The Cincinnati Bengals are officially on the clock. The Bengals wrapped up the No1 overall pick in next year’s draft, after losing to the Miami Dolphins 38-35 in overtime on Sunday. With that, Heisman trophy winner Joe Burrow can start to look at Cincinnati area investment opportunities. The LSU quarterback is the overwhelming favorite to be selected by Cincy in May’s draft, but the Bengals came to fluffing their lines.
It is one of the league’s most interesting annual dichotomies as the season draws to a close: what is in the best interest of the franchise long-term is not in the best interest of those wearing the uniform in the here and now. The best possible things for the Bengals franchise in 2020 and beyond is to clinch the first overall pick, the most valuable non-franchise quarterback asset in the sport. It is a chance for them to land their quarterback of the future or a franchise-changing pass-rusher. But for the current players and coaches, winning every game remains vital. Their jobs, after all, are on the line.
Everything a player puts on tape will be evaluated by every team in the offseason. Every snap is a job interview. Their performances will impact their wallets and, for some, whether or not they have a career in the NFL. Position coaches could save or lose their jobs, and help or hurt future employment prospects, even if the head coach is in on the long-term plan.
Plus, these are intensely competitive athletes, who have climbed to the top of their professions thanks to that very trait. Winning matters; losing hurts. Individual players don’t tank, organizations do: by the people they hire, players they sign (or don’t) and the level of talent they stick on the field.
Cincinnati decided pretty early in the season it was in their long-term interest to dump this season and target a quarterback in the upcoming draft class. They entered Sunday’s tank-athon with a good lead in the draft sweepstakes over Washington, New York, Miami, and Detroit. It looked like they had wrapped it up within minutes. The Dolphins zoomed out to a commanding lead, with Ryan Fitzpatrick setting a Dolphins franchise record for first-half passing yards, throwing for 252 yards and three touchdowns.
Then something switched. Improbably, and in spite of the wishes of the fanbase, who usually align with management when it comes to tanking (dreaming and drafting is fun!), the Bengals put together an incredible run:
– A touchdown on fourth down.
– A two-point conversion.
– A successful onside kick.
– A 29-yard touchdown with the game clock hitting zeros.
– A two-point conversion.
The Bengals rallied back from 23 points down in the fourth quarter to tie the game up and send it into overtime. The Dolphins scored in overtime to seal the game, sabotaging their own preseason plans to prioritize the long-term over the short.
Or did they? There will be those who argue that the draft is a crapshoot anyway. That instilling a culture – be tough, be competitive, win – outweighs the benefits of shifting a couple of draft spots. There is validity in this argument, great players can be found up and down the board (the Patriots, the best team this century are masters at it) and turning around a losing culture is hard. Maybe Miami, with what looks like a competent coach and a young core – not to mention nine picks in the first two rounds of the next two drafts – are in a better position to build a sustainable winner than the losers who have first dibs at drafting a rookie quarterback.
But ask Bengals fans, ownership, and the coaches and players who line up at the start of next season whether the pain of today was worth Burrow and the hope of tomorrow and the answer will unreservedly be yes.
MVP of the week
Saquon Barkley, New York Giants. The 22-year-old posted his best game of 2019 on Sunday, rushing for 189 yards and a touchdown while adding 90 yards in catches and a receiving touchdown. An early-season ankle injury and the Giants’ porous offensive line have robbed us of Barkley’s majesty for much of the season. Finally, he looks all the way back, and we were treated to that delightful blend of grace and power as he steamrolled a hapless Washington defense.
Stat of the week
There have now been six touchdowns scored by players over 300lbs this season – the most in league history. Few things in football are more beloved than a Big Guy Touchdown. To quote John Madden: Fat guy touchdown, fat guy spoke, fat guy dance.
This season’s best, for his team’s reaction alone, belongs to Buffalo offensive tackle Dion Dawkins, who caught a touchdown pass against the Patriots on Saturday:
Miami’s Christian Wilkins broke the wonderful record with a catch-then-fumble recovered for a touchdown against the Bengals:
Wilkins is worthy of being the cover star. He is a big-guy touchdown legend dating back to college, where he rushed for two touchdowns and caught two more while weighing it at a sprightly 315lbs.
