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Can the Detroit Lions be the next Cincinnati Bengals?

We talked with Bengals writer Patrick Judis to find out

AFC Championship - Cincinnati Bengals v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by David Eulitt/Getty Images

Is there a more fun team than a Cinderella team that defies all odds and shocks the world? The Cincinnati Bengals are that team right now. Three weeks ago, the Bengals were in a big drought. The Bengals held the longest playoff win drought in NFL history when they stepped on the field to play the Las Vegas Raiders in the Wild card game. Now, three wins later, they’re headed to the Super Bowl.

The Bengals aren't the most talented team in the world, but they’re getting by with culture and drive just a few years after being labeled one of the most futile franchises in football. Who does this sort of remind you of? You already know what I’m going to say. The Detroit Lions.

This Bengals run has me thinking a lot about what the future of the Lions could be and if they could potentially be the next Bengals. Even Dan Campbell thinks so a little bit.

Let’s jump in a take a look at what the Lions can do to make it happen and how close they might already be. We won’t be doing this alone though. Our friend Patrick Judis from Cincy Jungle will be joining us for the ride. I talked with Patrick about what the Bengals had to do to get to this point and if he thinks there’s any similarities with the Lions and Bengals. Here’s what he had to say:

1. What was the first big step of the Bengals rebuild?

“The first big step was clearly getting quarterback Joe Burrow. You can give some credit to the front office for moving on from former head coach Marvin Lewis to a more modern coach in Zac Taylor, but at the end of the day Burrow changed everything.

“He has come in and instantly given the entire roster a sense of confidence we just didn’t see with this team before. We saw it when free agents were signing to play with the former Heisman winner. The defense also talks about how they view their job is to get Burrow the ball as much as possible.

“Outside of the obvious answer of getting the quarterback, the thing Cincinnati did was find an area to become elite in. Ironically, that was the move that was the most criticized. The Bengals drafted Ja’Marr Chase to give them a group of skill position players that would simply make it practically impossible for most defenses to stop if their quarterback gets in rhythm.

“Could they have added offensive tackle Penei Sewell and gotten by with a receiving group led by Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd? Sure. However, this made it so that the offense could actually punish defenses who stacked the box to either rush the passer or stop the run. Turns out Chase was the pick that put this offense over the edge.”

What was the initial response to the Bengals hiring a position coach to be the team’s head coach?

“It was a bit surprising at first. However, many in Cincinnati were excited to have a coach more grounded with how a modern offense works. The common criticism was he was merely hired for knowing Sean McVay, which seems like such a hilarious take looking back. Like why wouldn’t you want to hire a guy who had a direct hand in one of the best offenses in the NFL?

“We as a fanbase knew whoever came in was going to be given a good amount of time to turnaround the team considering they would likely have him try to capitalize on what was left of the Andy Dalton and A.J. Green era. It takes longer to turn around a team in the NFL than most owners are willing to give. The only piece of advice there is that true change is going to take some time. Especially if it is as deep as one like Cincinnati or Detroit would need considering the past that comes along with them.”

Aside from Joe Burrow, what did the Bengals do to improve their roster so quickly?

“I talked about how Chase boosted the offense past a position of being good enough so I could focus on the changes that were made to the defense here. This defense is mostly two seasons in the making. The first thing they did was completely retool the linebackers. This was a position that routinely disappointed. It seemed like Lewis had an out of date view of what a linebacker should be. They were never athletic enough to cover or go sideline-to-sideline during his tenure. Germaine Pratt was added in the 2019 draft, but Cincinnati had the most additions via the 2020 draft when they took Logan Wilson, Akeem Davis-Gaither and Markus Bailey. All four of those guys have flashed their athletic ability that has drastically changed the trajectory of this team.

“Now we can talk about all the home run hits the Bengals had in free agency. The biggest thing they emphasized here was taking players from winning programs and high character. Adding D.J. Reader to stuff the run for a team that was previously one of the worst at stopping the run in NFL history was huge. Safety Vonn Bell also was an upgrade over a previous safety — Shawn Williams — who was good enough, but never really took that next step.

“Cincinnati then stirred the pot a bit by letting talented young players like William Jackson and Carl Lawson walk in free agency to get paid elsewhere. They went out and used the money allotted for them economically to really upgrade two vital areas that were issues. The first was actually getting to the quarterback. They added Trey Hendrickson coming off a career season as well as defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi to pressure the quarterback after the Bengals could barely get close to the quarterback the prior season. Replacing Jackson was a bit easier. Jackson never really gelled with Lou Anarumo’s defense, so they took a chance on Chidobe Awuzie coming off an injury to play the boundary. That was only half of the Jackson money. They then went out and got nickel corner Mike Hilton, who has been one of the driving forces to change the culture on the defensive side of the ball.

“That was a long winded way of saying taking low to mid level risks on free agents at key areas that come from winning programs has been huge. That seems like a stereotypical thing that every program tries to do, but this coaching staff, veterans and young players all bought into it. We saw several veteran players get cast aside, but a fresh start and getting ride of players who don’t embody those ideas has really paid off. That is why you see players like Chase blocking down field for their running back on a play they could just as easily trail off on.”

Do you see any similarities between the Lions and Bengals?

“The first initial thing I see is them being paired with an average quarterback in Jared Goff. I do think Dan Campbell has the team behind him and ready to play for him. He just has to make sure he keeps the veterans on his side and hungry for change.

“They do have an area where we could see them go the Bengals route of creating an elite unit. They need to make the offensive line even better. It seems like they could use some upgrades to the interior line to get there. That is definitely the Cleveland Browns route of relying on their line, but Detroit has to commit to that being their identity with D’Andre Swift. The next step is getting a clutch quarterback to avoid becoming the next Tennessee Titans or Indianapolis Colts. At some point you will need your quarterback to win you a ball game.”

Reflection time

Okay, I’ll be honest here, I was hoping Patrick would just say the Lions are right on time and they’ll be there next year, but that’s not what happened. There are some similarities, though. The Lions are spending time building up their team in different areas. What the Lions don’t have is the quarterback. Maybe Jared Goff becomes that guy, but there’s a lot to point to right now that says he’s not. Will the Lions draft their guy this year? Or will they wait until next year?This seems like a gigantic question that needs to be answered before every other question can truly be answered. Right now I’ll just say that the Lions are heading in the right direction to be like the Bengals and they can get there if—and it’s a big if—the right moves happen.