When he was the head coach of the Houston Oilers in the late 1970s, failing repeatedly to get past the Pittsburgh Steelers' dynasty, Bum Phillips gave a quote that lives forever.
"One year ago we knocked on the door. This year we beat on the door," Phillips told Oilers fans. "Next year, we're going to kick the son of a bitch in!"
It was a great line. It also wasn't some epiphany. The Oilers never got past the Steelers, and Phillips was fired.
The Cincinnati Bengals have to be wondering when their time will come to kick in the door. If it comes at all. The scare from quarterback Joe Burrow pulling up with a calf injury in training camp — Burrow missed several weeks of practice, but will reportedly be ready for the regular season — was a reminder of how fleeting any team's time near the top can be.
The Bengals lost the Super Bowl two seasons ago, allowing a last-minute drive to the Los Angeles Rams. Last season, they lost the AFC championship game to the Kansas City Chiefs. The game was tied in the final minute when Patrick Mahomes ran for a first down, defensive end Joseph Ossai shoved Mahomes after he'd stepped out of bounds for a 15-yard penalty, and the Chiefs kicked the game-winning field goal.
They've been that close. There wasn't much to say after the crushing Chiefs loss, including between Burrow and receiver Ja'Marr Chase.
"We didn't really talk too much [after the loss]," Chase said on "The Rich Eisen Show," via the Cincinnati Enquirer. "It's, 'I love you, man. Congratulations. We'll be back.' That was our last words. We're gonna be back, and we both know that because we're both competitors."
We like stories in which the underdog team rises up, experiences playoff failure a couple times and then uses that as motivation to win a long-awaited championship. Sometimes it goes down like that. But there are plenty of fan bases that lament missed opportunities forever, without the championship parade.
The Bengals are set up very well to be a Super Bowl contender for many years. Burrow is a star, and the betting favorite to win NFL MVP. The supporting cast is excellent, though it will be hard to maintain it with Burrow's mega-extension coming up soon. The Bengals got lucky when respected defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo was passed over for a head-coaching job. The Bengals are good enough to win a Super Bowl. Only a few bad breaks (or, Bengals fans might say, bad officiating) have kept them from winning either of the past two seasons.
And they have confidence, which is odd coming from a franchise that was known as a perennial loser before Burrow arrived. You could see that last season when the players, perhaps unwisely, riled up the Chiefs by calling their stadium "Burrowhead" because they said their quarterback owned it. It's a group that believes the next step is a Super Bowl.
"Yeah, we know what it takes to get there," Burrow said this offseason, via Cleveland.com. "We’ve been there, done that, haven’t quite gotten over that last hump yet and so that’s where we’re headed."
If you had to pick one player in the NFL who hasn't won a Super Bowl ring yet to get one before he retires, the right answer is probably Burrow. The Bengals seem destined to kick in the door eventually. Cincinnati would like for it to happen sooner than later.
The Bengals keep trying to build up their offensive line, and this offseason they invested in tackle Orlando Brown Jr. Brown got a four-year, $64.1 million deal. Cincinnati saw safeties Jessie Bates III and Vonn Bell leave, though they signed Nick Scott from the Rams as a replacement. Cincinnati changed tight ends, as Hayden Hurst left but Irv Smith Jr. signed on. Retaining linebacker Germaine Pratt was a positive. The Bengals lost running back Samaje Perine but retained Joe Mixon when he agreed to stay on a massive pay cut. The draft was solid. Edge rusher Myles Murphy at No. 28 seemed like great value, and fellow top 100 picks cornerback DJ Turner and safety Jordan Battle could contribute right away.
The chatter from Justin Herbert's five-year, $262.5 million contract extension wasn't about Herbert, it was about how much Joe Burrow might get in his impending extension.
If Burrow wants, he can surpass Herbert's deal and be the highest-paid player in NFL history. What are the Bengals going to do, not pay him? But Burrow has given off vibes that he's willing to take a more team-friendly deal that allows Cincinnati salary-cap flexibility.
“It’s definitely [in mind] whenever you have guys on the team that need to be paid, that’s always on your mind,” Burrow said, via the Dayton Daily News. “You want that to be a focal point, and so we’re working to make that happen.”
On Wednesday, Burrow was all business, telling reporters about his contract talks, "That's the last thing I'm thinking about. I'm worried about beating the Browns right now. I mean it comes when it comes. I'm not worried about it or anything."
If Burrow wanted to max out his earnings, that would be fine. It's also fine if he wants to take less and give the Bengals a better shot at keeping core players like Ja'Marr Chase and Tee Higgins. Either way, the NFL world will be watching to see how Burrow's contract compares to Herbert and others like Jalen Hurts and Lamar Jackson.
