On March 13, the Bengals joined most other NFL teams by announcing that their facility would close the following week due to the COVID-19 pandemic and that employees would be working remotely. As the pandemic continued to spread throughout the country and states began widespread shutdowns of businesses deemed "non-essential," the NFL soon mandated that all teams' facilities — no matter their location — remain closed until further notice. As a result, the entire NFL offseason program — everything between voluntary workouts in April and mandatory minicamp in June — was conducted online, as sports leagues in the U.S. remained shut down until mid-summer. The 2020 NFL Draft was held virtually, and the Bengals selected Louisiana State QB and Athens, Ohio-native Joe Burrow with the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL's first-ever virtual draft. A few days later, the Bengals released Andy Dalton, the team's starting QB the previous nine seasons (2011-19), signaling the official shift to Burrow, who arrived with much fan anticipation after having arguably the greatest season ever by a college QB (he set numerous SEC and NCAA records, won the Heisman Trophy by the largest margin in its 85-year history and led LSU to an undefeated season and national championship). The Bengals welcomed a limited number of employees back into the office on May 20, after a more than two-month closure of the facility. Numerous precautions were put into place and maintained for the rest of the year, such as the mandatory wearing of facemasks and the social distancing of workspaces. The NFL and NFLPA reached an agreement late in July regarding COVID-19 protocols for the season, and players began reporting to team facilities for pre-training camp physicals the last week of July. Full training camp practices didn't begin until mid-August, and the NFL and NFLPA eventually agreed to cancel all preseason games as a precaution. The league and the union also agreed to test for COVID-19 among players, coaches and select football staff each day at team facilities. Additionally, everyone in the testing protocol was required to wear an electronic tracker at all times while at team facilities, which would trace and identify all persons in close contact with any individual who tested positive. Some NFL states/cities permitted a limited number of fans to attend games, while others did not allow fans at all.
The Bengals opened their season at home against the L.A. Chargers in the first and only NFL game ever held in Cincinnati without fans. The team did so to comply with an order from the State of Ohio to limit mass gatherings, however that order was later loosened, and the Bengals hosted between 6000 and 11,000 fans at their seven remaining home games. The Bengals struggled to a 4-11-1 record in 2020, though Burrow was among the team's bright spots as he got off to one of the most productive statistical starts to a career by a QB in league history. He had been on pace to smash several team and NFL rookie records, but in Game 10, Nov. 22 at Washington he suffered a torn ACL when an offensive lineman fell onto his left knee after a pass attempt. Cincinnati, which at the time had shown signs of a turnaround and was entering a stretch of games against several sub-.500 teams, turned to backup Brandon Allen and finished 2-4 over the final six contests. One of those two late wins, though, was considered among the biggest upsets of the season in the NFL, as third-string QB Ryan Finley filled in for the injured Allen on Monday Night Football and led a double-digit underdog Cincinnati to a 27-17 win over 11-2 Pittsburgh (the win snapped the Bengals' 11-game losing streak against the Steelers). The Bengals parted ways with a longtime veteran when it traded DE Carlos Dunlap to Seattle on Oct. 28. Dunlap had 82.5 career sacks at the time of the trade, just one shy of tying Eddie Edwards' team record of 83.5. As the NFL season moved forward, many NFL teams faced COVID-19 positive tests, outbreaks and policy violations. Cincinnati, however, was among the few which emerged from the 2020 season relatively unscathed. The Bengals went without a single positive test from a player or coach through the first eight weeks of the regular season, and in total only nine players (including four on the practice squad or reserve lists) spent time on the team's Reserve/COVID-19 list at any point due to either a positive test or being deemed a close contact (missing only 15 combined games). Additionally, six Bengals assistant coaches missed a total of nine combined games. Most sports leagues on every level struggled with game cancellations due to the pandemic. In the NFL, numerous contests were postponed to Mondays, Tuesdays or even Wednesdays, while multiple teams lost their bye or were forced to re-arrange their schedule, but NFL guidelines proved effective as all 269 scheduled games (regular season and playoffs) ultimately were played. The Bengals were among the most fortunate teams, as all 16 of their regular-season games were played at their originally scheduled dates and times.