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Despite changes to the coaching staff, Bengals look as bad as ever

Cincinnati Bengals Introduce Zac Taylor Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Analysts and writers who feel the need to make predictions with total conviction — that their opinions are in fact not opinions but infallible peeks into the future — are not football experts at all, but carnival barkers. Over a century of evidence in American sports alone tells us that as of yet nobody can predict what will happen in the next season or even the next game with any level of consistency that would make a reasonable person look twice. So there are no predictions in these previews of opponents of the 2019 Seattle Seahawks — only my thoughts and within those thoughts, an opinion of what I believe they will most likely look like in the coming year and straightforward updates on changes to the roster and coaching staff. But any team could be turning over 30% of their entire roster or 100% of their coaches and in some cases, a complete changeover in ownership and/or how they plan to run their franchise. That makes things even more volatile when looking ahead, especially with over three months to go until Week 1, but it’s worth a look ahead anyhow. These are my thoughts, some of which will be wrong, but if I didn’t believe my experience in evaluating football things was at least a little bit valuable, I wouldn’t be writing these. Hopefully that experience gives you a clearer picture of what to expect, while also expecting that these pictures could be erased at any moment.

The 2019 Cincinnati Bengals

In Thursday’s edition of my Seaside Joe newsletter, I wrote about how I was surprised to learn that Andy Dalton was the quarterback of the Bengals even though he’s held that position since 2011. Cincinnati did make the overdue move of firing Marvin Lewis and replacing him with the 36-year-old Zac Taylor (making Taylor just 19 when Lewis was originally hired) but QB remains relatively stable for what it is.

The Bengals did draft Ryan Finley in the fourth round, which if they’re really lucky would mean that he becomes Kirk Cousins, if moderately lucky, Tyrod Taylor, and if expected, maybe close to his competition, Jeff Driskel. You can’t predict that Finley or any day three quarterback will become Dak Prescott or Tom Brady, but you can say with complete confidence that the odds of him grabbing the job by Week 1 and being effective is virtually nil. Not even Russell Wilson was a complete pleasure to watch during the first five or six games of his career.

And since the Seattle Seahawks host the Bengals in Week 1 of the 2019 season, we can expect to see Dalton as the starter when the two teams face off.

Dalton went 5-6 as starter in 2018 compared to 1-4 for Driskel. He’s maintained a good TD:INT ratio (89:38 over the last four seasons) but he’s got a limited ceiling and he’s either inconsistent or consistently mediocre in big games. Dalton was a little worse on the road last season but he’s actually remained pretty even keel in his slightly-above-average efforts no matter where he’s playing. However, the big change here is not replacing the quarterback but replacing the game plan and maybe that will give us a different glimpse into Dalton after eight years of him working for Lewis and a slew of assistant coaches.

Taylor was a grad assistant at Texas A&M from 2008-2011, a QB coach for Joe Philbin and the Miami Dolphins from 2012-2015 (meaning he has had a major hand in the career of Ryan Tannehill, for whatever that’s worth), the offensive coordinator for the Cincinnati Bearcats in 2016 (nothing significant happened for them that season), and finally an assistant under Sean McVay and the LA Rams for the last two seasons. In 2018, he was Jared Goff’s coach, helping set highs in completion percentage, yards per attempt, touchdowns, and rating(s) of several sorts.

But Goff’s offensive line was the best in the NFL, his weapons included 2-3 great receivers depending on the health of Cooper Kupp at the time, and Todd Gurley. Plus of course the McVay factor. Taylor’s career is by far more defined by Tannehill, who worked side-by-side with Taylor for six years as a starter at the college and NFL levels. Tannehill has surprised people by his ability to play quarterback at a high level but he’s not played at a high level at the high level.

Neither has Dalton, so my expectations for Taylor being able to elevate Dalton to a new ceiling without also replacing many of his offensive linemen and weapons are quite low.

That being said, Cincinnati does have interesting players on offense around Dalton. A.J. Green missed seven games last season and is hitting that dangerous age of 31; I wrote about the dangers of over-30 receivers earlier this year, highlighting that I didn’t expect Doug Baldwin to be able to go much longer and then a few weeks later he was released. In fact, the new number one may be Tyler Boyd, who had 1,028 yards and seven touchdowns at age 24. I polled folks on Twitter last year if they’d rather have Boyd or former UW Husky John Ross and the majority picked Ross. This was early in the season and I can’t imagine Ross has many supporters left.

The ninth overall pick in 2017, Ross also caught seven touchdowns last year but he’s just fighting for a job on the final-53. Otherwise, he will be traded for a conditional day three pick if the Bengals are lucky. Expectations are higher because of Taylor (is he the next Brandin Cooks for Taylor?) but don’t get it twisted without acknowledging your twist: John Ross has spent the last two years as a bottom-five receiver across all receivers in the NFL. His ceiling in year three may be comparable to what Breshad Perriman did last year, going from one of the worst to a guy who can do a little something sometimes.

Dalton’s first, second, or third option will be tight end/receiver Tyler Eifert, but I can barely stomach noting his injury history. It’s too sad. He missed 15 games in 2014, eight games in 2016, 14 games in 2017, and 12 games in 2018. That’s 44 games total over the last four years. The team responded by drafting Drew Sample in the second round, but he’s just a rookie and I give very little-to-no expectations for any of those.

