What Falcons can learn from Bengals’ rapid rebuild

Cincinnati quarterback Joe Burrow hands the Lamar Hunt trophy to a teammate after winning the AFC Championship game against the Kansas City Chiefs. (Jill Toyoshiba/The Kansas City Star/TNS)

Credit: TNS

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Cincinnati quarterback Joe Burrow hands the Lamar Hunt trophy to a teammate after winning the AFC Championship game against the Kansas City Chiefs. (Jill Toyoshiba/The Kansas City Star/TNS)

Credit: TNS

For teams that have been living in the bottom of their divisions, including the Atlanta Falcons, the Cincinnati Bengals and their rapid rebuild are an inspiration.

After winning four games in 2020 and two games in 2019, the Bengals, thanks to some shrewd moves and fine drafting, are preparing to face the Los Angeles Rams in Super Bowl LVI on Sunday in SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, California.

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“We’re going to find good players and win a lot of games,” Falcons general manager Terry Fontenot said. “That’s what the Bengals did. I’m happy for those guys, but that’s why we are working hard to have a great offseason right now.”

Detroit Lions coach Dan Campbell, who completed his first year in the Lions’ latest rebuilding, was also impressed by the Bengals’ resurrection.

“You definitely look at that,” Campbell said. “That’s living proof that it can be done.”

Before joining the Falcons and Lions, Fontenot and Campbell were with the Saints, who nearly missed going to Super Bowls in recent seasons.

“We're going to find good players and win a lot of games. That's what the Bengals did. I'm happy for those guys, but that's why we are working hard to have a great offseason right now."

- Falcons general manager Terry Fontenot

“I just came from a place and that’s what we did,” Campbell said. “When I got to New Orleans, they’d be 7-9 for a few years in a row, and then we hit on some draft picks. Mike Thomas, A.K. (Alvin Kamara), (Erik) McCoy, (Marcus) Davenport, (Marshon) Lattimore and (Marcus) Williams. Then all of sudden ...”

The Saints lost in the NFC title game after the 2018 season on a controversial non-call on an apparent pass interference penalty. After the 2017 season, they were Super Bowl contenders, but Minnesota scored an improbable late touchdown to advance.

Campbell believes if you’re drafting you can “flip the script with (players) already there and you add a couple of free agents. If you do it right in the draft, then all of sudden, man, you can catch lightning in a bottle.”

That was part of the Bengals’ plan with the drafting of quarterback Joe Burrow No. 1 overall in the 2020 draft being the most obvious move.

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“It feels great to be in this position,” Burrow said. “I wouldn’t say it’s surprising. I know the kind of guys we have in the locker room, and this coaching staff works really hard to put us in good positions to be successful.”

The Bengals also added wide receiver Tee Higgins in the second round of the 2020 draft and picked up Ja’Marr Chase in the first round of the 2021 draft.

“But you know, that’s why we’ve spent a lot of time with (Bengals executive) Duke Tobin building the team this way,” Cincinnati coach Zac Taylor said. “It’s a lot of guys who played in championships in college, whether it’s at LSU, or Clemson or Alabama or Ohio State.”

The Bengals drafted former Alabama offensive tackle Jonah Williams in the first round of the 2019 draft.

“I would say it helps a lot,” Burrow said of the big-school players. “I would say guys that have played in the SEC and in the Big Ten, they have a better feeling of what the NFL is going to be like. The speed of the game and the physicality of it than I think guys that might have played at smaller schools. So, I would say that’s an advantage that we have.”

The Bengals also hit on some of their mid-round draft picks including backup tackle D’Ante Smith from Augusta and Grovetown High, who was drafted in the fourth round from East Carolina in 2021, and defensive end Cameron Sample, who played at Shiloh and Tulane. He was also drafted in the fourth round last season.

The roster is littered with draft picks who are contributing.

The Bengals also made some nice free agency pickups, adding former Saints defensive end Trey Hendrickson and Falcons safety Ricardo Allen.

“A lot of these free agents we’ve signed have been part of playoff teams before, so these guys, they know they belong on this stage, man. We’re gonna get their best on Sunday,” Taylor said.

Marvin Lewis was the Bengals coach from 2003 to 2018. He took them to the playoffs seven times but never won a playoff game. Taylor, who is in his third season, is in the Super Bowl. It will be the franchise’s first appearance since 1989.

One of the Cincinnati holdovers is tight end C.J. Uzomah, who played at North Gwinnett High and Auburn. He was drafted in the fifth round in 2015.

“I took a moment personally to reflect on this organization’s journey to get to where we are over the past couple of years of having some turmoil and then a little bit of lows and kind of just riding that wave,” said Uzomah, who suffered a knee injury in the AFC title game. “We were not doing the best as an organization; as a team you feel like you know, personally, what can I do more to help contribute.”

The Bengals had to move past perennial AFC North powers Pittsburgh and Baltimore and watched in 2020 as Cleveland went deep into the playoffs.

“When, it’s all said and done, we’re going to the Super Bowl and we’ve ridden that wave to be where we are right now,” Uzomah said. “So, I definitely took a moment and reflected and thought back on the last couple of years.

“I just went to bed with a smile on my face knowing that at the end of the day we’re getting to play a freakin’ Super Bowl, like that is so sick. That’s so sick. So, yeah, I definitely had a little kid in me at the end of the night.”

Taylor also made a couple of points that were key to the team’s turnaround.

“Well, I think that speaks to our organization as a whole, you know. I know I’m the head coach, and people look at that as the person to give credit to, but that’s not the case at all,” Taylor said. “It’s these assistant coaches who have been through some really difficult times here, who have stood shoulder to shoulder and taken on all the adversity and have gotten the most out of these players.

“It’s ownership and personnel from top to bottom being aligned. That has a lot to do with this. Because if you don’t have total alignment from top to bottom, then there’s no way you’re playing for a Super Bowl.”

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