By now, everyone knows the Bengals will be playing in Super Bowl LVI on Sunday. The Jets and the Giants are keenly aware of how they got to that pinnacle — not just this season but coming off last year, when they were a four-win team.
That’s right. Four wins. The same paltry number the Giants and Jets each tallied in 2021.
"There is hope," Giants general manager Joe Schoen said last week from the Senior Bowl practices in Mobile, Alabama, referring to Cincinnati’s rapid rise from NFL afterthought to championship contender.
The two New York teams, which have been mired in failure and dysfunction for most of the past decade or longer, have gleaned more than just optimism from the Bengals, though. Cincinnati’s situation is a confirmation that the trajectories they are trying to follow can work.
The Bengals — who were 2-14 in 2019, just as the Jets were in 2020 — have reached the Super Bowl in the third year under their current administration. So did the 49ers when Robert Saleh was with them as a defensive coordinator.
"Not to put a number on anything or compare them, but there is a blueprint," Saleh, who also was at the Senior Bowl, said of the Jets’ plans as they enter Year 2 of his tenure. "I know New York doesn’t like to hear about time and all that stuff, but it is what it is. When you develop within, when you draft well, when you select the right players into building a culture that you believe in and you stay with the continuity and don’t fall into peer pressure or whatever Cincinnati has had to endure for the last couple of years, you end up reaping the benefits of your patience."
That’s not something that is plentiful in this market. The Giants haven’t had a head coach last into his third year on the job since Tom Coughlin. The Jets also have churned through coaches, perhaps not at the pace the Giants have, but with four different ones since their last playoff appearance in the 2010 season.
Having the rags-to-riches Bengals in this year’s Super Bowl will only add to the lack of patience that both fan bases have been harboring of late.
Familiarity with process
So how did the Bengals do it?
"They’ve had a lot of draft picks and a lot of high draft picks," Schoen said. "They had a No. 1 overall pick with Joe Burrow. That was part of the build. And then Ja’Marr Chase. They’ve done a good job over the three years they’ve been there building through the draft. They have a lot of young core players.
"They had their foundation and then they made a big splash in free agency this year on defense. They did a very good job of going out and identifying players who are key contributors to their Super Bowl run."
The good news for the Giants and Jets is that they have people in place who have experience with such rapid turnarounds, at least to varying degrees.
Saleh’s came with the 49ers but also with the Seahawks, with whom he was part of the push toward winning Super Bowl XLVIII. "Knock on wood, I’ve been blessed to be part of a few of these," he said.
New Giants coach Brian Daboll was, too. He arrived in New England as part of Bill Belichick’s inaugural staff in 2000 at a time when Tom Brady was a draft prospect and there had never been a Super Bowl champion in New England. He wound up winning five rings during two stints there. He also was part of the coaching staff that arrived in Buffalo four years ago to take over a franchise that hadn’t been to the postseason in 17 years. They’ve made the playoffs three of the last four, including back-to-back division titles.
Schoen was part of that Buffalo renaissance, too, along with others. He was a scout in Carolina when John Fox came aboard, and two years later, they were in a Super Bowl (against Daboll’s Patriots, by the way). He was in Miami’s front office when Tony Sparano took over a 1-15 team and the next year went 11-5 and made the playoffs. Adam Gase, Schoen noted, also made the playoffs in his first year in Miami when Schoen was there, as did Sean McDermott in Buffalo.
"I’m not saying we’re going to," he said trying to temper expectations for the Giants slightly, "but wherever I’ve been, there is a history of the first year, the coach going to the playoffs."
We’ll know if the Giants will be added to that list a year from now.
Bengals skipped a step
None of which is to say that the Giants or Jets are Super Bowl-ready. There are other steps in the process that most teams outline for themselves, steps that the Bengals have blown right past this postseason. Teams generally have to get a taste for the playoffs before succeeding in them.
"The first year with Josh [Allen as a playoff quarterback in 2019], we lost," Schoen said. "The next year, we went to the AFC Championship Game. This year, we won a game and should have won that second game. You start to learn how to win. It was a young team, so we had to go through the trials and tribulations. Now Josh knew what it was like to play in a playoff game along with that young core."
The Bengals haven’t had to do that, fighting through the postseason on their first run with this group of players and leaders. They are ahead of schedule.
"I think this is an unbelievable experience for the Bengals that their young core group of players are going this far," Schoen said. "Just winning a playoff game I think was a tremendous success, but to do what they are doing and play at the level they are doing, it obviously gives everybody hope."
All of which is why the Giants and Jets are watching closely to see how the Bengals do next week and beyond. They could be following in their paw prints.
"If we can draft like they did and hit on free agency like that," Schoen added, "that gives everybody hope."