Before receiver Ja’Marr Chase’s arrival, the Cincinnati Bengals may have been the N.F.L.’s most inconsequential franchise.
The Bengals have a reputation as the football equivalent of a mom-and-pop corner hardware store operating on a shoestring budget. Their state-of-the-mid-20th-century fitness facility features five military surplus weight benches and a garden hose for hydration. Their practice field yields alfalfa in the off-season. Their scouting department consists of unpaid interns and a box of VHS tapes of Ohio State games. Trade requests go straight to their answering machine.
These are exaggerations, but you get the idea.
The pinnacle of the Bengals’ success over the last 30 years was a string of five consecutive wild-card-round losses under Coach Marvin Lewis and quarterback Andy Dalton from 2011 to 2015. Yet the Bengals also typically avoid the hilarious catastrophes that make the Jets and the Cleveland Browns so fascinating.
In most years, the Bengals exist simply to balance out the schedule, generate fantasy statistics and provide the Pittsburgh Steelers with an opponent they can beat on the road and still be home in time for a late supper.
Chase’s arrival is changing all of that. The fifth overall pick in the 2021 draft, he has the second-most receiving yards in the league (754) on 35 receptions. He has caught six touchdown passes, four of them for 30-plus yards. He is on a pace to shatter the N.F.L. rookie record of 1,400 receiving yards set by Justin Jefferson of the Minnesota Vikings last season. (Bill Groman holds the pro football record for receiving yards as a rookie — 1,473 yards in 1960 for the Houston Oilers in the American Football League.)
On Sunday, Chase caught eight passes for 201 yards, including one on a quick slant route that he turned into an 82-yard touchdown, to fuel a 41-17 Bengals rout of the Baltimore Ravens. The victory, which improved the Bengals’ record to 5-2, was the franchise’s most significant win since its playoff years, if not longer.
At 6-foot-1 and 201 pounds, Chase is not physically imposing. His stopwatch speed — a 4.34-second 40-yard dash at this year’s scouting combine — is excellent but not momentous. He excels at many of the finer points of his craft, however. Like a skilled veteran, he can gain position on a defender in his first steps off the line of scrimmage or with a subtle feint in the open field. He makes deep, over-the-shoulder catches look routine. He barrels through and spins away from would-be tacklers after the catch. He is an eager blocker who shoves defenders out of the way when teammates are running for touchdowns.
Chase’s success as a rookie has kick-started the development of the second-year quarterback Joe Burrow, his teammate when Louisiana State University won the national championship in the 2019 season. The Bengals drafted Burrow first overall in 2020 and plopped him behind an offensive line that was crumbling from years of neglect. He endured 32 sacks in 10 starts as a rookie before a career-threatening knee injury forced him to sit.
Burrow has learned how to sidestep pass rushers and is now one of the N.F.L.’s most capable downfield passers. He ranks second in the league with 9.2 yards per pass attempt, and the Bengals have generated eight passing plays of 40-plus yards, tied with the Los Angeles Rams for the highest figure in the league.
Chase has become his quarterback’s favorite target both on deep passes (21.5 yards per reception) and on third and fourth downs (a team-high 13 receptions for 10 first downs).
His emergence has also boosted the profile of Coach Zac Taylor, who in his first two seasons looked like just another stubble-bearded, would-be offensive wunderkind from the Sean McVay knockoff factory.
Draft experts insisted that Taylor and the Bengals would be better off selecting University of Oregon offensive tackle Penei Sewell to protect Burrow than a playmaker like Chase. After all, it doesn’t matter how many receivers are open downfield when the quarterback is lying on his back. Sewell has been a fine addition for the Detroit Lions, and drafting him would have been the safe move for a team with aspirations of someday losing a playoff game.
Instead, the Bengals opted to build one of the league’s strongest receiving corps. With Chase, Tee Higgins, Tyler Boyd, tight end C.J. Uzomah and others spread across the formation, opponents can neither focus coverage strictly on Chase nor blitz Burrow without risking peril elsewhere.
The Bengals also upgraded their defense by doing something they are typically loath to do: spend money on free agents. New arrivals like Eli Apple, Chidobe Awuzie and Mike Hilton have stabilized their secondary, while tackles Trey Hendrickson and D.J. Reader, a 2020 acquisition who was injured for most of last season, have bolstered the run defense and pass rush.
The veteran defense complements the explosive young offense well: Opponents forced to play catch-up after some heaves by Burrow soon discover that none of their own receivers are open.
The Bengals also started their 2011 and 2013 seasons 5-2 and were 8-0 in 2015, so success in early autumn is nothing new. But this year’s team has a personality and an element of danger that the excitingly adequate Bengals of the early 2010s lacked.
The Lewis-Dalton teams were notorious for losing not just playoff games but also prime time showcases: They were 5-12 in Thursday, Sunday night and Monday night games from 2011 to 2016, often with lopsided scores. Even at their relative peak, the Bengals were a charming vaudeville act that flopped whenever it reached Broadway because of the absence of stars.
Sunday’s victory over the Ravens signals that this year’s Bengals are more than playoff seat fillers. Burrow and Chase may not be Joe Montana and Jerry Rice just yet, and the Bengals look more like pesky newcomers than true Super Bowl contenders, but a team that can score from anywhere on the field and take down the league’s perennial powerhouses is worth watching.
For the Bengals, being “worth watching” is an accomplishment in itself.