Quote of the week
“I played my technique, trusting that [Rapp] was going to be over the top. He wasn’t” – Jalen Ramsey on the play that effectively ended the Rams’ season.
The Rams’ season all-but ended on the above play. Blame immediately hit Ramsey for the blown coverage. He was seen as the perfect metaphor for the Rams season: a player acquired in a win-now move blowing it in a crucial spot.
Ramsey set the record straight – he said his teammate Taylor Rapp wasn’t in the correct place to cover. Whether or not Ramsey’s explanation should be viewed as throwing a teammate under a bus or correctly informing the misinformed is open for discussion.
What’s undeniable: The Rams missing the playoffs is a black mark for general manager Les Snead and head coach Sean McVay. The Rams have been billed as a model franchise in recent years – not least by league owners, who have tried to hire anyone within touching distance of McVay. This Rams team was built to win now: they traded two first-round picks for Ramsey, handed out big contracts to Jared Goff, Brandin Cooks, Andrew Whitworth, and an arthritis-stricken Todd Gurley. It hasn’t worked, and now the Rams don’t have much wiggle room to improve.
Changes are coming. NFL.com reports offseason moves may include shipping out Todd Gurley (how, given his injury status and contract remains a mystery) and axing defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, despite the Rams defense ranking as a top-eight unit in DVOA.
Video of the week
Khalif Raymond was knocked out on the reception-then-fumble that ultimately decided the Saints-Titans game. There was no flag for a dangerous hit to the head or neck area nor a mention of it on the Fox broadcast, despite innumerable replays. So much for player safety first.
The Saints recovered the fumble with the Titans driving down the field to take the lead and win the game. A 15-yard penalty would have moved the Titans into field-goal range – at worst. Instead, the Saints received the ball and put the game away. Officiating this year has shifted from a joke to a tragedy, a small but necessary distinction.
Elsewhere around the league
– Lamar Jackson joined elite company on Sunday with another dizzying display in Cleveland. Jackson has eight games this season with three or more touchdowns. The only players with more such games in a single season: Patrick Mahomes, 2018 (10); Dan Marino, 1984 (10); Kurt Warner, 1999 (9).
– The Philadelphia Eagles now have their fate in their own hands after a 17-9 victory over the Dallas Cowboys. The Eagles will qualify for the playoffs if they beat the Giants next week. The future of Jason Garrett, meanwhile, is in doubt.
– Baltimore started slow on Sunday then, in the blink of an eye, they dropped 14 points on the Browns. The Ravens had two touchdown drives that totaled 138 yards and took a combined 78 seconds. The Ravens have proved they can beat you by grinding it out, airing out, winning a slugfest or track meet, no matter the weather conditions. They are comfortably the most complete team in the league.
– You Cannot Guard Mike. Michael Thomas passed Marvin Harrison’s record for receptions in a season, grabbing 12 passes against the Titans to take his season total to 145. An extra fun fact: Thomas has more receptions this season than he did during his three years in college at Ohio State. Few players are that much more impactful in the NFL than they were in college.
– Christian McCaffrey became the first running back in NFL history to have two seasons with at least 100 catches. This is only McCaffrey’s third season: he is a special player having a special season on a lousy Panthers team.
– The Patriots offense delivered a reassuring performance of what they can be come playoff time. They will be a play-action team again, as they were on their way to last year’s championship. This group is not great in either the run game or the dropback passing game. But if they can blend the two competently – and rely on play-action for their chunk plays – they still have a shot to compete in the AFC.
– Has Ryan Fitzpatrick had the weirdest career arc of any quarterback in modern history? He shredded the Bengals on Sunday to the tune of 419 yards and four touchdowns. That’s Fitzpatrick’s 10th career game with four or more touchdowns, matching the career totals of Tony Romo, John Elway, Matt Ryan and Russell Wilson, and besting those of Joe Montana and Phillip Rivers. Bonkers.
– The Colts’ Nyheim Hines became the first player in seven years to return two punts for touchdowns in the same game.
– Seahawks-49ers in Week 17 is guaranteed to be for the NFC West championship and has a chance to be for the top seed in the NFC. It will be the best and most important Week 17 matchup in a long time.