And you thought we were still a couple of months away from the bowl season.
Not in the NFL. Not at Paul Brown Stadium, where an announced crowd of just 46,012 showed up to see the host 0-4 Cincinnati Bengals take on the 0-3-1 Arizona Cardinals in a Winless Bowl matchup hard on the banks of the Ohio River. Somebody had to win, right?
That somebody wasn’t the Bengals, who rallied from two touchdowns down to tie the Cardinals with exactly 2:00 remaining only to see Heisman Trophy winner, No. 1 overall draft pick and Arizona quarterback Kyler Murray take the visitors down the field in just six plays to set up a 31-yard field goal at the final gun for a 26-23 win. Arizona’s first.
“This one’s tough to swallow,” said Zac Taylor.
Taylor is the Bengals’ first-year head coach. He’s only 36 years old. Last year he was the quarterbacks coach for the Los Angeles Rams, who made it all the way to the Super Bowl. After 16 years of head coach Marvin Lewis, coming off three consecutive losing seasons, the Bengals are a long, long way from the Super Bowl.
“It felt like it was going to be a turning point,” sad Taylor of the fourth-quarter rally that pumped life into what had been a lifeless affair. “We felt like we had gained some momentum and we just didn’t get it done. It’s frustrating.”
To be fair, there are some legitimate reasons behind the Bengals’ 0-5 start. Offensive tackle Jonah Williams, their first-round draft pick out of Alabama, tore his labrum before the start of training camp. Clint Boling, returning starting offensive guard, announced his retirement before the start of training camp. Wide receiver A.J. Green, the team’s best player, has yet to play after injuring his ankle the first day of camp. Wide receiver John Ross, the former first-round pick finally coming into his own, was placed on IR earlier in the week with an injured shoulder.
Not that the head coach is having any of that excuse stuff.
“We’ve got to score more points,” Taylor said Sunday.
Sunday at least appeared to present that opportunity. Under its own first-year head coach, Kliff Kingsbury, the Cardinals entered PBS on a three-game losing skid after an opening-week tie with Detroit. Last Sunday, the Cards lost 27-10 at home to a Seattle team that struggled to beat the Bengals 21-20 in Seattle.
Meanwhile, Cincinnati was fresh off a dispiriting 27-3 Monday night loss at Pittsburgh in which quarterback Andy Dalton was sacked eight times. Taylor got that part fixed. Arizona sacked Dalton once. The coach could not get the lack of touchdowns fixed, however. Not for three quarters. Game’s first drive, running back Joe Mixon all but carried the Bengals to a first-and-goal at the Arizona 8. Cincinnati settled for a field goal. Two more would follow.
“There’s a big difference between seven points and three,” said Dalton. “You saw that today.”
Then, all of a sudden, down 23-9, the Bengals found their fourth quarter gear. A 10-play, 79-yard drive produced a 2-yard Dalton to Auden Tate score. Down 23-16, Dalton found Tyler Boyd with a 29-yard pass to start a drive, then finished it with a pretty 42-yard scoring strike for the tie.
“But when we had to stop them,” said defensive end Sam Hubbard, “we couldn’t stop them.”
Couldn’t stop Murray. The former Oklahoma star hit David Johnson with a key 24-yard pass to the Bengals’ 43. Two plays later, the 5-foot-10 QB — “He’s so small, I think that helps him,” said Bengals safety Jesse Bates — scooted 24 yards through the Cincinnati defense to set up the winning field goal.
That kick (a) kept the Bengals winless and (b) probably their fans away.
“I get it, this is every fan base I’ve ever been around,” Taylor said. “But the day is going to come when it flips and it’s going to be good times around there. Just hang with us and we’ll be there.”