The Cincinnati Bengals are headed to the Super Bowl for the first time since 1988.
And while I'll be the first to admit that they're not exactly the model of sustained success, I do think it's worth pointing out a few clear areas where they've succeeded to get to this point.
The Columbus Blue Jackets are, in some ways, analogous to the Bengals. For the past 20 years, they've been plagued by mediocre play, and though they've had a recent run of playoff appearances, they've not been able to take the proverbial next step. Both teams have been false-started (pun intended), and coaches have come and gone with varying degrees of success.
Here are three lessons the 2021 Bengals can teach the Blue Jackets:
Elite Talent Matters
It's no coincidence that the Bengals made a giant leap in the wins columns in the years immediately after having the #1 (2020) and #5 overall (2021) picks. Joe Burrow and Ja'Marr Chase are game-changing players, and they're the type of players that are almost exclusively available at the top of the draft.
In hockey and in football, having the best player in the arena makes a huge difference, and the Bengals and Blue Jackets have both seen the results (or lack thereof) that come from consistently picking in the middle part of the first round every year. Players taken at this point simply don't often have the ceiling necessary to push teams' over the edge. Like the Bengals, the Blue Jackets also picked fifth overall in 2021, selecting Kent Johnson. Who knows what his future holds for Johnson, but picking at the top of the draft again should stack the odds in the favor of the Blue Jackets in the long run.
Winning Breeds Confidence (And Culture)
Free agency is something that has plagued both of these franchises for as long as I can remember. In a salary-cap world, where money is roughly the same in locations A and B, the primary decision-making driver is often culture. It's usually a chicken or the egg conundrum, but the Bengals have proven in the past two years (again, not coincidentally since drafting Burrow) that free agents will come to a place where they are optimistic about the future.
DJ Reader, Trey Hendrickson, Chidobe Awuzie, Larry Ogunjobi, and Vonn Bell have all been impact players that chose the Bengals since 2020. I can assure you that they didn't choose Cincinnati for the weather, facilities, or pay. They came to Cincinnati because they believed the franchise was pointed in the right direction. And then it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Patience Is A Virtue
In professional sports, patience can be hard to come by. It's a results-oriented business, and expectations are exceptionally high for coaches and players alike. The Bengals easily could have moved on from their head coach, Zac Taylor, who went 6-25-1 in his first two seasons at the helm, after last season. But the locker room went to bat for their beleaguered coach, and he has noted how grateful he is to still be their head coach in several post-game media availabilities.
Often, fans call for a change to be made. But changing something for the sake of change isn't a step in the right direction, and, really, it's often a step backward, as the new regime implements their own initiatives and replaces personnel to their liking. The Bengals are far from a perfect organization, but in many ways, they're proving to be a blueprint that organizations both inside and outside the NFL can follow.