BetMGM odds breakdown
The Bengals aren't an underdog anymore. They're +1100 to win the Super Bowl at BetMGM; that's fifth-best odds among NFL teams. They're +500 to get the No. 1 seed in the AFC. They're the clear betting favorites in a really tough AFC North. Joe Burrow took over Patrick Mahomes' spot as the NFL MVP betting favorite. The Bengals are very good, but the odds on them are fair. I won't have any team futures on the Bengals, but I like taking a shot on Ja'Marr Chase for NFL Offensive Player of the Year, even with the odds down to +1000. He is the betting favorite, but it's easy to see a path to him having a huge season and winning the award. Three of the past four OPOY winners were receivers.
Yahoo's fantasy take
From Yahoo's Scott Pianowski: "Joe Mixon’s fantasy value has been all about volume in recent seasons, not efficiency. He’s averaged a modest 3.9 yards per carry the past three years, but 744 touches — and 29 touchdowns — have paid the bills. The Bengals have never prioritized the backfield depth after Mixon; Samaje Perine was a pedestrian backup, and Perine left after last season. Mixon had to take a significant pay cut to stay with the Bengals, but his workload is unchallenged.
"Mixon’s Yahoo ADP has jumped back into the mid-30s, and there’s some risk baked into that. He’s entering his seventh NFL season, so the odometer is a concern. He still faces a mid-August court date for an aggravated menacing charge — he allegedly threatened to shoot a woman in the face. And obviously the entire Bengals offense could go kablooey if Joe Burrow’s calf injury turns out to be anything major. I am willing to consider Mixon as a possible fourth- or fifth-round pick, but I won’t take the plunge if the current ADP trend sticks."
Stat to remember
The Bengals were very good on offense, finishing seventh in points scored, eighth in yards, fifth in passing yards, second in passing touchdowns and third in passer rating. They got almost no help from the running game, which finished 29th in yards and 29th in yards per carry. At age 26, Joe Mixon's rushing numbers were far below his career norms. Mixon had one monster 153-yard, four-touchdown rushing game against the Carolina Panthers (he added a fifth touchdown on a reception), and rushed for 661 yards and three touchdowns in his other 13 games combined. Mixon took pay cuts of more than $4 million for this year and next year. The Bengals didn't do much to add to the running back room, and lost Samaje Perine in free agency. The Bengals' passing game will be fine again, with Joe Burrow throwing to Ja'Marr Chase, Tee Higgins, Tyler Boyd and Irv Smith Jr., behind an offensive line that has improved a lot over the past two offseasons. But if they want any balance in their offense, it revolves around Mixon having a big rebound.
Is the Bengals' defensive chaos the key to beating top QBs?
The AFC has a majority of the elite quarterbacks in the NFL. The Bengals were mostly unfazed by them last season. They confused Patrick Mahomes in a regular-season win, and flustered Josh Allen in the playoffs. The Bengals allowed a passer rating of 80.1 last regular season, the best in the NFL. The Bengals have talent on that side of the ball, especially on a deep line that should be better with first-round draft pick Myles Murphy, but plenty of the credit goes to defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo and his complex schemes. The longer the Bengals keep their core together, the more comfortable it is running the hectic scheme. The Bengals will face great quarterbacks in the regular season and the playoffs, and they're going to throw everything they have at them.
In an alternate universe, the Bengals stop Cooper Kupp on a fourth-and-1 or don't get called for a borderline holding call against Kupp, and last season they put together a big drive in the final minute against the Chiefs, go on to beat the Philadelphia Eagles in the Super Bowl and they're two-time champions and a budding dynasty. They haven't caught that break yet, but nobody would be surprised if it happened this season. The offense is fantastic and the defense is better than it's given credit for. Joe Burrow could win MVP, Ja'Marr Chase could win NFL Offensive Player of the Year and the Bengals can win a Super Bowl.
The nightmare was in that short clip of Joe Burrow hopping on one foot with what turned out to be a calf strain at camp in late July. Everyone held their breath for a while, knowing what it would mean for the Bengals if Burrow had a season-ending injury. Other than major injuries, we know what the Bengals will be. Burrow will be one of the best quarterbacks in the game, the offense will be very good and the defense will continue to be underrated. But winning the AFC North is no guarantee. Any one of the other three teams could win it; the AFC North has a good argument for the toughest division in football. And the wild-card race will have a lot of good teams involved. It's hard to see the Bengals being out of the playoffs, but after the near-misses of the past two years, just going to the playoffs isn't going to be a successful season.
The crystal ball says ...
The Bengals are an easy team to project. Few franchises in the NFL have as much of their core returning. They've won two straight division titles. They've made two straight deep playoff runs. While the AFC North will be tougher this season, it's hard to pick anyone but the Bengals to win it. Will the Bengals finally break through and win a Super Bowl? I don't think I'll pick them to win it all, but it's obvious they're one of the few teams with a realistic shot at a championship. They just need to catch the right break.
Other team previews
31. Houston Texans
30. Chicago Bears
29. Tennessee Titans
28. Los Angeles Rams
22. Denver Broncos
21. Atlanta Falcons
18. New York Giants
14. Cleveland Browns
11. Seattle Seahawks
10. Baltimore Ravens