Climbers say summiting Mt. Everest is one of the most life-changing experiences anyone can go through. Months to years of training prepare them for the grueling challenge. The mountain guide or “sherpa” on these trips are their lifeblood. Without capable guidance, disaster can strike.
The Cincinnati Bengals offensive line has been on its own 29,000 foot journey over the past two years. A mixture of rough injury luck and stagnant growth has the unit struggling to leave base camp.
Last season was brutal for plenty of guys in the trenches.
Jonah Williams missed the entire season with a torn labrum. Veteran Cordy Glenn clashed with offensive line coach Jim Turner and missed a significant portion of the season due to a concussion. Guard John Miller also battled groin and concussion issues.
Put all of the nicks and bruises together and you get a position group that ranked 30th in the NFL with 28.3 adjusted games lost to injury. Only the Jets and Cardinals faced more injury problems in the trenches according to Football Outsiders. Things have been trending this way ever since the Bengals lost the fewest adjusted games as a team in 2015—their last playoff berth. They finished third overall in 2016, and in the first two seasons tracking position groups, the offensive line finished 19th and 12th before Turner’s arrival.
There appears to be a disconnect in the training room and on the field since the Marvin Lewis era ended. The offensive line was an issue before this coaching staff got to town, but the injuries have been more frequent.
Turner was one of Zac Taylor’s controversial hires. His 26 years of experience haven’t gone smoothly. He’s had troubling issues at his past two coaching gigs, along with burbling ones at Paul Brown Stadium.
There’s a reason Turner has had nearly three decades of coaching experience without any consistent staying power in the NFL. He’s yielded ostensibly terrible results in all four seasons at the highest level. Here are where his units have ranked in sacks allowed and rushing first downs per game—two numbers attributable to solid offensive line play.
2012 Dolphins: 2.4 SPG (20th), 5.8 RFDPG (18th)
2013 Dolphins: 3.6 SPG (32nd), 3.8 RFDPG (32nd)
2019 Bengals: 3.0 SPG (24th), 5.3 RFDPG (21st)
2020: Bengals: 4.4 SPG (32nd), 5.5 RFDPG (27th)
“Do we have the character up front? Do we have the talent up front? I think we do,” Turner said in May. “I think we’re going to have a good, solid offensive line.”
The irony is palpable when Turner cites “talent” and “character” while describing this group, something he never cultivated at his first NFL stop. Now the Bengals are paying for that mistake as they navigate the injury ward this position group has become. The two perfect storms are even playing off of one another.
The Bengals’ “big” free agent signing to beef up the offensive line was Xavier Su’a-Filo. He’s a respectable backup-level guard that surprised some people with his stellar play in Week 1 against the Chargers. He suffered an ankle injury in that game and was on injured reserve until last week. The team activated him, but second-year guard Michael Jordan—one of Turner’s favorites—got the start against Miami.
As has been the story all season, the young guard was a disaster, giving up two sacks and a quarterback hit on 29 pass-blocking snaps. Pro Football Focus awarded him a pass-blocking grade of 7.1. He was benched for the final few plays in favor of Su’a-Filo.
Up and down he goes as Turner subjects Bengals quarterbacks to the seesaw Jordan’s career has been thus far. It’s one thing to let a player grow through playing time, but Jordan has played a role in the injuries to Burrow and Jonah Williams.
Blocking no one on that play cost Williams the rest of his 2020 season. He could come back for the Bengals’ finale, but he’s going to miss a minimum of three games.
Jordan is not the right man for that spot, and when the injury avalanche slowed just enough to replace him, Turner balked. Taylor’s job might appear to be safe at the moment, but these results require a scapegoat that fits Turner’s description.
The Bengals are the only team in the league to have nine offensive linemen play 170-plus snaps for them in 2020. The Jordan debacle is a perfect example of this cycling issue. They benched him for Quinton Spain against the Giants, but he was the next man up following Alex Redmond’s concussion. Turner slotted him right back in and proceeded to keep him in the lineup over a healthy Su’a-Filo.
Meanwhile, the front office has drafted one blue-chip player on either side of the trenches in six years (Carl Lawson). The Bengals have had miss after miss up front for the better part of a decade. Williams should buck that trend when he returns, and that’s where we come full circle back to Turner.
The Bengals’ protection sherpa isn’t guiding anything productive right now as the injury lightning keeps striking. Turner’s cultivated the perfect relationship with Taylor to get back into the league. The next month will determine if that friendship is enough to keep climbing injury mountain.
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