NFL 2019 burning questions: Will Zac Taylor be able to turn the Bengals into the Midwest Rams?
Pieces might not be in place yet, but given time Taylor could turn things around in Cincinnati
Throughout the offseason, a consistent trend in the interviewing and hiring of head coaches was a connection to Los Angeles Rams coach Sean McVay. The Green Bay Packers hired one of McVay's former assistants, Matt LaFleur. The Arizona Cardinals hired former Texas Tech coach Kliff Kingsbury, and touted his friendship with McVay in the press release announcing the move. And the Cincinnati Bengals hired Zac Taylor, who had served as McVay's assistant wide receivers coach in 2017 and quarterbacks coach in 2018.
Naturally, the assumption is that the Bengals hope Taylor can turn their team into, essentially, Rams Midwest. It's entirely possible that happens eventually, but expectations likely need to be tempered about the transition -- especially in Year 1.
The Bengals might have some of the flashier pieces of what the Rams put together over the past two seasons, but the foundation is not nearly as strong, a point driven home by the Tuesday announcement that 2019 first-round pick Jonah Williams will likely miss his entire rookie season after undergoing shoulder surgery. The Rams' signing of former Bengals star Andrew Whitworth took what was already a good offensive line and turned it into a great one, and it has been one of the handful of best offensive lines in the league over the past two seasons.
In 2017, the Rams ranked ninth in Football Outsiders' Adjusted Sack Rate and third in Adjusted Line Yards. In 2018, they ranked sixth and first in those same categories. Meanwhile, the Bengals ranked 20th in Adjusted Sack Rate and 24th in Adjusted Line Yards in 2017, and 19th and 22nd in the same categories in 2018.
Williams was supposed to be one of the pillars that would help them show great improvement this season, but now he's likely to miss the whole year. That kicks Cordy Glenn back outside to tackle, slides (presumably) Clint Boling back into the lineup at left guard, and keeps Bobby Hart in the lineup on the right side of the line. It's certainly possible the Bengals show some improvement up front by working in a new scheme and having another year to gel, but any leap to elite status is unlikely to come this season. And that means the Bengals will be working from a deficit when trying to emulate the Rams in the first place.
The relative weakness of the offensive line notwithstanding, the Bengals also work at a deficit at the offensive skill positions. Joe Mixon had a very good sophomore campaign, rushing for 1,168 yards (4.9 per carry) and eight scores while adding 43 catches for another 296 yards; but he was not nearly as efficient as Gurley either on the ground or through the air. Gurley ranked first among 47 players with 100-plus carries in Football Outsiders' DVOA, and fourth in rushing success rate. Mixon ranked 10th and 23rd in the same categories. Again, that's good, but not quite at the level of Gurley.
The Bengals likely have the single best receiver of the two teams in A.J. Green. They have a very good No. 2 wideout in Tyler Boyd. But the trio of Robert Woods, Brandin Cooks, and Cooper Kupp provides more avenues for Jared Goff to fire the ball into more areas of the field than that duo does. Perhaps if 2017 first-rounder John Ross can finally take a step forward, or if one of Cody Core or Alex Erickson can step up, or if the Bengals can lean on two-tight end sets, they can replicate some of what the Rams have been able to do. But Ross has shown next to nothing during his time in the league, Core and Erickson have shown little more, and two-tight end sets depend on either Tyler Eifert staying healthy or second-round pick Drew Sample being ready to contribute right away -- neither of which is something the Bengals can necessarily rely on.
And all of that is prelude to the question of whether Andy Dalton is the right quarterback to put Taylor's vision into reality, or whether he is long for the Bengals at all. It was not necessarily shocking to see the Bengals elect to hang onto Dalton for (at least) one more season rather than cast him aside and create $16.2 million in additional cap room, but it was at least slightly surprising. (Not that the famously frugal Bengals would have really splurged with that cap room anyway.)
Dalton is heading into his age-32 season and has now been in the league for eight years. During that time he has shown that his ceiling is somewhere around "slightly above-average quarterback." Take a look at his league-adjusted passing stats, via Pro-Football-Reference, while noting that 100 is average and every point above or below 100 represents a 1 percent difference from the league average. (i.e. 105 is 5 percent better than league average and 95 is 5 percent worse.)
The circumstances required to hit the ceiling he reached in 2015 are not necessarily the kind of things that can be counted on year in and year out. It's not a coincidence that that was the one season where Eifert stayed fully healthy, for example. Nor is it a coincidence that that was the season where Dalton took a career-low 20 sacks, and threw a career-low 29.7 passes. The more Dalton has been asked to do, the worse off the Bengals have generally been.
Taylor will likely scheme Dalton into somewhat easier throws than his past several offensive coordinators, but it seems unlikely that he is going to suddenly turn into a much different, far better player at age 32 than he has previously been. And if he's not going to improve on what he's done, then is he really the guy? Is fourth-round pick Ryan Finley the guy? The answer to both questions is probably not, which means we're a ways away from Taylor finding his version of Jared Goff.
And even after addressing all of the ways in which the Bengals come up short compared to the Rams (which is not something to be ashamed of given that the Rams are one of the handful of best teams in the league); we haven't even gotten around to the other side of the ball, which for much of the past two seasons was actually the Rams' better unit.
The Bengals have a couple stars on defense in Geno Atkins and William Jackson III, as well as valuable contributors like Carlos Dunlap, Dre Kirkpatrick, Darqueze Dennard, safety tandem Jessie Bates and Shawn Williams, and more, but they do not have the depth and breadth of high-level defenders the Rams have sported these past two years. Cincinnati ranked 28th in defensive DVOA last season, and was one of just five teams that ranked in the bottom-third of the league against both the run and the pass. They largely sat out free agency, as usual, and their early draft picks were spent on offensive players, so barring massive in-house improvements on defense, it seems likely they'll top out around average or slightly above on defense in 2019.
None of this is to say Taylor can't turn the Bengals around quickly and make them one of the best teams in the league in short order. It just seems far more likely to happen in 2020 or 2021 than this coming season.
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