Underdogs win Super Bowls by creating turnovers, playing clean and entering the fourth quarter within a score with a quarterback capable of creating some off-script magic. The Bengals hit on all three on Sunday. The game was right there for Cincinnati to close out.
Then the Rams’ stars took over, and the flaws in a far-from-flawless Cincinnati roster were ultimately exposed – with a dose of help (as ever) from the league’s officials. The Bengals couldn’t tackle Cooper Kupp, at least not in time. And they could not block Aaron Donald, who led a defensive front that wound up dropping Joe Burrow seven times, a Super Bowl record. Sean McVay coached his Rams team into a hole, and his players dragged him out.
What now for Burrow and the Bengals? There is a feeling when a new team rises that they will be plenty more chances for them to win a Super Bowl. Once they break through, it is believed, they will continue to do so as long as the foundations remain in place. “We’re a young team,” Burrow said after the game on Sunday. “You like to think that we’ll be back in this situation multiple times over the course of the next few years. We’ll take this and let it fuel [us] for the rest of our careers.”
By any objective measure, the Bengals are primed for long-term success. They have one of the most promising, young rosters in the league – an all-world wide receiver room and talent dripping all over the defense. In Burrow, they have one of the NFL’s most valuable building blocks: a true franchise quarterback who can elevate average players into difference-makers. They head into the offseason with the third-highest amount of cap space in the league and a bevy of draft picks with which to try to upgrade a roster with obvious defects.
This was not a team that was perfectly constructed to challenge for this title. They were two to three years ahead of schedule, at minimum. Only two quarterbacks in the salary cap era have been selected first overall in the draft and guided the team that drafted them to a Super Bowl: Peyton and Eli Manning. On average, it takes seven years. Burrow took the Bengals to the promised land in two.
Burrow posted the second most valuable season of any quarterback in the league by EPA, a measure of a player’s down to down efficiency. He led crucial come-from-behind victories and piloted the team through the playoffs. And he did so while playing behind a gaggle of saloon doors. Burrow was pressured on nearly 40% of his dropbacks over the course of the season. The Bengals’ finished 30th in the league in pressure rate, the lowest ranking for any team that has reached the Super Bowl since such records began. Few quarterbacks have ever done so much with so little help.
An MVP-caliber quarterback on a rookie-scale deal represents the greatest market inefficiency in the NFL. Land someone like Burrow and you’re able to reshuffle, re-enforce and beef up the roster in all three phases, adding depth and top-tier talent through free agency. Burrow and his receivers wreaked havoc over some of the league’s finest defenses in just their second season together. Can you imagine what they will do when Burrow gets some protection? What about if a Bengals defense loaded with B-pluses could sprinkle some stardust on its secondary?
Sunday should, by all indications, be the first waypoint on a trip to championships, plural.
But NFL championship windows are always shorter than anyone anticipates. Teams splinter. They become mired in cap hell. They lose key contributors, get sapped by injuries, or fall prey to the Disease of Me. Cam Newton’s Panthers disintegrated in record time. Russell Wilson and the Seahawks have not been back to a championship game since losing on the one-yard line in Glendale in 2015. Aaron Rodgers has not been to the Super Bowl in more than 10 years, and may retire with only one title to his name.
The Bengals have cracks. Head coach Zac Taylor was not presiding over a 13-win juggernaut, rather a 10-win team that snuck into the playoffs on the back of a pair of late-game comebacks, then rolled past a pair of competent-to-bad teams in the playoffs, before upsetting the Chiefs with a one-off, second-half masterplan. Everything had to go right just to make the final dance.
The path to the Super Bowl through the AFC next season and beyond is sticky. Even with fresh additions, the Bengals will trail the Chiefs and Bills as the favorites in the conference. Then there’s Justin Herbert and the Chargers to worry about, and Lamar Jackson and the Ravens. The league’s top, young quarterbacks are all concentrated in the same conference – and that’s without factoring in the looming specter of trades for Wilson, Rodgers, Deshaun Watson, and perhaps even Kyler Murray. For the next 10 years or more, the path to the Super Bowl in the AFC will run through the best and brightest that the league’s most important position has to offer. And there are only so many seasons and championship berths to go around.
In the immediate aftermath of a Super Bowl defeat, it’s natural to look forward. To think of the next opportunity, the next shot at a title. But winning is hard. It requires skill and luck, for your starting right guard to stay healthy and your secondary to coalesce in time for the postseason; to find four quality pass-rushers, and your holder not to bobble any snaps. All the little things went Cincinnati’s way throughout the postseason, but they ran out of the players to push them over the line at the very end.
Burrow and the Bengals should be back. But it’s hard to imagine a team getting a better crack to win the whole thing than leading late in the fourth with a quality defense against an ailing, stale offense. Two things can be true: the Bengals are years ahead of schedule; they missed a crucial opportunity to win it all.
One final stop, one more explosive play, and the Bengals would be champions. Now, they’re back on the merry-go-round with everyone else.