Even though there have been a few backwards seasons, the Cincinnati Bengals are a team that has always put their focus on the offensive side of the ball. Back in the 1980s, the team had two elite quarterbacks that brought them to Super Bowls in 1981 and 1988 and they have had some elite wide receivers over the past twenty years. This team quite simply has put together a recipe for offensive success with a few core ingredients. For whatever reason, the team completely changed their minds on that approach during the 2017 offseason and they are still dealing with the consequences now.
Cincinnati Bengals Rewrite Their Core Principles with Aging Leadership
For much of the teams history, Cincinnati has put an incredible emphasis on the quality and performance of their offensive line. Obviously, left tackle Anthony Munoz is the best player to ever play with the team as he is the franchise’s sole Hall of Famer. Even back to when Paul Brown initially established the team in 1968, he used the teams first draft pick as an organization on Bob Johnson out of the University of Tennessee. Even in the teams down years, the offensive line was generally best position group on the team.
An abrupt change occurred during the 2017 offseason when the team allowed a complete exodus on their offensive line including Pro Bowl left tackle Andrew Whitworth, guard Kevin Zeitler and right tackle Andre Smith. The exodus was surprising to a unit that was consistently in the top ten for a period of over twenty years as they were assured that young tackles Cedric Ogbuehi and Jake Fisher would be able to slot in and compete. Unfortunately, Ogbuehi and Fisher turned out to be complete duds and the Cincinnati offensive line has been amongst the five worst in the league ever since.
After the 2017 season, legendary offensive line coach Paul Alexander was pushed out of his role after he was unable to put together a functional offensive line with the bottom tier pieces that were allotted to him. So the real question is this: why did this team that had built such a tremendous reputation for offensive line play simply let the position group fall apart? There are a few factual explanations and then a few theories.
It all started when captain and All-Pro offensive tackle Whitworth left the team. While the team did draft younger players, Whitworth openly admitted to the fact that the team simply didn’t want to pay him. He has openly stated that he had conversations with Mike Brown and for an elite left tackle, Brown was only willing to pay $10 million. Whitworth opened up on his relationship with Brown on a podcast back in 2017.
“About mid-season next year, I wrote Mike Brown a letter, and I said look, I’ve reached a point where I’m frustrated. We’re having an awesome start to our season and the only thing I can think about, for 10 years I’ve done what I’ve done for you, being the leader you needed and a captain and all this stuff, and now I’m at a point where I’m begging you to treat me right.”
While Zeitler wasn’t an all-pro at the time, he was still regarded as a top 10 guard in the NFL and left for the exact same reason as Whitworth: money. Smith had been struggling to hold down the right tackle spot for several years and it was widely known that he would be leaving the team in 2017. That being said, it is inconceivable to recover when a team loses their three best offensive linemen. Trying to fill a skill position is one thing but on a group that requires a certain level of cohesion, it simply wasn’t going to work.
After a predictably disastrous 2017 season for the offensive line, Alexander was pushed out for being unable to put together a functional group out of a unit barely capable of yielding quality backups. Between 2017 and the Super Bowl run in 2021, Cincinnati put no real effort at all into building a quality offensive line except for drafting Jonah Williams in the first round in 2019. Even with a poor unit, the team spent extremely little money by bringing in players like Cordy Glenn and John Miller.
After the injury to Burrow, the team decided to at least appear to put effort into the offensive line by going out and acquiring interior linemen Ted Karras, Alex Cappa and offensive tackle La’El Collins. Even after the team went out and brought in the expensive free agent Orlando Brown Jr. in 2023, it hasn’t seemed to make much of a difference and there is a reason for that.
While a team can sign wide receivers and defenders piece-by-piece to improve the position group, the offensive line relies completely on cohesion. Even if the team went out and brought in a team full of All-Pro’s, it would take some time for the unit to build trust and acclimate before they were adept at picking up stunts and communicating. That’s why the damage is still being felt by what happened in 2017 and the fact that the team traded out the legendary Paul Alexander for Frank Pollack doesn’t help either. I know that he was likely just doing as he was told to sell tickets but I simply don’t trust someone who says that Bobby Hart was an elite player.
So now to the tricky component of trying to rationalize what happened behind the scenes that led to this. The easiest answer is that Mike Brown has a strong reputation for being cheap and that his decision to allow a mass exodus on the offensive front in 2017 was the only factor. If that was the case, why wouldn’t be bring in any real help during the 2018 or 2019 offseason when he chose to only bring in cheap bargain additions.
Based on what has been reported over the past twenty years about the inner workings of the team, I have an alternative theory. As Mike Brown has aged, it is widely understood that he has handed over more and more control of the team to his daughter Katie Blackburn and director of player personnel Duke Tobin. It is likely that the younger generation focused more on the “future of the league” and believed that wide receivers were simply more important than a quality offensive line.
This theory is backed up by the fact that even though the team had absolutely atrocious offensive lines in the window from 2017 to 2022, the team drafted John Ross in 2017 rather than picking a capable offensive lineman. Granted, the team would draft center Billy Price (a widely accepted bust) and Williams in the first rounds of 2018 and 2019, that was more of a reaction to the severe pushback they got on the drafting of Ross.
There will be an easy way to test this theory. It is anticipated that Cincinnati will be drafting an offensive tackle this season to replace Williams. If the team were to follow a similar strategy to what the plan they utilized in the 2017 to 2022 window, they will likely pick a bargain offensive tackle up in free agency and use the pick to potentially replace star wide receiver Tee Higgins. If that ends up happening, I assure you all that I will be the first person protesting the morning after day one of the draft.
For More Football News:
Follow me on Twitter at @Super_Squatch76. To read more of our articles and keep up to date on the latest in college and NFL news, click here! If there is a topic you’d like me to cover or a question you’d like to ask, feel free to contact me at my email email@example.com.