Turns out “patience” isn’t a four-letter word in the NFL after all.
The Cincinnati Bengals handed then-36-year-old Zac Taylor the keys to the franchise in 2019. At the time, the move drew little notice outside Cincinnati, for obvious reasons: nobody knew who Zac Taylor was, and nobody much cared about the Bengals, either. Hell, the last time the Bengals won a playoff game was in 1991 over the Houston Oilers, that’s how off-the-radar the franchise had been.
So when the Bengals went 2-14 to earn the No. 1 pick in the 2020 draft, the prevailing assumption wasn’t, “Hey, good for them,” but rather, “How’s Cincinnati going to screw up Joe Burrow?” Sure enough, Burrow lasted all of 10 games before suffering a devastating knee injury.
The greater NFL felt bad for Burrow, but nobody was really surprised. This was Cincinnati, after all. Good news usually flies right over Paul Brown Stadium en route to somewhere else. As for Taylor? He ranked right at the top of the list of coaches most NFL fans would have trouble naming off the top of their head. And when Bengals fans did bring up his name on Twitter, the word “Fire” preceded it so often you’d think it was part of his full legal name.
Guess what. Things have changed.
In what might be their most notable victory in years — yes, that’s damning with faint praise, but you can understand why — the Bengals throttled the Ravens 41-17 Sunday to surge to 5-2 and claim the lead, via tiebreaker, of the AFC North. The Bengals have now beaten both the Ravens and Steelers, teams that once barely noticed when Cincinnati passed under their wheels, and they’ve done so with conviction and precision. You know, the things that come when you’re patient with a team’s development.
“We're allowed to build and improve,” Taylor said after the win, the irony of course being that in the NFL, you’re rarely afforded that kind of luxury when you go 6-25-1 your first two seasons. “We just have a different mentality right now. We've done a lot of different things to get to this position, and I've given out a lot of tough speeches over time about great things to come and keep working. And you hope and pray that the team believes in that. That's the foundation of what we're building, and this is the result.”
If ever a team could play the “nobody respects us” card, the Bengals could have up to this point. But when you’re statistically leading the entire conference, you’re not taking anyone by surprise from here on out. Or, as the Bengals’ social media team put it:
DO WE HAVE YOUR ATTENTION NOW?!
— Cincinnati Bengals (@Bengals) October 24, 2021
Now, cards on the table: It’s a whole lot easier to change a franchise’s narrative when you’ve got the quarterback of one of the most talented teams in college football history under center. On Sunday, Burrow had one of those games that lights up Twitter and shows up in year-end highlights: 416 yards, three cinematic touchdowns to C.J. Uzomah (twice) and Ja’Marr Chase.
After the game, Burrow tried to size up the moment. "I think it was a big statement, 2-0 in the division for the first time that I can remember,” he said. “You know the most exciting thing was the last two or the last three drives where, you know, they knew we were going to run the ball, and the O-line really took it to them. That was exciting to see. I know those guys were fired up about that, so that's how you should finish the game – start out throwing the ball, get out on top, and then the O-line finishes it off."
No one exemplifies the just-a-little-patience ethos better than Burrow’s favorite target. The Bengals took Chase fifth overall, passing over left tackle Penei Sewell. The move drew plenty of same-old-Cincy disrespect and C-level draft grades. When Chase began dropping balls with alarming frequency in the preseason, the murmurs and skepticism only grew.
Now? Chase is the second-leading receiver in the NFL, behind only the Rams’ Cooper Kupp, and he’s amassed 754 yards, the highest total for a rookie through seven games in NFL history.
“We've got so many weapons, and the defense is playing great ball right now,” Chase said. “It's still the middle of the season, and I think the sky is the limit for us. We still have a lot of room to grow."
That growth will likely come at the expense of the Jets on Halloween, followed by another crucial division matchup — against the Browns — in November. The Bengals could head into their mid-November bye with a hammerlock on the division, and if that happens, an already-close team bond will grow inseparable.
"On the sideline, I was a little emotional as to how connected we were,” Uzomah said after the Ravens game. “You see everyone juiced for every single play out there. That's what it is all about. It's the start of something new, something good."
Still, the Bengals know they have to be patient. It’s worked well so far.
"You know, the goal wasn't to go 5-2,” Burrow said. “We have bigger aspirations."
Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter at @jaybusbee or contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.