Cincinnati Bengals and Los Angeles Rams reached Super Bowl with opposite blueprints

Cincinnati built its team through getting the No.1 pick and with it Joe Burrow. Los Angeles traded away its top selections. Yet they’re both into the Super Bowl.

Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow, who has led his long-maligned team to the Super Bowl in just his second NFL season. Picture: David Eulitt/Getty Images
Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow, who has led his long-maligned team to the Super Bowl in just his second NFL season. Picture: David Eulitt/Getty Images

The start of the 2020 NFL draft was also the beginning of this Super Bowl. The Cincinnati Bengals had the No. 1 pick. And the Los Angeles Rams might as well have spent the draft’s first day sipping margaritas.

The Bengals used that pick to select Joe Burrow, a quarterback with extraordinary gifts who had just led LSU to a national championship. The Rams didn’t have a first-round pick at all, having given two of them away for an already-established star: cornerback Jalen Ramsey.

Every year, the Super Bowl is a case study for the other 30 NFL teams to study the philosophies and strategies of the two teams still playing. The two teams that reach this one game are the cats everyone else wants to copy.

But the curious thing about this year’s Super Bowl is that anyone studying the team-building of one of these teams would learn the opposite lesson while examining the other. Cincinnati reaped the profits of being absolutely terrible for a season. Los Angeles went all in to seek greatness as quickly as possible.

These teams are more different than the male sheep and the tiger they’re named for. The Rams have eschewed football orthodoxy by routinely trading away their top picks for known quantities who can help them win immediately. The Bengals used their top choice to rise from being the NFL’s worst team two years ago to one of the two left standing now.

“If you would’ve told me coming into the league, when I got drafted, that we would be here this year, it would be a shock,” Burrow said after his team’s overtime win against the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC Championship. “Now, I’m not surprised.”

Bengals wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase has become Joe Burrow’s favourite passing target and one of the best receivers in the NFL. Picture: David Eulitt/Getty Images
Bengals wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase has become Joe Burrow’s favourite passing target and one of the best receivers in the NFL. Picture: David Eulitt/Getty Images

What happened between the moment Burrow entered the league and this Super Bowl is perhaps the most rapid turnaround in NFL history.

The year before Burrow’s selection, the Bengals were dreadful. They lost their first 11 games and finished 2-14. But the worst team in football exits that season with a phenomenal reward: the opportunity to pick before anybody else.

That was especially tantalising in that particular year. Burrow had just come off a season in which he hadn’t just won a college title. He broke passing records and emerged from relative anonymity to look like a sure-fire hit in the pros. When Roger Goodell read Burrow’s name from his basement during a draft up-ended by the early days of the pandemic, the woeful Bengals finally had a hope that brighter days were ahead.

It didn’t exactly go as planned. Burrow was injured during his rookie season.

Yet this terrible stroke of luck somehow contained an upside. Because the Bengals continued to flounder in Burrow’s absence, they once again received a top selection in the draft. They used it wisely. At No. 5, they selected Burrow’s former college receiver Ja’Marr Chase.

As a rookie, Chase emerged as not just Burrow’s favourite passing target. He became one of the best receivers in football. Together, these two early picks, in back-to-back years, were the catalysts who led the team to the playoffs on this run.

Los Angeles Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford, who is into the Super Bowl after spending many fruitless years with the Detroit Lions. Picture: Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
Los Angeles Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford, who is into the Super Bowl after spending many fruitless years with the Detroit Lions. Picture: Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

No quarterback has risen from being the No.1 pick to starting in the Super Bowl in two seasons as Burrow has. The previous fastest: Jared Goff, in three seasons, with the Los Angeles Rams.

When the Rams selected Goff first back in 2016, it was inadvertently a footnote to history: the last time Los Angeles would have its first-rounder for the better part of a decade. Since then, they have traded away all of their first rounders through 2023.

It was part of a strategy that reflected how Los Angeles valued its top draft picks differently than anyone else. It has made the Rams a consistent playoff contender so their first selection hasn’t been especially high. The Joe Burrows and Ja’Marr Chases of the draft weren’t available to them.

“It’s a team-build model that does not focus exclusively on high-end drafting,” Rams chief operating officer Kevin Demoff says. “These trades are all predicated on: we’re giving up a pick in the high-20s.”

So while hunting for hidden talents later in the draft, they traded their top ones for proven players who could help them keep winning immediately. They gave away two to the Jacksonville Jaguars to acquire Ramsey, for instance.

One of the primary hitches in that plan was with the last player the team used a first-round pick on. The Rams once hoped Goff would be their Burrow, and he even led them to a Super Bowl appearance. Afterward, though, his play diminished.

Los Angeles Rams receiver Cooper Kupp runs after a catch against the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship game. Picture: Christian Petersen/Getty Images
Los Angeles Rams receiver Cooper Kupp runs after a catch against the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship game. Picture: Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Instead of backing down, the Rams doubled down. They traded two first round picks and Goff, who had an onerous contract, to the Detroit Lions in exchange for a new quarterback: Matthew Stafford.

That paired Stafford, who had spent his career having never won a playoff game while annually racking up big passing numbers, with Los Angeles’s offensive wizard of a coach, Sean McVay. While there were bumps along the way — Stafford threw a league-high 17 interceptions — he still had one of the most efficient seasons of his career. It helped Cooper Kupp, the team’s former third round pick, emerge as the NFL’s most productive receiver.

The Rams won the difficult NFC West, a division that produced three playoff teams. They blew out the Arizona Cardinals to begin the playoffs, upset Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in a thrilling finish and then got past the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship.

It was another Rams bet that is nearing the ultimate pay-off. They reached the Super Bowl. They had reverse engineered the traditional path of building a roster through the top picks in the draft — or exactly what the Bengals did.

– The Wall Street Journal

Tim Elbra
Tim ElbraDeputy editor

Tim Elbra is the deputy editor of CODE. He started out as a reporter at The Daily Telegraph in 2003 and has also worked for mX, NRL.com, Fox Sports, AthletesVoice and Nine's Wide World of Sports. Tim was one of those kids who played every sport he possibly could while growing up and you’ll find him writing about a broad range of sports on this site. He’s never met a sport he doesn’t like and outside of footy, cricket and tennis, has a passion for snowboarding, bodyboarding, scuba diving and hiking. He’s still waiting, impatiently, for the Parramatta Eels to win another premiership.

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