'Who Dey': Can Joe Burrow lead the Cincinnati Bengals back to postseason glory?

Jaylon Thompson
USA TODAY Sports Plus

Cincinnati Bengals super fan Jeremy Conley still has vivid memories of the 1990 AFC wild-card game against the Houston Oilers. The lasting images of a rain-soaked Riverfront Stadium linger in his mind. The heroics of Boomer Esiason and the electricity generated by the infamous “Ickey Shuffle” plays on a continuous loop.

In the annals of Bengals fandom, the decisive 41-14 playoff victory holds the key to a storied past. Unfortunately, it also unlocks a painful drought of playoff ineptitude and compounded futility.

“We had the one win and lost in the (divisional round to the Los Angeles Raiders),” Conley recalled in an interview with USA TODAY Sports+. “It was heartbreaking, but you know what, we will be back. Then, it all fell apart.”

For three decades, the Bengals have been trying to regain that playoff spark. The team has made seven playoff trips since 1990 and have fallen short each time. The last playoff run was with an entirely different regime during the 2015 season.

Conley had a front-row seat through the challenging seasons. Known as Bengals Captain, Conley gathered quite the attention. He is present at every home game, dressed in his signature neon orange outfit. He is also popular on social media with more than 10,000 followers.

It is no surprise that Conley is ready for the 2021 campaign. However, he admits there is a different feel around the team and throughout the city this season.

“The fans can see it,” Conley said. “I think the players believe it too because more and more, you see that confidence.”

Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow (9) reacts after the Bengals defeated the Jacksonville Jaguars on Oct. 4, 2020.

So, what brought on this newfound Bengals’ optimism?

The answer lies on the arm of second-year quarterback Joe Burrow. Last season, Burrow proved that he is a franchise star. He started 10 games before sustaining a season-ending knee injury.

Despite going 2-7-1 as a starter, Burrow led the Bengals to victories over the Jacksonville Jaguars and Tennessee Titans. He also threw for 406 yards against the Cleveland Browns in Week 7 and ranked seventh in the league with 268.8 yards per game at the time of his injury.

With Burrow under center, the Bengals lost four games by less than seven points. There was even a tie game against the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 3.

The Bengals hope Burrow can be at full strength by training camp. The quarterback participated in minicamp in June, and all indications were promising.

“I think everybody is optimistic,” Bengals head coach Zac Taylor said. “I know he really enjoyed getting out there. It was probably good for him to put the jersey back on, put the helmet back on and get in the huddle and call plays. (He was able to) throw the ball and see the coverages with 7-on-7.

"I would say that probably, I didn't want any predictions before the offseason program, but he is in a really good spot right now.”

Cincinnati Bengals head coach Zac Taylor talks to the team during rookie minicamp on May 14, 2021.

This offseason, the Bengals made a point to build around Burrow. The team added nine-year NFL veteran Riley Reiff to solidify the offensive line. They also drafted former LSU star Ja’Marr Chase to reunite with Burrow.

Chase will join a terrific receiving group that includes Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd. Joe Mixon is also back with a new featured role, and NFL veterans Trey Hendrickson, Mike Hilton, Chidobe Awuzie and Larry Ogunjobi were added to a revamped defense.

The new additions will make up a talented core on both sides of the football. Hendrickson arrives after recording 13.5 sacks with the New Orleans Saints in 2020. Hilton and Awuzie are veteran cornerbacks that should complement top safeties Jessie Bates III and Vonn Bell.

In minicamp, Taylor got to see how each player fits in his overall scheme. Heading into his third season, he admitted that the team is far ahead of last season’s pace.

“I just think overall scheme-wise, it is year three for some guys, and it is year two for others; obviously, we added some rookies and vets, but we have really taken strides there,” Taylor told local reporters after minicamp. “It makes sense to the guys, and they are making it their own. They are not just out there trying to remember what to do. They know exactly what to do, and they can take the next step there.

"That is the part that is most exciting when you look at it from a head coaching seat. They ownership the players have taken in the systems and the leadership that has really emerged has put us in a really good position.”

Joe Burrow (9) talks with center Trey Hopkins (66) and other Bengals during practice on May 25, 2021.

The Bengals face a tough path in the AFC North. The Pittsburgh Steelers, Baltimore Ravens and the Browns each made the playoffs last season. If the Bengals are to make a leap in their own division, they will need more efficient play. 

The offense must get better in crucial situations. The Bengals ranked 29th overall with just 19.4 points per game. The defense also did not fare well. The unit allowed 26.5 points per game and had some bad outings down the stretch.

Burrow noted that changes are on the way. He spent this offseason learning more of the playbook to counter defensive coverages.

“It's just the quick processing that I am going to continue to get better and better at,” Burrow said. “I am excited to execute that in the season. There is nothing better than when a defense shows you something you weren't expecting, and you know exactly what to get to. Then, the defense gets frustrated and starts going out of their game plan and making mistakes.”

While strides are being made, health remains a major factor. A healthy Burrow can unlock Taylor’s offense. The return of cornerback Trae Waynes and defense lineman D.J. Reader are very important as well.

Both NFL veterans were signed last season. Waynes missed all of the 2020 season, however, and Reader only played five games before being placed on injured reserve. According to Reader, there is a high expectation to succeed. He told Cincinnati Enquirer reporter Charlie Goldsmith that the team has something to prove.

“We’ve got a bunch of guys that play ball and are confident in themselves,” Reader said. “You watch guys come from other teams and guys who have played a lot of ball come over to this team, they just want to make this team better. The expectation is high.”

The Bengals open the 2021 season with the Minnesota Vikings on September 12. A victory can build momentum and chart a course towards potential playoff contention.

Conley expects to be in attendance for the home matchup. After enduring 30 seasons without tasting postseason success, the Bengals are primed to write a new chapter in their storied history.

“We got a leader in Joe Burrow,” Conley said. “The players have bought in, and they listen to him. They know that he has it. … He has that swagger and that moxie.”