Why Joe Burrow and the Bengals Won't Be a One-Year Wonder in Loaded AFC

Gary Davenport@@IDPSharksNFL AnalystMay 11, 2022

Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow (9) reacts during the second half of the NFL Super Bowl 56 football game against the Los Angeles Rams, Sunday, Feb. 13, 2022, in Inglewood, Calif. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)
Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

The "Super Bowl hangover" is a thing.

Over more than a half-century of the biggest game in sports, there have been all of three instances where a team that lost the Super Bowl went on to win it the following year—the 1971 Dallas Cowboys (Super Bowl VI), the 1972 Miami Dolphins (Super Bowl VII) and the 2018 New England Patriots (Super Bowl LIII).

For each such team that bounced back, there have been multiple examples of teams that not only didn't get back to the Super Bowl but missed the postseason altogether. After losing Super Bowl XXXVIII, the 2004 Carolina Panthers went 7-9. The year after that the Philadelphia Eagles went from losing Super Bowl XXXIX to 6-10. It's the same record the Panthers posted the year after losing Super Bowl 50.

After a surprising 2021 season that culminated in an AFC North title and an even more surprising run to a date with the Los Angeles Rams in Super Bowl LVI, it will fall to Joe Burrow and the Cincinnati Bengals to shake off that hangover in 2022. It won't be easy. Frankly, the odds are against them.

But the team has done what it can to avoid being a one-year wonder—by quietly having one of the NFL's best offseasons.

Per Bryan DeArdo of CBS Sports, after that Super Bowl loss Burrow said he fully intended to lead the Bengals back to another Super Bowl.

Ed Zurga/Associated Press

"We're a young team," he said. "You'd like to think that we'll be back in this situation multiple times over the course of the next few years. We take this and let it fuel you for the rest of our careers."

There was (and is) substantial reason to be confident. Burrow has as much offensive weaponry as any signal-caller in the league. Joe Mixon is a top-10 back in the prime of his career. Tee Higgins, Tyler Boyd and 2021 Offensive Rookie of the Year Ja'Marr Chase combine to form arguably the best trio of wideouts in the NFL.

A defensive front seven featuring two dangerous edge-rushers in Sam Hubbard and Trey Hendrickson and a capable linebacker corps anchored by Germaine Pratt and Logan Wilson are underrated.

Then there's Burrow himself, who looks the part of a megastar in the making after throwing for 4,611 yards with 34 touchdown passes in his second professional season.

But there were two major weaknesses on Cincinnati's roster entering the offseason. And the Bengals bolstered both in a major way.

The first was glaringly obvious. The offensive line play in the Queen City a year ago was…offensive. Counting the postseason, Burrow was sacked a jaw-dropping 70 times in 2021. Only two quarterbacks in the history of the league (David Carr in 2002 and Randall Cunningham in 1986) were taken down more times in a season.

Upgrading that line with both quality and quantity was a must. And the Bengals got after it as soon as free agency opened.

After four seasons (and a Super Bowl win) with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, veteran guard Alex Cappa signed a four-year, $35 million contract with the Bengals. Seventh-year center Ted Karras got $18 million over three years with Cincinnati after allowing three sacks in 829 snaps with the Patriots in 2021. The Bengals have a new starter at right tackle as well after La'el Collins bolted the Dallas Cowboys for a three-year, $21 million pact.

After Collins was signed, offensive line coach Frank Pollack lauded his overhauled unit.

Aaron Doster/Associated Press

"We have three new guys that know how to set the tone," Pollack said, via Geoff Hobson of the team's website. "Pros that know how to prepare and practice. That's what L.C. is. He prepares hard and practices hard."

The new linemen aren't elite options. But they are capable, experienced veteran players who offer marked improvement. If left tackle Jonah Williams continues to improve in his fourth season, last year's biggest weakness could be a strength.

Cincinnati's other issue wasn't quite as massive. But it was a problem, nonetheless.

The Bengals have an excellent pair of safeties in Vonn Bell and Jessie Bates III. They found a free-agent gem last year in cornerback Chidobe Awuzie. And Mike Hilton is a decent veteran slot corner who told reporters that the team is on a mission to show that last year's success wasn't a fluke.

