It took Andy Dalton seven seasons to get a Paul Brown Stadium opener and a year to get a night game. When the NFL released the Bengals 2020 schedule on Thursday night, rookie quarterback Joe Burrow got both in the season's first four days.
After opening with the Chargers Sept. 13 at PBS in a 4:05 p.m. game, the Bengals head to Cleveland for an 8:20 p.m. date that marks Zac Taylor's first Thursday game as Bengals head coach. The Bengals get another prime time shot in a PBS Monday nighter against the Steelers Dec. 21 in the 14th game of the season.
And they'll get to practice under the big lights. In the third pre-season week they head to Atlanta for a nationally televised 8 p.m. game on CBS-TV Aug. 28.
With Burrow penciled in as the starter, the overhauled Bengals, possibly surrounding him with as many as 11 other new Opening Day starters on offense and defense, get a favorable break out of the gate against teams also dealing in change with new coaches or new Opening Day quarterbacks. They also finish with an edge, playing three of their final four games at PBS.
But Taylor isn't going to start analyzing it beyond the opener. Starting a rookie quarterback, he says, hasn't changed his approach.
"I have a hard time looking past the first one," Taylor said. "I see that Thursday night game, where the Monday night game falls and the bye. I don't get caught up in what a team may look like in September. I know that can change a lot. Every team evolves over training camp and the first part of the season. You have to focus on that first opponent."
The opener marks the Chargers' first game in 15 years without Philip Rivers as their Opening Day quarterback and they make the sojourn from Los Angeles with quite possibly a rookie quarterback of their own in Justin Herbert, taken five picks after the No. 1 overall Burrow.
It could also mark the first time since Burrow's Route 32 soulmate, Chillicothe's Greg Cook, won the 1969 opener at Nippert Stadium against Miami that a Bengals rookie quarterback has started a home opener. Burrow, out of Athens and Ohio's former Mr. Football, returns to the state with the Heisman Trophy.
Then on Thursday night the Bengals face the Browns in their first year under head coach Kevin Stefanski. After a 10-day break, they go to Philadelphia to play the defending NFC East champions but return to PBS Oct. 4 against a Jacksonville team that has tentatively turned to sophomore quarterback Gardner Minshew. Minshew beat the Bengals in his sixth career start last season at PBS, but the Jaguars quarterback situation has been largely viewed as unsettled.
Eleven of the Bengals' 16 games are against teams that had .500 records or below in 2019 and they play five of them before the bye that falls in the middle of the season after the eighth game. The only time they play back-to-back double-digit winners from the previous season are in the final two games, Dec. 27 in Houston and in the Jan. 3 finale against Baltimore at PBS.
"It's good to start and end at home. It's good to get those games at home," Taylor said. "I always like the bye falling in the middle of the season. It gives our guys a chance to recoup their bodies a little bit and make a push for the last half of the season. Other than that, we knew who we were going to play and where we were going to play them. There's not much more to it."
The Bengals' revamped defense of potentially seven new starters gets NFL MVP Lamar Jackson on Oct. 11 in Baltimore and then goes on the road the next week in Indianapolis to play the old pro Rivers. After a home game against the Browns, which could be the first PBS game matching overall No. 1 quarterbacks since Carson Palmer beat Detroit's Matthew Stafford in 2009, the Bengals host Tennessee, the giant killer from last year's postseason.
December is a marquee month at PBS.
On Dec. 13 in a 1 p.m. game, the 8-8 Cowboys return to Cincinnati for the first time since Tony Romo beat them at the gun on a last drive in 2012 and marks Dalton's return as Dak Prescott's backup.
The next week on Monday night, Dec. 21, the Steelers come to town and the last two times they met in prime time at PBS there have been doozies featuring Pittsburgh's fourth-quarter comebacks culminating on the game's final play.
Then the season ends at PBS against Jackson's defending AFC North champion Ravens, the sixth time in the past ten seasons Baltimore has finished in Cincinnati and the eighth time in the last 11 they've met in the finale. The last time, three years ago in Baltimore, the Bengals famously knocked the Ravens out of the postseason on their last offensive snap of the season on a 49-yard touchdown pass from Dalton to wide receiver Tyler Boyd on fourth-and-12 with 44 seconds left.
But the opener may be the most intriguing matchup of all for so many reasons, starting possibly at the top with Burrow and Herbert. Burrow would face his old Buckeyes teammate, Pro Bowl pass rusher Joey Bosa. Bosa, off an 11.5-sack season, also gets another Bengal in his NFL debut, left tackle Jonah Williams, the club's first-round pick returning from a rookie year wiped out by a shoulder injury.
It's even got something for the historians. The Bengals played the first game of their history against the Chargers on Sept. 6, 1968 in San Diego, a 29-13 loss quarterbacked by Dewey Warren. Warren, a sixth-round pick out of Tennessee, came off the bench to start for the injured John Stofa and is one of three rookie quarterbacks to start a Bengals Opening Day along with Cook and Dalton and Burrow poised to be the fourth.
It's also quite a first four days for Jonah Williams. On the other side of Bosa is Melvin Ingram, off a third straight Pro Bowl and a seven-sack season. Myles Garrett is waiting in Cleveland with his 30.5 career sacks in 37 games. He had ten sacks in ten games last season before he was suspended for a player safety violation.
As they did last year, the Bengals open the preseason in Kansas City, only this time the Chiefs are the defending champs when they play during the weekend of Aug. 13-17 on a date to be announced. Old friend Mike Zimmer comes back to PBS the next week with his Vikings and the annual pre-season finale against the Colts is set for PBS Sept 3 or 4.
Taylor has no plans to alter his routine after looking at the schedule with one season under his belt. In his first season he dealt with a London game and trips to Seattle and Oakland.
"There's nothing that would make me change my approach," Taylor said. "Our travel is significantly less. It looks like the farthest west we go is Houston."