be made. 

As bad as the Bengals franchise has been, there has been only one coach in the last 30 years to win just six games combined in back-to-back years, David Shula in 1993-94. He, lIke Taylor, was brought back for a third year. He improved, but only to 7-9, and he was fired mid-season in his fourth year when the team started off poorly.

While a couple bad years in a row totaling to six wins or less seems like it could be a fairly common occurrence in the NFL, it is not.

I looked back at the last 30 years for every team. That’s 960 team-seasons. Only 19 times has a franchise produced two straight bad years in a row like the Bengals. 

The bottom line: when a team is terrible in back-to-back years, winning only six games combined, the head coach is fired either after the first year on occasion, but most always after the second year.

The fact Taylor earned a third year is a huge exception to the rule. If 2021 starts off poorly, almost every other owner would be looking to fire the coach. 

Given Mike Smith holding onto Shula for an extra season before firing him, there is a chance Taylor could stick around for 2022 if the team bats around .500 this year. But that’s absolutely not guaranteed. 

And considering linemakers are predicting the Bengals win only 6.5 games this year (per PointsBet, under is -130), and that the Bengals have fallen under that linemaker projection for five straight years, let’s just say it’s not looking good for Taylor — unless the Bengals turn it around in 2021.

While Burrow was healthy (Week 1 through the ACL injury in Week 11) the Bengals played the NFL’s eighth-easiest schedule of opposing pass defenses. The Bengals played only three of 10 games against pass defenses which finished top-15 and played six of 10 games against bottom-10 pass defenses.

Yet Cincinnati’s only wins in those 10 games came against the No. 31 pass defense of the Jaguars and the No. 30 pass defense of the Titans. 

We know the most optimal time for quarterbacks, particularly younger quarterbacks, to throw the ball is when the defense is expecting a run. That often comes on first down. Looking only at Joe Burrow’s starts, and despite the fact the Bengals played the eighth-easiest schedule of pass defenses, the Bengals were the NFL’s worst first down passing offense.

First down dropbacks averaged 5.9 YPA, 48% success and -0.11 EPA/play. 

No team was worse. The NFL average was 7.6 YPA, 55% success, and 0.08 EPA. The NFL average for first down passing efficiency was predictably much better than second down or third down.

Right off the bat, something doesn’t seem right.

That’s because just before Burrow came out of LSU before the draft, I looked at his first down passing. I went back to 2014 and I compiled a list of every single quarterback to throw at least 75 pass attempts on first down in the first half of games.

There were 313 quarterbacks in the analysis.

The leader in YPA? Joe Burrow, with 13.9 YPA

The leader in completion rate? Joe Burrow,  at 82.1%

The leader in touchdowns thrown? Joe Burrow, with 18 touchdowns

Burrow delivered a 12.9% TD rate (ninth of 313) with a miniscule 0.7% INT rate.

Burrow’s performance on first downs was significantly better than every first-round quarterback drafted in that time range (since the 2015 draft of 2014 prospects onward).

Burrow had the second-highest pass rate of them, as well, passing the ball on 63.4% of first downs (only Patrick Mahomes operated a more pass-heavy offense on first down).

Burrow couldn’t have just become terrible on first down passes overnight. The jump to the NFL couldn’t have thrown him off that much. 

attempts ranked fifth.

Taylor must analyze everything he was doing on first down to see what he can do to turn Burrow back into the stud that he was at LSU. Burrow still has that capability. But between the pressure, personnel, drop types and throw locations, Taylor was dialing up too much that was suboptimal.

Speaking of suboptimal, there are a couple of other observations which deserve to be addressed: play-action and pre-snap motion.

The Bengals ranked 25th in play-action usage in the game’s first three quarters in 2020. That, despite the fact that with play-action, they were more successful, more efficient, and had a lower sack rate. In fact, the Bengals saw the seventh-largest improvement in success rate with play-action. 

The Bengals ranked 26th in pre-snap motion usage in the game’s first three quarters in 2020. That, despite the fact that with pre-snap motion, the Bengals gained 0.07 EPA/att vs -0.11 EPA/att without it. It was the fourth-largest move towards efficiency for any team last year.

These are easy fixes, but first we have to know why Taylor reduced the frequency of both from 2019 to 2020. 

Finally, if the Bengals are looking to turn these one-score losses into wins, they simply must be better in the red zone. After ranking eighth in red zone passing in 2019 and 14th in red zone rushing, the Bengals in 2020 dropped to 27th in red zone passing and 31st in red zone rushing.

With a quarterback as accurate and mobile as Joe Burrow, no team led by him should rank 27th in red zone passing. Taylor must do a better job of drawing up red zone plays and getting better execution out of the offense.

With the insertion of Ja’Marr Chase and a bit more help along the offensive line, the Bengals are capable of improving. But does Zac Taylor take the steps necessary to refine his offense to get the most out of Joe Burrow? Can he get some semblance of a run game to support Burrow’s arm? Does Burrow return fully healthy and looking sharp as ever? There are a lot of questions, and very few expectations for the 2021 Bengals. They are -600 to miss the playoffs (per PointsBet) -130 to record 6 or fewer wins.  

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Warren Sharp

Warren Sharp is a football and betting analyst for NBC Sports. As a leading voice in football analytics, Warren writes a yearly book previewing the upcoming season from all angles at his Sharp Football Analysis website. You can follow Warren Sharp on Twitter @SharpFootball.