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These Bengals Are The Best In Franchise History

UPDATE (Nov. 6, 7:39 a.m.): The Bengals added six points to their Elo rating on Thursday night, defeating the Cleveland Browns 31-10. Cincinnati’s current Elo rating, 1672, is the best in franchise history. The article below was written before Thursday night’s game.


According to our NFL Elo ratings — FiveThirtyEight’s pet metric for determining an NFL team’s strength at any given moment1 — the best Cincinnati Bengals team ever was the 1981 edition, led by quarterback and league MVP Ken Anderson. Those Bengals notched a franchise-best Elo rating of 1666.4 after they beat the San Diego Chargers 27-7 in the AFC championship game on Jan. 10, 1982. But two weeks later, they lost the Super Bowl to the San Francisco 49ers, and while Cincinnati has had a handful of good moments since, things have never quite looked as bright for the franchise as they did that winter day 33 years ago.

At least not until tonight — potentially. Going into Thursday’s matchup with the Cleveland Browns, the Bengals have an Elo rating of 1666.3, a mere fraction of a point behind the high-water mark set by the 1981 team. Any win, no matter how small the margin, would make the 2015 Bengals the best team in franchise history.

At 7-0, they’ve already started the season better than any other Cincinnati squad. Formerly maligned quarterback Andy Dalton ranks fourth in the NFL in Total QBR. And he has the support of a solid defense that ranks third in Pro-Football-Reference.com’s Simple Ratings and 12th in Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric. It’s a good recipe for a Super Bowl run, and Elo assigns the Bengals the NFL’s fourth-highest probability of winning it all this year (12 percent).

That 1981 Bengals club shared an important characteristic with this year’s team: great passing. If we scale every team’s per-play expected points added (EPA)2 such that the league has an average of 100 and a standard deviation of 15 each season, we can measure how effective a team’s offense and defense was in the passing and running games. This season, Cincinnati’s aerial attack leads the league with a 134 grade.3 The 1981 team ranked second in the NFL with a score of 125. The only Bengals squad with a better passing offense than either 1981 or 2015 was the 1988 version, whose 136 grade was fueled by Boomer Esiason’s own MVP campaign.

Here are the best Bengals teams ever:

OFFENSE DEFENSE
YEAR MAX ELO PASSING RUSHING PASSING RUSHING
1981 1666.4 125 111 98 98
2015 1666.3 134 94 110 87
1976 1663.3 110 108 121 112
1982 1644.4 120 108 92 92
2005 1642.7 121 112 94 87
1974 1632.7 116 110 105 78
2013 1630.7 106 93 126 115
1989 1627.0 120 118 104 87
1988 1626.1 136 133 106 89
1973 1618.7 117 111 106 100

An elite passing offense is where the similarities between the 1981 and 2015 Bengals end, though. While the 1981 squad also employed a solid rushing attack4 and a balanced defense that was essentially league-average against the run and the pass, the 2015 Bengals defend the pass well but aren’t particularly good at running the ball or defending against the run. Among historical Bengals squads, that profile more closely matches the strengths and weaknesses of the 1975 team, which was also good at passing and stopping the pass but lousy in the running game on both sides of the ball. (The 1975 Bengals ultimately lost in the divisional round of the playoffs.)

But if we’re looking for historical teams truly comparable to this year’s Bengals, we’ll have to leave Cincinnati. We can measure how similar any two team’s strengths and weaknesses are by using the differences in their EPA grades from above.5

Here are the teams most similar to the 2015 Bengals:

OFFENSE DEFENSE
RANK YEAR TEAM PASSING RUSHING PASSING RUSHING DIFF²
2015 Cincinnati 134 94 110 87
1 1970 San Francisco 134 92 108 92 4.4
2 2005 Indianapolis 133 98 113 95 14.5
3 2014 Green Bay 130 108 109 97 42.5
4 2013 New Orleans 123 95 111 87 58.3
5 2003 Indianapolis 126 98 99 86 67.5
6 2011 Green Bay 135 97 95 83 72.6
7 1983 Miami 124 96 118 91 75.9
8 1984 Miami 139 115 106 76 77.5
9 1988 L.A. Rams 125 103 113 101 79.8
10 2006 New Orleans 125 100 99 87 80.6
11 2009 San Diego 128 84 98 95 80.6
12 2015 New England 131 119 108 93 80.9
13 2008 Indianapolis 122 85 109 94 81.5
14 2001 Oakland 122 86 106 79 82.0
15 1995 Green Bay 126 87 97 90 84.2
16 1991 Washington 137 106 123 96 87.4
17 2004 Indianapolis 134 107 96 95 87.6
18 1979 Dallas 123 97 99 93 94.0
19 2012 Atlanta 120 86 108 86 96.6
20 2009 Indianapolis 120 91 108 97 100.5

According to this method, the 2015 Bengals’ closest historical doppelgangers were the 1970 San Francisco 49ers, with John Brodie playing the role of Dalton alongside little rushing support and a defense that was much better at stopping the pass than the run. The next five teams on the list are perhaps more interesting, if only because they’re more recent; there are two Peyton Manning-era Colts squads, two Aaron Rodgers-helmed Packers teams and a Drew Brees-led Saints team. We’re only halfway through the season, but this list puts the Bengals among great offensive company. Yet, like the comparison with the 1975 Bengals, it also lumps them in with a bunch of teams that went to the playoffs with impressive records only to lose before reaching the Super Bowl.

Cincinnati has an 89 percent probability of beating the Browns tonight and claiming its mantle as the best Bengals squad ever. But their real work may be saved for the playoffs, in bucking the trend toward postseason disappointment for teams constructed out of similar parts.

Footnotes

  1. For an explanation far more extensive than you probably need (or want), click here.

  2. Estimating EPA for seasons before 2006 using a weighted random forest regression model trained on data from 2006-2015. The model attempts to predict what a team’s rushing and passing EPA (on offense and defense) would have been if such data were available, based on the team’s box-score statistics relative to the NFL average that season.

  3. Meaning its EPA is 2.3 standard deviations better than that of the average passing offense.

  4. An underrated feature that causes their estimated EPA to rise despite a middling yards-per-carry mark: rarely fumbling. No team fumbled less than Cincinnati in 1981, and most of its fumbles were committed by quarterbacks and receivers, not running backs.

  5. Specifically, we can take the squared differences in their passing and rushing grades on each side of the ball and weight them by the relative importance of each category in determining a team’s overall quality during the Super Bowl era. In this case, the weights are 44 percent to passing offense, 12 percent to rushing offense, 31 percent to passing defense and 12 percent to rushing defense.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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