For the first time since the first moon landing, the Bengals start a rookie quarterback in a home NFL opener Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium (4:05 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12) when Joe Burrow's helmet headset starts cackling back and forth with head coach Zac Taylor's Mission Control.
The Bengals.com Media Roundtable believes a Bengals win won't be nearly as miraculous as landing a man on the moon by the end of the decade, but it still sees Burrow orbiting around a victory until he gets his feet on the ground early in his career.
Two long-time Bengals beat reporters, Local 12 columnist Richard Skinner and The Athletic's Paul Dehner, Jr., are wistfully hoping for a finish featuring Burrow engineering a two-minute drill. Skinner, the TV guy, sees a Hollywood finish. Dehner, still a hard-boiled scribe when it comes to predictions, can see it but won't believe it until he sees it.
Alex Marvez, a command module commander on NFL Radio on Sirius, thinks Burrow is going to splash down the Bengals into the good times on re-entry into contention, but not Sunday. Chargers beat man Jeff Miller of The Los Angeles Times sees a tight win for L.A. as its vets have just enough experience to outlast the Bengals youth.
Let's go around The Table. As always, visitors first.
The Chargers are kind of reeling with the loss of safety Derwin James for the second year in a row, on top of how good he is, he's literally one of those guys who makes everyone better because he can play all over. They just put him where they need him and I think when he went down, especially those guys on defense, man, there's no chance they're going to be as good as they could have been. People say heart and soul, but he literally is. This guy was already a leader as a rookie. He'd make a play in the backfield and the next play he's 30 yards downfield. You just don't replace a player like that and the spirit he brings.
Between that and center Mike Pouncey not playing, James played just at the end last year and Pouncey missed the last 11 games, those are just huge losses.
I think these teams know more than they let on. There are only so many secrets you have, right? I think they probably have a pretty good sense what the Bengals are going to try and do. But you know how football is. You never really know until you get out there and start running around and how everyone matches up and all that. I don't think anyone knows for sure how these two teams are going to look.
You see the Chargers running things they have never done with Philip Rivers the last 14 years, like running speed options. I think it's going to be a lot of quick stuff, a lot of stuff on the ground. They'll throw when they have to, but I think they'll try and win with a lot of the running game with Taylor moving around a bunch. Their offense is going to look way different than what Chargers fans are used to, that's for sure. When Taylor was in Buffalo they ran the ball a lot and they didn't throw very much and I suspect they'll try to do the same thing here.
THE EDGE: I don't know that I'll be saying the Chargers are going to win before a lot of games this year. But the Bengals had two wins last year, a rookie quarterback and the left tackle situation and they've got their own injuries. It will probably be close, most of the Chargers games seem to come down to the very end. CHARGERS, 24-20.
It's so unpredictable. I do think the loss of Derwin James is such a kick in the teeth for the Chargers defense and all the things they could have done with him. It's still a very talented defense. This isn't the easiest for Joe Burrow to start off. In my conversation with folks at the Chargers they went back to look at Burrow in college. They had to. They had no other point of reference.
The other thing is, and this is crazy for the Bengals, is that there is some unpredictability to Tyrod Taylor. They'll look at that 2016 Buffalo offense and it's going to be some sort of hybrid of that and that will look very different than anything the Chargers have done in the past.
THE EDGE: At the end of the day, Burrow falls a little bit short but shows a lot of promise for good things to come. CHARGERS, 20-18.
I feel like I've flip-flopped back and forth on this game. I can't quite get a handle on it to be honest. I think the Bengals linebackers are going to have a lot of trouble with Chargers running back Austin Ekeler and tight end Hunter Henry and we saw that show a million times last year. The linebackers are younger and in coverage you just don't know what you've got there. You know they'll exploit that.
And the Bengals offensive line against Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram and Linval Joseph with a new group. You want to make your first professional start against Joey Bosa, it's just not ideal. Those things scared me into picking the Chargers.
But then there's a part of me that says I think the Bengals are going to end up this year with more wins than the Chargers. Tyrod Taylor is who he is at this point. Extremely beatable. They really lack weapons on the outside outside of Keenan Allen. I think you can shut down their passing game pretty well. I think the Bengals can exploit their offensive line a little bit. Yes, even without Geno Atkins. The trio of Sam Hubbard, Carl Lawson and Carlos Dunlap with D.J. Reader pushing the middle is really dangerous and can cause Taylor a lot of trouble. There's a big part of me that thinks they're going to win this.
There's just so many unknowns about it. We don't know how the Bengals' young linebackers are going to play against Ekeler. There was nobody like that playing against Logan Wilson at Wyoming. Germaine Pratt was awful last year until the last quarter of the season. And that's what rookie linebackers look like. That's OK. You just can't force yourself to count on them. I feel like that's a bad matchup for them the way the Chargers like to use those guys. I'm more comfortable with them because of the veteran additions they made on defense, but their linebackers can easily be exposed with the way the Chargers have to play and wide receiver Mike Williams hurting. They've got Keenan Allen and a bunch of guys with two career catches.
I have only one thing I really want in this game. Bengals down four points, two minutes left, Burrow takes the ball at the 20. Let's see. Let's see.
