The Cincinnati Bengals came into the 2020 season knowing that they were probably still a year or two away from seriously competing for a playoff spot in the AFC. Coming off of a 2019 season that saw them finish 2-14, the worst record in the NFL, the team hoped to be more competitive with the new talent that was brought in both from free agency and the NFL draft.
Cincinnati was able to slightly improve on their 2019 season by finishing the 2020 season with a 4-11-1 record, and another last-place finish in the AFC North. There were many bright spots for the Bengals this season, but at the end of the day, the Bengals are still a ways away from achieving their goal of winning their division. For all the bright spots this team had in 2020, there were many more things that went wrong.
Who or what is to blame for the Bengals' poor 2020 season? Well, where do we start?
Cincinnati was absolutely thrashed with injuries this season, and this severely hurt this football team’s chances of winning games. Now, this is not an excuse as many teams suffered key injuries throughout the 2020 season, but Cincinnati was hit about as bad as any NFL team.
It all starts with their franchise quarterback Joe Burrow, who suffered a torn ACL in a Week 11 loss against Washington. Prior to suffering the injury, Burrow was having one of the better rookie seasons we had ever seen, and proved to be well worth the No. 1 overall pick. His injury was crippling, and despite two late-season wins, this team never was the same.
Outside of Burrow, the team had many other significant injuries to key starters. Players such as running back Joe Mixon, tight end C.J. Uzomah, left tackle Jonah Williams, defensive tackles Geno Atkins and D.J. Reader, and corner Trae Waynes all ended up on injured reserve. No team can survive this much attrition, especially with these key starters.
The Bengals defense really struggled to get to the quarterback in 2020. In a passing league, if you can’t rush the passer then you’ll be in trouble. Cincinnati had a league-low 17 sacks this season, and that is a number that must improve if this team hopes to be more competitive. The question is: Is the lack of sack production due to personnel or coaching?
I believe that it's the former. Defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo, who is expected to be retained, dialed up a blitz on 30.8% of dropbacks this season, a number that ranks in the upper half of the league. I like the attempt to dial up blitzes and try to manufacture pressure, the issue is that they just don’t have the talent up front to get home. Carl Lawson led the team in sacks with just 5.5, and the next closest was Sam Hubbard with two. The team needs impact edge rushers in the worst way, and I fully expect them to prioritize that this offseason.
One of the main factors that contributed to the Bengals’ losing season was that they are just so young and inexperienced at so many key positions. Having good young players is fine and great, but these young players still need to take their lumps and adjust to this level of the game.
Burrow, who was sensational when he was healthy, is still just a rookie who needs to learn how to win at the NFL level. Tee Higgins is another rookie who showed outstanding promise, but again is just a rookie and had his share of rookie mistakes. Defensively, the team started multiple rookies at linebacker in Logan Wilson and Akeem Davis-Gaither, while also starting a second-year player in Germaine Pratt. This youth and inexperience at the second level of their defense were exposed by opposing offenses all season long.
Perhaps the most glaring hole on this entire roster, the Bengals’ offensive line in 2020 was horrid. The unit struggled badly both run blocking and pass blocking and got their young star quarterback beat up routinely. Prior to suffering his ACL injury, Burrow was sacked 32 times, which at the time was the most in the league. When I evaluated this offensive line over the course of the season, I came away asking myself this question: Is there a player that should be a starter on this team again in 2021? The answer for the most part was no.
The team can definitely improve on all three interior players. Guard Michael Jordan was benched, and Xavier Sua-Filo, Billy Price, and Quinton Spain are all backup level players as well. Center Trey Hopkins, who entering the year was considered the unit's best player, was up and down this season and certainly isn’t a guy I would be afraid of moving on from.
Right tackle is another area the team can definitely improve on, as Bobby Hart and Fred Johnson are not the answer. At left tackle, 2019 first-round pick Jonah Williams showed some promise, and had a good amount of quality reps that lead me to believe he can be a player to build around moving forward.
One thing is definitely clear, if the Bengals hope to improve their 2020 record, then they need to invest in the offensive line.
The last one on this list is coaching, and while it definitely is hard to blame the struggles of the Bengals solely on head coach Zac Taylor, as this roster lacks depth and talent and the injuries were quite substantial, Taylor does deserve some blame. My biggest gripe with Taylor this season is how they used and managed Burrow.
Prior to going down with injury, Burrow led the NFL in pass attempts. That stat is baffling, and honestly is on the verge of malpractice in my opinion. To subject your promising young rookie quarterback to playing behind that bad of an offensive line is one thing, but to have him take the most dropbacks of any NFL quarterback behind that offensive line is reckless, and ultimately got him injured. Taylor needed to protect his quarterback, and he failed to do so. Taylor will be given another shot in 2021, but with his 6-25-1 record in two seasons, he is squarely on the hot seat.
Each of the Bengals’ biggest culprits have been outlined, but who (or what) owns the greatest claim of credit for Cincinnati’s disappointing 2020 season? In order of most to least blame:
- Offensive Line
- Defensive Line
- Youth and Inexperience