Facing new world of heightened expectations, Bengals have a plan to keep their edge | Opinion
After nearly winning the Super Bowl last season, the Bengals are no longer playing with house money. Players are just fine with that as they embrace massive expectations.
CINCINNATI – Six months later, Joe Mixon still doesn’t like thinking about the Super Bowl.
The 23-20 loss to the Los Angeles Rams remains a sore subject for the Cincinnati Bengals’ Pro Bowl running back.
“Been done talking about the Super Bowl,” a previously jovial Mixon said last Friday during his stroll from the practice field across the street from Paul Brown Stadium back to the locker room.
Mixon isn’t alone in his pain.
“I still haven’t digested it,” wide receiver Stanley Morgan Jr. said. “I don’t know that I’ll ever get over it.”
Fellow wideout, Ja’Marr Chase, who garnered Pro Bowl and AP offensive rookie of the year honors in 2021, also could relate.
“I didn’t dwell on the moment,” Chase said. “I didn’t even watch the film until later. I lived with it and sat with it and moved on quickly.”
As ascending linebacker Logan Wilson put it, “We kind of have the mentality that you have to leave the past in the past. You just have to learn from it, grow from it. Move on.”
This time last year, the Bengals were coming off of their fifth consecutive losing season (including three consecutive double-digit loss campaigns). Nobody would have projected them to win the physical AFC North, let alone make it all the way to the Super Bowl, where they found themselves with a shot at a game-winning drive before Aaron Donald snuffed out their hopes in the closing seconds of play.
But now people view the Bengals differently. Opinions have changed both in their city, where the team enjoyed a rare season-ticket sellout after years of struggling to fill their stadium, and across the NFL.
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For the first time in years, Cincinnati’s long-suffering franchise is dealing with heightened expectations. But although they acknowledge the legitimacy of those expectations, Bengals players insist they remain unfazed. They could view the expectations as added sources of pressure. But instead, now that they have tasted success and know what excellence should look and feel like, their own expectations dwarf any of those from the outside.
The Bengals’ ability to maintain that focus and handle the new-found lofty expectations will go a long way to determining their level of success this season, and they get that.
“It’s not pressure,” said Mixon, who seeks his fourth 1,000-yard campaign in five seasons. “It’s the standard that we have set and we now have to maintain.”
Said Morgan, “The standard is not to make the Super Bowl. The standard is to win, so nobody is satisfied.”
Wilson, a third-year pro who became a full-time starter last season, said the Bengals again remain committed to the goal of committing selflessly to the good of the team, something that enabled them to defy odds and exceed expectations last season.
“Coach (Zac) Taylor and the front office have done a great job of bringing good guys into the locker room that gel together and don’t care about their individual success, just care about the team,” Wilson said.
The linebacker believes that Taylor’s message throughout offseason practices and now training camp has and will continue to help them remain focused as they attempt to become one of the few Super Bowl runner-ups to return to the game’s biggest stage and take care of unfinished business.
Taylor is entering only his fourth season as an NFL head coach, but the 39-year-old has firsthand experience with trying to live up to lofty expectations and grappling with the disappointment of falling short in a Super Bowl. In 2018, he served as an assistant on the Rams’ staff when Sean McVay and Co. lost 13-3 to the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl.
Drawing on those lessons, Taylor has repeatedly preached on the importance of maintaining focus while positively channeling disappointment into fuel for another deep playoff run.
“It’s written all over our walls because there’s always going to be different pressures, whether negative or positive, and you’ve got to learn how to tune that out,” Taylor said last week. “You just pay attention to the people inside this building, who are seeing the work that’s being put in and understand our expectations.
"You’ve got to manage the outside noise, because for a lot of years it was negative and now it’s positive. And it doesn’t matter. You can’t stoop to it or try to race to it because we have our own standard, and the guys do a real good job of that. It’s impossible to block out the internet. That’s just not feasible, so guys have to focus on what we talk about in the building and not worry about anything else.”
Thus far, it appears that Taylor’s charges are doing just that.
“It’s just that we have to prove ourselves all over,” Chase said. “As individuals, as a team. It’s just the league. We have to prove to everyone in the world that we can still play.”
The wide receiver and his teammates have remained undeterred despite dealing with adversity in the form of opening camp without franchise quarterback Joe Burrow, who is still recovering from the appendectomy that he needed on the eve of training camp.
Burrow could miss another couple of weeks of action, but until he does return, his teammates aim to simply work toward collective and individual improvement while focusing on the factors in their control.
Then, once the season begins, the Bengals hope to approach the task of contending for the Super Bowl once again while embracing the spike in energy radiating from a rejuvenated fan base.
“It’s easy to tell the city has rallied around us, based even on how many have come to these practices. It’s pretty awesome to see,” Wilson said. “We joked last year, ‘It’s like we set the city of Cincinnati on fire’ after we made it to the Super Bowl. It’s too bad we couldn’t get it done, but there are positives, and the city’s energy is there. It’s not pressure, it’s like we have more support than we ever have before, and we’ll take it.”