In 2020, the Cincinnati Bengals will hope to sneak into the playoffs just as their 2011 counterparts did.
The year was 2011. The Cincinnati Bengals were coming off of a 4-12 season and had just parted ways with Carson Palmer and Chad Johnson. Practically the entire sports world was sure of one thing: the Bengals were a bad team. That year, the Bengals went 9-7 and made the playoffs with rookies at both the quarterback and the wide receiver positions in Andy Dalton and A.J. Green.
In 2020, the Bengals have an eerily similar situation. Longtime franchise quarterback Andy Dalton was released after the draft and Joe Burrow was selected to replace him. Wide receiver Tee Higgins was drafted in the second round to give the rookie quarterback yet another weapon.
Although the 2011 season ended in a crushing 31-10 defeat at the hands of J.J. Watt and the Houston Texans, it was an important start to what would become a streak of five consecutive playoff appearances for the Bengals. In 2020, the Bengals will look to emulate the same model that found them success 9 years ago.
The 2011 blueprint
So the first question is: how did the Bengals make the playoffs in 2011? One of the primary factors in the team’s success was a solid defense. Allowing only 20.2 points per game, the Bengals had the 9th best scoring defense in the NFL. The good news for Cincinnati? Two players from that defense are still around in Cincinnati today: Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap.
In addition to these two veterans, the front office focused on overhauling the defense in free agency and the draft. If the pieces all come together, Lou Anarumo’s defensive unit could win them a lot of games in 2020.
Another factor toward the team’s 2011 success was obviously the success of rookies Andy Dalton and A.J. Green. Coming out of college, Joe Burrow is considered a better quarterback prospect than Dalton was at the time. While Green was a much better wide receiver prospect in 2011 than Tee Higgins is today, the rookie receiver will benefit from the fact that he actually gets to play on the same team as Green. If Burrow and Higgins can emulate Dalton and Green, Cincinnati could make a push for the playoffs.
There was a point at the start of the 2011 season where the Bengals did not look like a playoff contender, however. After a 1-2 start to the season, they won five straight games to catapult themselves into a legit team in the playoff race.
There is a three-game stretch of matchups in the Bengals’ 2020 schedule where they play the Redskins, Giants, and Dolphins consecutively. These are three very beatable teams for the Bengals. If they can win these three and tack a couple more wins on the front or back of those three matchups, they could have a similar stretch of wins to push themselves into the race.
Another similarity between 2011 and 2020 is that there could be a lack of training camp preparation. The NFL Lockout of 2011 went into late July and because of it, the rookie duo had a shortened training camp experience in their first seasons as pros. While there is no lockout in 2020, the coronavirus pandemic has led to a different offseason program.
With no in-person rookie minicamp and an uncertain future for training camp, Joe Burrow and Tee Higgins will have to take notes from Dalton and Green as to how to succeed with a shortened offseason program.
While the path to the playoffs will be tough, if the Bengals can have a top ten defense, get good play from Joe Burrow and Tee Higgins, capitalize on a soft spot in the middle of their schedule, and adapt to an odd offseason training program, the team could make a playoff push. This would come as a shock to many, but if 2011 taught us anything, it’s not to sleep on a Bengals rookie quarterback and wide receiver duo.