"When you think of the Bengals," Hilton said, "you're like, 'Oh, the Bengals,' you know? But now, with this group of guys that we have and the coaches that we have, we're really turning this organization around. And we're just trying to get the respect we deserve."

But despite re-signing Eli Apple, the other boundary corner spot was a weakness. After playing all of five games in two years with the team on a $42 million contract, Trae Waynes was shown the door in the offseason. Apple may not be quite as bad as the memes make him out to be, but he has allowed a passer rating against north of 100 in two of the past three seasons.

Whether it was depth behind Apple or a replacement for him, the Bengals needed to add talent in the defensive backfield. And that was the focus of the early rounds of the 2022 draft.

With the 31st pick, the Bengals selected Michigan safety Daxton Hill, a talented and versatile young defensive back whom Tony Pauline of Pro Football Network thinks could be a difference-maker in the NFL.

Jeff Dean/Associated Press

"Hill is an athletic safety who has shown consistent improvement on the field and increased his production every year," he said. "He possesses good upside and projects as a traditional free safety who can line up over the slot receiver."

Not only can Hill play both safety spots and the slot, but he told All Bengals after the draft that he's willing to try his hand at outside corner if needed.

"Yeah, I mean definitely," Hill said. "With corner, that's something I definitely have to prepare myself for. Whatever that is and whenever that is I'm ready for the challenge."

Cincinnati circled back in Round 2, drafting Nebraska's Cam Taylor-Britt, a physical presence Bleacher Report's Cory Giddings wrote has significant potential.

It's not guaranteed that either of those youngsters will beat out Apple to be a Week 1 starter. But at the very least defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo has more depth in sub-packages, added versatility and some insurance against an injury or a potential contract impasse with Bates.

All those things are good.

Granted, addressing those needs doesn't punch Cincinnati's ticket for a trip to Glendale. A lot that has to go right to facilitate a deep playoff run, not the least of which is key players like Burrow staying healthy.

Getting through the AFC North isn't going to be easy, either. The Baltimore Ravens were ravaged by injuries on both sides of the ball last year and had arguably the best draft of any team in the league. Depending on the playing status of quarterback Deshaun Watson, the Cleveland Browns could be a very tough out. The Pittsburgh Steelers haven't had a losing season since 2003.

Even if the Bengals can run that gauntlet and win the AFC North in consecutive seasons for the first time in franchise history (or make the playoffs as a wild-card team), getting back to the Super Bowl means navigating a second meat-grinder.

In 2022, the AFC is almost ridiculously stacked.

Eric Gay/Associated Press

The Buffalo Bills are almost as loaded as the Bengals offensively and feature the league's No. 1 defense from a season ago. After a flurry of impact trades and signings this year that started with Denver's acquisition of quarterback Russell Wilson, the AFC West is loaded with teams from top to bottom that have aspirations of a deep playoff run, whether it's Wilson's Broncos, a Chargers team that made big changes defensively or a Raiders team that gave the Bengals all they could handle in the Wild Card Round and have since added edge-rusher Chandler Jones and wide receiver Davante Adams.

The only team in the West that didn't make high-profile additions this offseason was Patrick Mahomes' Kansas City Chiefs. All the Chiefs have done is win six straight division titles and host the AFC Championship Game each of the past four seasons.

Other than that, they are just OK.

Of course, those teams all have their own question marks. The Chiefs have holes on defense and traded away star wideout Tyreek Hill. The Chargers faded down the stretch last year and missed the postseason. Buffalo's run game is suspect. And so on. But those teams also took steps to address their weaknesses in the offseason, which made it all the more imperative the Bengals do the same.

In revamping a woeful offensive line and upgrading the defensive backfield, Cincinnati did just that. It's hardly a guarantee that the team will become the fourth franchise to shake off the Super Bowl hangover and win a championship. There are no such guarantees to be had—especially as loaded as the AFC is in 2022.

But the offseason moves the Bengals made also make it less likely that these Bengals will be a one-hit wonder.

There's still some more music to be made in the Queen City.