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Do Toothless Offenses Like The Bengals’ Ever Recover?

The Bengals entered this year as playoff contenders with a retooled offense that was considered one of the fastest units in the NFL. But two games into the season, they’ve kicked three field goals. And that’s it, that’s all the points the team has scored. Cincinnati’s inability to score a touchdown in its first two games (both losses) has led to the quick dismissal of offensive coordinator Ken Zampese in his 15th season with the team.

It may not sound like that big a deal to be held without a touchdown for the first two games of the season, but going back to 1970, this has only happened 15 times prior to 2017. Another eight teams registered only a return touchdown, failing to score with their offense.

The 23 teams that got left at the starting gate should not give Bengals fans much confidence in this year’s unit. These offenses would go on to average 17 points per game for the remainder of the season. If you include the two clunkers each team had in Weeks 1 and 2, the group finished the season with a paltry 15.6 points per game. When compared to their previous season’s scoring output, teams — not counting the 1976 Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who were an expansion team and so did not have a previous season — declined by an average of three points.

Teams that started like the Bengals didn’t rebound well

How the 22 past teams that didn’t score an offensive touchdown in Weeks 1 and 2 fared over the rest of the season, compared to the season prior

2016 LAR 14.0 4.5 15.4 17.5 -2.1
2006 OAK 10.5 3.0 11.6 18.1 -6.5
2006 TAM 13.2 1.5 14.9 18.8 -3.9
2004 TAM 18.8 8.0 20.3 18.8 +1.5
2001 SEA 20.0 6.0 22.0 21.1 +0.9
2001 WAS 16.0 1.5 18.1 17.6 +0.5
2000 DET 19.2 14.5 19.9 20.1 -0.2
1997 IND 19.6 8.0 21.3 19.8 +1.5
1996 TAM 13.8 4.5 15.1 14.9 +0.2
1990 NOR 17.1 7.5 18.5 18.8 -0.3
1990 PIT 18.3 11.5 19.3 16.6 +2.7
1988 CLE 19.0 4.5 21.1 26.0 -4.9
1985 BUF 12.5 6.0 13.4 15.6 -2.2
1985 PHI 17.9 3.0 20.0 17.4 +2.6
1982 KAN 19.6 14.0 21.2 21.4 -0.2
1978 BAL 14.9 0.0 17.0 21.1 -4.1
1977 TAM 7.4 3.0 8.1 8.9 -0.8
1977 BUF 11.4 3.0 12.8 17.5 -4.7
1975 NOR 11.8 1.5 13.5 11.9 +1.6
1974 PHI 17.3 8.0 18.9 22.1 -3.3
1973 OAK 22.9 14.0 24.4 26.1 -1.7
1970 NOR 12.3 1.5 14.1 22.2 -8.1

Excluding the 1976 Tampa Bay team, which was in its first year as a franchise


All is not lost here for the Bengals. Eight of those teams that didn’t score an offensive touchdown in their first two games actually went on to score more on average in their remaining games than they did in the previous year. But all of these gains were modest, in many cases less than a point. The biggest rebounders were the 1990 Pittsburgh Steelers, who averaged 16.6 points in 1989, failed to score an offensive TD in Weeks 1 and 2, and then averaged 19.3 points for the rest of the year. The news is less rosy when you look at three most recent examples: The 2016 L.A. Rams, the 2006 Oakland Raiders and the 2006 Tampa Bay Bucs. The inauspicious starts for these three were a dark omen for what was to come. The trio combined to go 10-38.

The hope of modest gains isn’t much for Bengals fans to cling to. This team was expecting its offense, which ranked 24th in the NFL last year, to get much better — not to plateau or fall off a cliff. Since history tells us to expect that teams in the Bengals’ position will score an average of three fewer points per game than they did in the previous season, and Cincinnati scored 20.3 points per game last year, we’d expect the team to post about 17 points per game in 2017. In the 16-game era,1 teams that average between 16 and 18 points per game are 871-1,635-6 for a .348 winning percentage that translates to between five and six projected wins this year for the Bengals.

Of course, the Bengals could have just run into hot defenses in their first two games, against the Baltimore Ravens and Houston Texans. But even the great 1985 Bears gave up 22 offensive touchdowns that season, or 1.4 per game. Getting shut out from paydirt in two straight games is epic futility no matter who you’re facing. Cincinnati might pin Week 2’s offensive fiasco on the fact that is was playing a Thursday night game on short rest, but that likely had no effect given that in games through Week 2 since 2014, teams have actually averaged more points per game on Thursdays (23.3) than in the season as a whole (22.6).

Some expressed worries that the Bengals’ attack would suffer after the team let 35-year-old Pro Bowl tackle Andrew Whitworth leave for the Rams in free agency, but the Bengals attempted to compensate for the loss by picking up even more skill players in the draft. Owner Mike Brown and head coach Marvin Lewis selected world-class sprinter John Ross to be a game-changing deep threat with the ninth overall pick. And in the second round, the club added 226-pound running back Joe Mixon, who ran a 4.5 40-yard-dash at his Pro Day.

And those players were added to a mix that already included three-time Pro Bowl quarterback Andy Dalton, perennial Pro Bowl wideout A.J. Green and one of the league’s most efficient scorers in tight end Tyler Eifert, who since 2000 has the third most touchdowns per catch (minimum 20 touchdowns) among tight ends. The team has 11 offensive players who are home-grown first- or second-round draft picks.

All of which makes the offense’s ineptitude even more perplexing. Which explains why the team took drastic measures: This is the first time in the Bengals’ 50-year history, all of which has been spent under the guidance of the Brown family, that an offensive coordinator has been fired during the season.

But the bigger issue may be Dalton, who currently ranks last in the NFL in QBR with a rating of just 10. The league average QBR through Week 2 is 49; last year, Dalton’s was 52.3. There have even been rumblings about benching Dalton, including from a former NFL Executive of the Year.

Either way, Cincy has no excuses this week — at least, that is, no excuses for not scoring a touchdown. The Bengals are in Green Bay facing a Packer defense that ranks 25th in yards allowed per play through Week 2 after finishing 28th in 2016.

But perhaps the Bengals can look to one of their NFC counterparts for offensive inspiration. The Bengals were the 24th team to go through their first two games without scoring an offensive TD, but the 25th team, this year’s San Francisco 49ers, joined the club just a few days later. After a fortnight of grim, incompetent offense, Brian Hoyer and the Niners exploded for five touchdowns and 39 points in Thursday night’s loss to the Rams.

Then again, when it’s only Week 3 and you are already trying to emulate the feats of the Niners, something has gone terribly wrong.


  1. Not counting 1982 and 1987 seasons, which were shortened by strikes.

Michael Salfino is a freelance writer in New Jersey. His work can be found on The Athletic and the Wall Street Journal.