THE EDGE: When you don't have any pre-season games or offseason, I have a hard time picking the team with the rookie quarterback and first NFL game for the left tackle. As much as I think they could, until I see it I really can't pick it. CHARGERS, 23-16.
I know there are question marks about the Bengals. Rookie quarterback. Left tackle Jonah Williams has not played a game. A lot of newcomers on defense. Etc.
But let's face a few things about the Chargers. This was a 5-11 team a year ago and I don't know if Philip Rivers is a Hall-of-Famer, but they've lost an extremely productive quarterback and replaced him with a quality backup in Tyrod Taylor. Quality backup, but if they had their druthers he would not be their starting quarterback.
Running back Austin Ekeler may be better served as a 1-2 punch guy, we'll find that out Sunday. He's certainly a quality back, but is he a quality back for 25 touches or a quality back for 15-18 touches a game? Wide receiver Keenan Allen is great, but if Mike Williams doesn't play where is there another weapon in their passing game? Center Mike Pouncey is out. I just don't think this is a great team the Bengals open up with and I think it gives them a great chance to get off to a good start in the Joe Burrow Era.
And Derwin James is a big loss in what was a very good Chargers secondary last year that was fifth against the pass. I wouldn't want to see this Bengals team open up with Kansas City. That would be rough. This is a fairly soft landing place at home with a chance for the rookie quarterback to ease in a little bit and play a team that's beatable.
It's fair to have been writing about and asking about the Bengals offensive line and they're fair questions. We don't know what the right side is going to look like. We don't know what Jonah Williams is going to look like. But right tackle Bobby Hart, left guard Michael Jordan and center Trey Hopkins were part of that offensive line last year when running back Joe Mixon ran for something like 880 yards in the last nine games.
I think I like my left tackle who is now better than what I had last year and I don't know if Xavier Su'a-Filo is an upgrade over John Miler at right guard, but I don't think he's a significant downgrade. If you look at it that way knowing they fixed the scheme, I think they should be able to run the ball pretty effectively. You do that and it's going to make this offense a whole lot better and make Joe Burrow's job a whole lot easier.
THE EDGE: Fairy tales do come true and Joe Burrow is going to make it true on Sunday. I think he leads them down the field in the last couple of minutes and sets up a Randy Bullock field goal and they finish it off. BENGALS, 23-21.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Hate to be an old school scribe again as we open the 2020s because we really do think Burrow can be The Next Big Thing in a state of the art passing game crafted by young minds that grew up learning the newest fads.
But if there was ever going to be a Bengals opener decided by how they run it and how they defend the run, this has to be it. And that's not even talking about the first time in their history they're lining up a rookie quarterback in his debut behind a left tackle also in his debut.
Just look at the Philip River-less Chargers and his replacement. Look, Tyrod Taylor, 31, is a smart, serviceable guy that can beat you and he's got a 23-21-1 career record to prove it. (And that tie was in an opener against a Steelers team coming off a 13-3 season.)
He's an aware runner and accurate passer, but he's also 2-14-1 when he throws at least 30 passes. He averages 24 passes when he wins, so no doubt the Chargers have dialed up how the Bengals have allowed the NFL's most rushing yards since 2017 with probably a special eye on Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson's dissection in engineering team rushing days of 267, 269 and 136 yards during his three starts against them.
(And last year in the two games Jackson also killed them when he stood up and found tight end Mark Andrews over the middle for 12 catches and 152 yards.)
So with Taylor running speed options and the like in scrimmages, look for the same diet of stuff on the perimeter and over the middle that has had the Bengals struggling these past couple of years. The option. Zone reads. Fake zone reads.
Wouldn't you if you were an opposing offensive coordinator?
Of course, this isn't the same defense. That's why the Bengals ripped it up in the offseason by adding stalwart free-agent veterans from play-off defenses that know how to handle the run in nose tackle D.J. Reader, middle linebacker Josh Bynes (from those same Ravens) and strong safety Vonn Bell.
And why they drafted three fast linebackers about to get baptized by fire. The backers are going to get tested right away in space with not only a tough red-zone tight end like Baltimore's Andrews in Hunter Henry (17 TDs in 41 games), but quicksilver running back Austin Ekeler and his seven yards per touch. He's 5-10, 200 pounds and the kid backers are going to have to figure it out quickly over the middle because not only does Ekeler have 14 receiving TDs, but a career 4.8 yards per carry.
Here's another new Bengals defensive veteran from a play-off club that may be the player of the game. Slot cornerback Mackensie Alexander gets a tough assignment against the Chargers most productive wide receiver in Keenan Allen with outside wide receiver Mike Williams hurting. Yet Alexander is here also because of his ability to tackle in the run game and this is the exact kind of game they need him.
Sunday's game is a great chance for the new-look Bengals defense, especially against the run, to start exorcising the demons of the past three seasons.
Plus, the run is the obvious answer to the Bengals' youth on offense against a Chargers defense that, at least last year, was better against the pass (ranked fifth) than the run (ranked 18th). Running back Joe Mixon led the NFL in carries over the second half of last season while he racked up the second most yards on 4.6 yards per carry.
What better way to ease in Burrow and Jonah Williams against sack aces Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram III? Not to mention allowing wide receiver A.J. Green to get his feet under him in his first game in 21 months?