Five years from now, when the Cincinnati Bengals have won three Super Bowls and the entire NFL world outside Cincinnati loathes everything in orange and black, we can pinpoint the moment when everything changed, when the Bengals went from lovable scamps to world-beating terrors:
— NFL (@NFL) January 22, 2023
Right there. During pregame warmups in Buffalo, an underdog against the mighty Bills, amid tens of thousands of table-jumping fanatics, Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow was so chill that he was flicking blind passes and pirouetting on his heel, holding the pose just long enough for the cameras to see. This video is like something out of "Glass Onion," all the clues right there in front of us if we'd paid closer attention.
Instead, we all fell all over ourselves praising the moment, every one of us contributing to the hype that is Joe Brrr/Joe Shiesty/Joe Whatever-the-hell-we’re-calling-him-this-week. This is the Bengals’ bad-guy origin story playing out right in front of us, right this moment. Giving Burrow the epic slo-mo social treatment is like helpfully pointing Thanos in the direction of the Infinity Stones, or suggesting to Max Verstappen that he’s not on Lewis Hamilton’s level. Why? Why give the already-powerful any more motivation and fuel than they already have?
The Bengals aren’t the NFL’s next supervillains yet, but they’re well on their way.
To be clear: I am in no way opposed to the Bengals transforming into villains. Quite the opposite. I love the idea. We need more villains in sports, more teams and players to root against. Pride is fandom’s driving force, and if pride isn’t on the line, a game is nothing but an elaborate dress rehearsal, and the players themselves simply business associates.
Sure, all the images of rivals embracing and “so wholesome!” tweets of players playing catch with kids are fine. But you know what really drives sports fandom? Pure, uncut loathing, the desire to beat the smirk right off the face of the other guy. And nobody smirks these days quite like Joe Burrow.
Look closely, and the villainous pieces are falling in place. Even though he was born in 1996, Burrow has spent the past four years doing a note-perfect imitation of an '80s movie nerd-hunting jock villain. More recently, Cincinnati spent the days leading up to the Buffalo game playing the “disrespect” card because the NFL decided to start selling tickets to a hypothetical game before the teams had been finalized. Anybody who “disrespected” a team that hasn’t lost since Halloween is not someone to be taken seriously, but hey, get that motivation however you can, Cincy.
Since the Bengals toilet-swirled the Bills on Sunday, their victory lap looks like the start of something much, much bigger. Start with Burrow’s cold dismissal of the NFL’s neutral-site dreams: “Better send those refunds,” he said on the field Sunday night, a mic dropped hard enough to crack the earth's crust.
Cut to head coach Zac Taylor, the smarm dripping off his words as he expressed “sympathy” for the NFL’s planners: “It is tough, because they have to formulate the plans for coin tosses, they gotta formulate the plans for neutral site games, and we just keep screwing it up for everybody,” he said after the game. “I hate that for people to have to endure all those logistical issues. We just keep screwing it up. Sorry.”
Next, we have safety Jessie Bates, saying he wants Kansas City's Patrick Mahomes to be "100 percent healthy so there is no excuses." Wanting the best out of the probable NFL MVP on the other side of the ball is a bold strategy, but it fits with the attitude of this entire team.
And then there’s cornerback Eli Apple, undercutting the heartfelt words of Buffalo’s Stefon Diggs with a devastating three-word jab-slash-offseason vacation suggestion:
For all this recent yapping, Cincinnati has some serious hurdles to overcome to become a truly hated team. For starters, there’s the city. Does anyone really hate Cincinnati? Sure, everyone makes the same tired jokes about the chili, but have you ever had it? It’s actually pretty good. If you’re going to be a supervillain, you’ve got to be evil from the ground up, and Cincy isn’t that.
Plus, Bengals team ownership and the coaching staff don’t exactly inspire fury the way that, oh, Jerry Jones or Bill Belichick do. If an organization is going to go full heel, it has to go all-in — you’ve got to despise everything from the badly dancing owner that TV cameras keep showing all the way to the ushers and popcorn slingers. Cincinnati’s not there yet, and maybe those good old-fashioned Midwestern values won’t let that happen.
Still, the Bengals are well on their way to satisfying the first, and most important, trait for a villain team: winning. If you’re a mouthy team that never manages to actually win big games, who cares? Get back to us when you’re playing in February, slick. And if you’re an arrogant, they-hate-us-’cause-they-ain’t-us fan base whose team never manages to actually win, well, you’re just the Dallas Cowboys.
We haven’t had a true villain team in the NFL since the Patriots blew up, and that’s not quite the same situation here. Fans hated the Patriots because they won, yes, but also because they loathed the dismissive Bill Belichick, gritted their teeth as Tom Brady climbed out of the grave again and again, and seethed as the Patriots either cheated or sure seemed like they did on multiple occasions. The Raiders and Steelers of the '70s, the Cowboys of the '90s — these were teams you could hate on a visceral level, teams who would raise your grandfather’s blood pressure every time their logo appeared on screen.
Maybe Cincinnati won’t get to that point. Maybe Burrow will turn out to be a cuddly, lovable, sponsor-friendly jock. Maybe the Bengals will lose to Kansas City on Sunday and fade back into the mass of playoff-quality teams that stuff the AFC. Maybe Burrow’s confidence will turn out to be empty boasting. Maybe free agency and egos will shred this team before it can dominate.
But if not … if, come 2028, you’re sick of Burrow and the Bengals rag-dolling your team and 30 others year after year, and laughing at you as they do it … don’t say we didn’t warn you.
Contact Jay Busbee at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @jaybusbee.