If healthy, Boyd, Green, and Eifert give Dalton an above-average 1-2-3, but accounting for the injury issues with Eifert and Green, plus the “prove it” year for Boyd, my overall assessment is that the Bengals’ weapons are average-to-below with a ceiling to be great. Adding in Sample, Ross, C.J. Uzomah, there’s a bit of extra there, but the offensive line will prove crucial, as it does almost anywhere.

Left tackle Cordy Glenn hasn’t played a full season since 2015, and if he goes down they’ll likely turn to rookie first rounder Jonah Williams or Bobby Hart, who has never been very good for Cincinnati. With that in mind, Glenn has moved to left guard and Williams has been playing left tackle in OTAs, which should upgrade one position while taking a risk at maybe the second-most important position on offense. Last year’s first round pick, Billy Price, was underwhelming at center as a rookie but he’s not expected to be moved to guard just yet. Clint Boling, in the final year of a $26 million contract, could play anything from guard to tackle to being a backup.

The offensive line has been a weakness for a long time despite many first round picks being spent there and it would be a surprise if it’s any better in 2019. Taylor hired Jim Turner to coach the offensive line, an assistant he knew from the Dolphins who was fired after the Jonathan Martin bullying scandal; Turner was said to be among those who ruthlessly bullied Martin. Turner is Taylor’s friend, that’s pretty much that whole story. He’s helping out a buddy despite his reputation and we’ll see how that turns out for the Bengals, an organization that has never placed an emphasis on character.

Taylor’s offensive coordinator is Brian Callahan, who is the son of Bill Callahan, who was Taylor’s coach at Nebraska when he was the starting quarterback there. Hey kids, don’t forget to network. It’s all about networking.

Overall, I’d think the offense is set to be among the worst in the NFL. It reminds me more of Kyle Shanahan going from the Falcons to the 49ers than it does McVay going from Washington to the Rams. Once you ignore that McVay and Taylor are both young coaches who worked together you’ll see that Taylor doesn’t have a former number one overall pick at QB. He doesn’t have an elite left tackle, center, and good-to-great guards/right tackle. He has an awesome receiver who might be past his prime and a number two who may have already hit his prime for all we know. Joe Mixon was one of the league’s better running backs last season but we’ve discussed the value of backs ad naseum at this point and he’s not likely to change their outcome by much regardless of how he plays or if he plays.

Considering that Dalton is the definition of an 18th-ranked quarterback, and that the players around him do not appear to be capable of lifting him in the way that LA’s coaches and supporting cast can elevate Goff, I would think Cincy finishes in the bottom-third in points, DVOA, and whatever else that you like to measure an offense by.

And if the defense is anything like what they were in 2018, then at least the Bengals will be able to draft a pretty decent franchise quarterback prospect next April.

Cincinnati finished 28th in DVOA for defense with fairly equal ineptitude for stopping either the pass or the run. I can’t say that they made a single notable change on defense either, save the hiring of Lou Anarumo as defensive coordinator, who of course was Taylor’s friend for four years on the Dolphins staff. The Bengals’ highest-drafted defensive player was linebacker Germaine Pratt in the third round, who’ll be competing for one of the starting jobs now that Vontaze Burfict is finally gone.

The best young player on the team might be safety Jessie Bates, who made a notable impact on the defense in 2018. Outside of defensive tackle Geno Atkins, now 31, I’m not sure how much confidence you can have in the rest of the unit. Safety Shawn Williams had five interceptions and a lot of tackles; Carlos Dunlap added another eight sacks to his career resume; corner William Jackson stayed healthy for a full season again but has just one interception in 31 career games.

Overall, the Bengals didn’t make a huge effort to improve their defense, instead relying on internal improvement and I don’t see how that’s likely given that downward regression should also be expected; how much better is Bates going to be in year two and how much worse will Dunlap and Atkins be in their 30s? Dre Kirkpatrick has improved to the level of being serviceable, but not necessarily start-able if he ends up as your best option at corner.

Again, none of this is a prediction, but my expectation of the Cincinnati Bengals is that they will have a more difficult time winning four games than most teams. Maybe more so than all other 31 teams. The quarterback is uninspiring. The defense was bad last season and does not appear to be improved. Their best players might be too old and one could argue, should all be on the trading block. The head coach is unproven and his staff picks seem to be based heavily on personal relationships over resume. And it may only take one or two injuries to really decimate their chances of winning games in 2019.

The fact that the Seahawks are the first team to face them this season may in fact be an advantage to the Bengals. They’ll be very unknown at that point and most dangerously of all: confident. Bad teams would seem to always be at their most confident in Week 1 because they haven’t tasted the bitterness of reality quite yet — the Bucs started 2-0 last season, including wins over the Saints and Eagles. Taylor will not have had a track record at all and health is more than likely going to be on Cincy’s side compared to where players like Green, Glenn, Eifert, and Atkins may be at later on in the year.

I still expect Seattle to win because of talent and homefield advantage but of all the predictions, Week 1 predictions are often the most in danger of being wrong.

Are the Bengals the worst team in the league right now? If not, who do you think?