The Cincinnati Bengals stunned the world in 2022. That statement remains true regardless of the result on Sunday night. But the question is: What got missed? The Bengals were a near consensus bottom-five or at least bottom-ten team. In what felt like a loaded AFC North, Cincinnati was given barely a chance to crack the seven-team playoff field.
Yet, five months later, they’re the AFC’s representative in the Super Bowl. They were a four-seed, so they didn’t dominate the season. But somehow, they put together the pieces for a 10-win season and an extended run of postseason success. So, let’s look at the Bengals’ blueprint. What did they do to reach this point and what struggling franchises have the best chance of following the blueprint in the coming years?
Franchise QuarterbackThis is obvious enough; the Bengals got their guy in the 2020 NFL Draft in national champion Joe Burrow. An Ohio native, the Bengals pulled in a Heisman Trophy winner and proven competitor. There were some ideal factors to this situation – such as Burrow being from Ohio and naturally passionate to bring glory to his home state. But in an era of busts and high-profile draft misses, the Bengals identified their guy and got him.
It’s not all you need — just ask the Los Angeles Chargers and Justin Herbert. Herbert is one of the best in the league, yet the Chargers sat home from this year’s playoffs. So this is just one step.
Coaching StabilityI already hated on the Chargers a bit, but I’m going to do it again. Los Angeles was a prime example of not reaching their ceiling due to a coaching overhaul. When you bring in a franchise quarterback or start your rebuild, you’ve got to commit completely and get your guy at the helm too. The Bengals did this with Zac Taylor. He was hired in February 2019 and has remained the guy in Cincinnati despite a couple of rocky seasons to start. To borrow a phrase from the Philadelphia 76ers, “Trust the Process.” You are not going to find great success with a rebuild without continuity from the top down.
Build Through The DraftThis obviously started with Burrow. But the Bengals did a lot of other great things over the span of a few drafts to lock in their Super Bowl-bound roster. From 2016 to 2018, the Bengals snagged Tyler Boyd, Joe Mixon and Jesse Bates as second-round picks. From 2019 to 2021, Cincinnati hit on their first-round selections. They grabbed Jonah Williams, who tied for sixth among tackles in sacks-allowed, Burrow and playmaking threat Ja’Marr Chase. Throw in rookie kicking legend Evan McPherson in the fifth round of the ’21 draft, as well as a few other key contributors, and the Bengals have used astute drafting to hit position of needs and develop this AFC Championship squad.
Special TeamsThis is a bonus, but not something I expect rebuilding teams to show prowess in it. However, ask the Bengals (and Evan McPherson) or maybe the Green Bay Packers how important it is.
Who can do it?Here are three possibilities of teams who can model themselves after the Bengals. I only considered teams that posted records of .500 or worse in consecutive years which was a truly pitiful collection of teams to consider. In the end, I picked three I feel could at least best position themselves to follow the Bengals’ model.
3. Atlanta FalconsThe Falcons have a quarterback in Matt Ryan who may be over the hill. However, he lost his top two weapons this year which contributed to a down season. I don’t think a resurgence is out of the question, and that question may be answered with how early Atlanta takes a quarterback in the upcoming draft.
Speaking of the draft, their recent successes give me some hope with this pick. Between A.J. Terrell and Kyle Pitts, Atlanta’s past two first-round selections are showing franchise-player potential. Throw in some nice value adds lower in their draft classes, and Atlanta can build this roster back up, particularly with another top-10 pick this year. Arthur Smith was not inspiring in year 1 as a coach, but he’s improved down the stretch, and he kept Atlanta in the playoff hunt despite the midseason loss of their top offensive weapon.
At special teams, the Falcons have an elite kicker in Younghoe Koo, which is an important base to building the rest of the all-important unit. Much of the timeline depends on whether it’s Matt Ryan or a new quarterback leading the resurgence, but I think this team could realistically compete for the postseason next year in a weakened division. As for a deep run, it could come sooner from Atlanta than you think. I’m eyeing 2023 and 2024 as seasons in which Atlanta can truly become relevant in the NFC again
2. Jacksonville JaguarsHear me out. I know they’re a mess right now. But the pieces are there. Don’t crucify Trevor Lawrence — just look at the rookies who threw the most interceptions in their rookie year … it’s a pretty good list. Lawrence is not a bust by any stretch and can still be the franchise guy in Jacksonville. He also seems to like new head coaching hire Doug Pederson, who has a Super Bowl-winning pedigree. Pederson coaxed an elite season out of the very-not-elite Carson Wentz so I like what he could do for Lawrence. Throw in some of Jacksonville’s offensive weapons and this offense could develop into a solid unit. I would love to see Jacksonville hunt for an impact rookie receiver in the second round this year — we saw what Burrow did with that opportunity.
They’ve got the first overall pick again in 2022 with the chance to pick up a franchise edge rusher. They could also trade out of it and grab key pieces for their offensive line and secondary, which are bigger needs. A really solid 2022 draft and bounce-back campaign for Trevor Lawrence could have this team competing for a division title by 2023 or 2024
1. Detroit LionsLook the Lions were not as bad as their record and 2nd overall pick seemed in 2021. They lost a lot of close games, and they’ve got pieces in place. A passionate, offensive-minded head coach? Check. A solid 2021 draft? Yes. The Lions locked in a couple of franchise players on the offensive side of the ball in Penei Sewell and Amon-Ra St. Brown. Jared Goff has led a team to a Super Bowl before and certainly wasn’t the problem in 2021, but the Lions could also look to bring in a second or third-round pick at the position.
Defense and special teams need to be the upcoming focus for Detroit, but this team is naturally due for a bounce-back, given the number of close games they lost. If they don’t lose on two game-winning kicks of 50+ yards this a five-win team. With improvements, I think they hit seven wins in 2022, and I think this roster could be ready to roll by 2024.
Keep in mind that the Bengals really started this process back around 2017. So a 4-5 year timeline is reasonable before we can expect these teams to have the pieces for what the Bengals accomplished. But look for some of these teams to be relevant postseason figures by 2024. The pieces are there, or can be there with proper management, and now it’s about following the Bengals’ blueprint.