From Senior Bowl to Super Bowl: Talent, chemistry, character key to Bengals’ turnaround

As Cincinnati Bengals coach Zac Taylor was preparing to coach the Senior Bowl in January 2020, he pointed to the San Francisco 49ers’ turnaround as a model. The 49ers’ staff took part in that same event the year before and ended up making the Super Bowl the next season.

Taylor was hoping to follow a similar path. Outsiders likely saw it as a stretch for an organization that hadn’t won a playoff game since the 1990 season, but he was serious.

“We know we’ve got to improve in a lot of ways the next year, just like San Francisco did,” Taylor said in a press conference at the Senior Bowl on Jan. 22, 2020. “It’s exciting to see a team follow that path, and of course, that’s the ultimate goal.”

The coaches of the NFL teams with the lowest winning percentage usually are selected to coach the Senior Bowl, and the Bengals were the bottom of the table at 2-14 in 2019. This year, the team could only send scouts – the coaching staff is busy preparing for a Super Bowl, like the 49ers were during Taylor’s press conference in Mobile, Ala., two years ago.

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San Francisco went 4-12 in 2018, and Kyle Shanahan’s staff used the Senior Bowl experience to get a jump on draft preparations (the 49ers took defensive end Nick Bosa at No. 2 and then wide receiver Deebo Samuel in the second round). The draft and some key free agent signings proved their offseason successful when they went 13-3 and won the NFC West en route to a Super Bowl berth to end the 2019 campaign.

The Bengals’ turnaround from Senior Bowl to Super Bowl took one additional year, but their surprise run to the NFL’s championship game wasn’t unexpected for those involved. Cincinnati is headed to Los Angeles on Tuesday to begin on-location preparations for Super Bowl LVI on Feb. 13 against the Rams.

“A lot has gone into it,” defensive end Sam Hubbard said. “I just think guys have come in and made an impact. Consistently that is happening, whether it’s free agents or drafted guys, whoever. Guys we’ve signed off other teams, the street, coming in and stepping in and doing their job. It’s a great team effort. I love this team.”

The Bengals went 6-25-1 the previous two seasons, including 4-11-1 last year, then flipped the switch to a winning record, AFC North title and AFC Championship all this season. Many have asked if the Bengals are ahead of schedule with this quick turnaround, but the organization’s previous two Super Bowl appearances came in similar fashion.

The Bengals were 14-34-0 in the three seasons before making their first Super Bowl in 1981 with a 12-4 regular-season record. That run-up included a pair of 4-12 seasons, followed by a 6-10 finish in 1980 that included a late surge with three wins in the last four games. San Francisco’s 26-21 win over Cincinnati in Super Bowl XVI completed another memorable turnaround, as the 49ers had totaled just 10 wins in the three seasons before turning the keys over to Joe Montana in 1981.

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Cincinnati was 4-11 in 1987 and on the wrong side of seven one-score margins while mustering just 19 points per game. The next year, that changed dramatically. The Bengals went 12-4 in 1988 while averaging a league-best 28 points per game, won the division and conference championship before losing to the 49ers in the Super Bowl.

Former Bengals safety David Fulcher, who was in his third season with the Bengals in 1988 and still lives in Cincinnati, said team chemistry plays a big role in getting to this point, and he sees a lot of similarities between the group he was a part of and this one.

“It’s an offense that can put a lot of points on the board, and ours led the league in points scored; it’s a defense that doesn’t break and that was our motto,” Fulcher said. “If we could keep people out of the end zone, with the offense we had, it was set for us to give up just 17 points per game because we felt our offense could score more than that. The defense is playing good football right now. The offense was always playing well, but if you score 40 and give up 42 you still lose. Chemistry has a lot to do with it all coming together . The offense is breathing what the defense is doing and when you have that and everyone is on the same page, you are going to win a lot of big games.”

Fulcher said he’s enjoying seeing the fortunes change for the Bengals and believes this is a team that can sustain success because of the way it has been built on young players who experienced success in college. Tight end Drew Sample, who was one of the first draft picks selected by the current coaching staff in 2019, said that was the vision laid out when he first joined the team, and the continuity the last three years propelled the Bengals to hit their stride in 2021.

When the Super Bowl LVI odds were released before this season, the Bengals were 150-1 to win and 75-1 to win the AFC. Their turnaround was so quick that in leading the Bengals to the AFC title, Joe Burrow became the first quarterback drafted No. 1 overall to reach a Super Bowl in his first two seasons.

Now they hope it leads them to the city’s first Super Bowl championship.

“There was never any schedule for us, the mentality always was we need to win the division so then we can attack our other goals,” Taylor said before the AFC Championship. “The other goals are always to win the Super Bowl and so there is no schedule for us. That’s the mentality every year. We certainly went into training camp the early part of this season with the understanding we could achieve anything we set our mind too this year because we have the talent, we have the chemistry and we have the character. It’s about getting hot at the right time and we got hot at the right time. In December we were playing good football and it’s carried us to this point. Our guys have a lot of confidence.”

SUPER BOWL LVI

Sunday, Feb. 13

Bengals vs. Rams, 6:30 p.m., NBC, 700, 1530, 102.7, 104.7

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