After losing Super Bowl XIX in 1984 to the San Francisco 49ers, Miami quarterback Dan Marino seemingly had his best years ahead of him. He had become a national sensation with his good looks, charm and his masterful play on the field. Marino’s arm was turning the NFL into a passing league with his pinpoint accuracy and feel for the game. After the Super Bowl, a prominent soda company hired Marino and 49ers QB Joe Montana, the MVP of Super Bowl XIX, to promote their product with Marino telling Montana at the end of the commercial, “Next time it’s my turn.”
However, there was no next time for Marino -- he never returned to the big stage. Marino would only play in 14 more playoff games during his Hall of Fame career, going 6-8. He would miss the playoffs all together during the prime of his playing days, from 1986 until 1990. For a player this talented alongside the winningest coach in NFL history, Don Shula demonstrates how no one is assured another opportunity, not Patrick Mahomes of the Chiefs, or Joe Burrow of the Bengals.
After losing to the 49ers, Shula told the Chicago Tribune before the next season started, “This has been the most disheartening, confusing and disruptive time I’ve ever had in coaching.” Why did Shula feel that way? Because winning is harder on a team’s chemistry then losing. Players want more money, more credit, coaches come and go and the entire organization is basking in the limelight of winning. Only eight teams in NFL history have returned to the Super Bowl the following season after suffering a loss. And only three teams -- the 1971 Cowboys, 1972 Dolphins and 2018 Patriots -- were able to rebound with a win. Which leads us to the fundamental question: Can the Bengals return to the Super Bowl? Can Joe Burrow do what Dan Marino never did?
Let’s face it, the odds are stacked against the Bengals from returning to the Super Bowl even though on paper the Bengals appear to be a better team this season then last. We all know talent level “on paper” doesn’t matter.
When Cincinnati entered its bye in Week 10 last season, the Bengals didn’t have a playoff feel to them with a 5-4 record. Their offensive line was horrible, Burrow was getting hit way to often and their pass defense was erratic. And most importantly, their closer -- MVP kicker rookie Evan McPherson -- had not hit his full stride. In a Week 5 overtime loss to the Packers, McPherson missed two field goals, one from 49 yards and another from 57 -- that was the only time all season he didn’t make a kick in a game. Mason Crosby was as bad, missing a 51-yarder, then a 40-yarder, before hitting the game winner with seconds remaining in overtime. In the second half of the season, the Bengals finished with a. 5-2 record and were playing their best ball of the season in spite of their limitations in pass protection. Their secondary improved and their defense created turnovers, which resulted in the Bengals beating the Chiefs and Raiders (two eventual playoff teams).
When the postseason rolled around, McPherson was unstoppable. He was able to put points on the board when the Bengals offense stalled, which was often. He went 14-of-14 on field goals, accounting for 48 total points. Considering the Bengals only scored six touchdowns during the four playoff games, had McPherson not been red hot, Cincinnati might not have made it to the Super Bowl. He was their offense and showed no margin for error. He made a difference at the most important part of the season. Had head coach Zak Taylor substituted running back Joe Mixon for Samaje Perine on the third-down run during the final drive of the game in the Super Bowl, McPherson might have had a chance to send the game into overtime. Taylor ignored his running back coach’s plea to make the change, and that decision proved to be costly. There is little doubt had the Bengals gotten one more first down, McPherson would have made his 15th kick of the playoffs and extended the game. For all the talk about Burrow and receiver Ja’Marr Chase being the catalyst of winning for the Bengals playoff run, McPherson was the real difference-maker, since three of the four playoff wins were decided by a field goal.
Can McPherson’s success carry over into 2022? All kickers have their moments, yet the way McPherson performed at clutch time would indicate he will continue to improve. Cincinnati’s offense should take some of the burden off McPherson. With a vastly improved offensive line, Burrow might be able to convert more third downs in the red zone and instead of sending McPherson out to kick field goals, he will kick extra points. The Bengals, in spite of their red zone woes, still ranked seventh in points scored, in large part due to their excellent skill talent and the playmaking ability of Burrow (9% of his attempts resulted in 51 sacks last season). During the playoffs, his sack percentage shot up to 11.8, as he was sacked 19 times in four games. The Bengals will improve because of the additions to their offensive line with La’el Collins now at right tackle, Alex Cappa at right guard and Ted Karras at center. Those three free agent additions will bring experience, talent and toughness to their line, something the Bengals need.
What was remarkable about Burrow’s play in 2021 was that he led the NFL in percentage of completions with 70.4 in large part due to his checking the ball down while facing the oncoming rush, but also had an 8.9 yards per attempt passing, which is amazing. To show the toughness and poise to hold the ball and allow the depth of the route to occur is clear evidence that once Burrow is adequately protected, he might do “Marino”-like things all year. In the playoffs, he held the ball, didn’t force plays and took some horrible sacks, which appeared as though he might have taken them out of field goal range, until McPherson boomed the ball dead center. Burrow is only going to get better, which is the strongest reason to believe they will be a playoff team once again in 2022.
The defense also played its best football in the playoffs, forcing nine turnovers and never allowing a more than 24 points in any game. During the season, Cincinnati was vulnerable to the pass, and unless their pass rushing unit led by ends Troy Hendrickson and Sam Hubbard applied the pressure, the defense had a hard time slowing down a quality passing game. Once the playoffs rolled around, defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo encouraged teams to run the ball, with his alignments and gave help to his secondary. The play of right corner Chidobe Awuzie and inside corner Mike Hilton -- two excellent unrestricted free-agent signings -- were also a reason the Bengals were able to force turnovers and get off the field on third down. Can they play as well in 2022? I believe they can. They return everyone, even though free safety Jesse Bates is not signed. Clearly the Bengals anticipated the holdout as they drafted Dax Hill from Michigan in the first round to eventually replace Bates. Not having Bates in the short term might hurt, but eventually the Bengals can overcome his absence.
The Bengals play the NFC South and the AFC East this season, and after their bye in Week 10 play six playoff teams from last season along with Baltimore and Cleveland. The Bengals win total is set at ten, with many playing the under as the schedule is hard from start to finish. Like most teams, the Bengals will need to avoid the injury bug, which often happens to teams coming off a Super Bowl loss. The injuries occur because losing Super Bowl teams don’t train as hard, don’t prepare and feel as though they can turn it off and on at any time -- which they can’t. It’s one of the reasons it so hard to get back to the game, and even the great Don Shula was at wits end to handle the problem. Do you think Bengals head coach Zak Taylor has it solved? Call me skeptical.
If you like Cincinnati to win the Super Bowl season, you are placing faith in Taylor improving, believing Burrow will improve and dominate and thinking running back Joe Mixon will have a huge season along with all their skill players, most notably Chase. You will also believe McPherson will be like Mariano Rivera once again, closing games with a dominating performance. And the defense will continue to turn the ball over for the offense. Are all these possible? Yes. Likely? Once again, call me skeptical.
When you re-watch their amazing playoff run, they could have lost every game before the Super Bowl … and could have easily won the Super Bowl. They were lucky and then unlucky. I have faith in Burrow and their skill talent, but keep asking myself if they be as fortunate this year and get all the bounces and breaks. And each time I answer, I go back and forth, leading to me conclude: They will not break the Super Bowl losing curse. Will Burrow become like Marino? I only hope not.