The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Bengals’ big-game vibes were forged by the College Football Playoff

Clockwise from top left: Joe Mixon, Daxton, Hill, Joe Burrow, D.J. Reader, Eli Apple, Jackson Carman, Tee Higgins, JaMarr Chase, Drew Sample, Von Bell, Samaje Perine, Sam Hubbard, Cordell Volson, Jonah Williams (Illustration by Michael Domine/The Washington Post/Getty)
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CINCINNATI — As a purple-and-gold box featuring the LSU logo and the slogan “The State of Football” rested on the floor in front of Ja’Marr Chase, he nodded at the locker next to his, where fellow Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Tee Higgins stood. “We played against him at Clemson,” Chase told a reporter, referring to a meeting in the College Football Playoff three years ago. “It’s nothing we never did.”

Once the NFL’s doormat, a franchise that went without a playoff victory for three decades, the Bengals have transformed over the past two seasons into a powerhouse. They have leaned on Joe Burrow’s tranquil brilliance, an electrifying collection of receivers, an amorphous defense, an underrated coaching staff and blunt-force confidence. They have also maintained, as part of their roster-building philosophy, an intentional bias toward acquiring players with prior experience in big games.

The Bengals have drafted or otherwise acquired an inordinate number of players who appeared in the College Football Playoff — 14 of them, to be exact. Seven have won a national championship. That doesn’t include rookie guard Cordell Volson, who won four Football Championship Subdivision national titles at North Dakota State, or guard Alex Cappa, who played in the Division II playoffs at Humboldt State.

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The drafting of so many players with experience at college football’s peak could be written off as coincidence; all NFL teams want talented players, and players with the most talent tend to play for elite college programs. But the Bengals openly affirm it is by design. Despite having one of the NFL’s youngest rosters, they are 5-1 in the playoffs over the past two seasons, the only loss a narrow defeat in last year’s Super Bowl. They believe a lack of NFL experience has been offset by experience gained in college.

“As much as you can, you want guys that have played in big games, had big moments, particularly guys that played well in big games,” Bengals offensive coordinator Brian Callahan said. “So when you get to these spots in your season, and when things get hard, they know what it feels like to have been in that spot, and it’s an experience they can draw back on. If you’ve never been in that type of experience, I think it’s hard to understand what that is like.”

The Bengals’ list of CFP alums includes many of their best players. Burrow puffed one of his first public victory cigars after throwing passes to Chase in the national championship game. Higgins helped lead Clemson to three consecutive playoff appearances and one national title. Four Ohio State alums — defensive end Sam Hubbard, safety Von Bell, cornerback Eli Apple and punter Drue Chrisman — appeared in the playoff.

Bengals Coach Zac Taylor, who is heavily involved with the team’s scouting and draft, believes a CFP participant arrives in the NFL equipped with requisite endurance. The playoff forces a college player to remain focused from summer through early January, an approximation of the NFL season. The Bengals do not worry how many young players will respond to playing their most important games at the end of a long season. They have already done it.

“They’ve got the stamina to pull through,” Taylor said. “We just want that mentality, that mind-set and that understanding of what it takes to be consistent at meetings and at practice, not just the beginning part of the season when it’s a little bit easier — the first three, four, five games — but to maintain that consistency throughout.”

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Not every playoff alum on the Bengals agreed that the experience helped them. “It’s a complete difference” between college and the NFL, said running back Joe Mixon, who played for Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl, a playoff semifinal, after the 2015 season. But most believe it does. Higgins said knowing what it felt like to practice and play past a 12th game eased his NFL transition. Rookie cornerback Dax Hill said he would be a worse NFL player had Michigan not made the playoff in his final season.

“I’m not the type of person to check out, but I would definitely feel drained,” Hill said. “I don’t really feel drained.”

“Every year, I played 15, 16 games,” said Volson, who made the 16-team FCS playoffs in all of his college seasons. “If you count preseason, what are we on, Week 23? Obviously, it’s not the same. But it helps prepare you for that versus playing 10 games a year. You just have to be locked in for such a longer time, and you have to be able to take care of your body for that long.”

Bengals guard Jackson Carman twice played in the CFP at Clemson, winning a national title and losing to the Burrow-Chase LSU juggernaut. “It definitely prepared me,” he said. In those appearances, he played at State Farm Stadium in Arizona and the Superdome in New Orleans. When he arrived in Cincinnati, playing in an NFL stadium felt comfortable.

“Going to the league, it’s cool to be on the other side of that and to already have been in that stadium,” Carman said. “It’s energy regardless. You have the opportunity to let that bring you down or pump you up. It works as an advantage to you compared to if you’re worried about it the other way.”

The Bengals similarly have a preference for free agents with big-game chops. Center Ted Karras and Cappa won Super Bowls with the Patriots and Buccaneers, respectively. Brandon Allen, Burrow’s backup, went to the Super Bowl with the Rams. Punt returning wide receiver Trent Taylor was on injured reserve with the 49ers when they played in the Super Bowl. Most Bengals played in the Super Bowl last year, but someone on their roster has been on the roster of a Super Bowl finalist dating from 2016.

“It’s something the front office and Zac looked for in guys when they came in, bringing in guys that have won and have the right stuff inside of them to go out and win those kind of games,” Burrow said. “They’ve done a great job of assembling this team. It’s tough to get a look inside a guy’s heart and mind when you’re trying to sign them or draft them. They’ve done a great job of doing that.”

“It’s not going to make or break whether you win or lose championships,” Callahan said. “But it does help the process of getting your team mentally ready for something like the run we’ve been on for two years now of that type of mind-set, understanding what a championship-caliber preparation feels like, what the performance needs to be like.”

The Bengals have attempted to create a culture premised on competition and camaraderie. Before April’s draft, Bengals director of player personnel Duke Tobin defined players they wanted as people who, “if there was no NFL, they would still find a way to play football.” By plucking players who excelled at major college programs, they increase the chances of finding that kind of player.

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“They understand that competition wins,” said Bengals defensive tackle DJ Reader, who played in the national championship game after the 2015 season with Clemson. “Even in our locker room, you see guys playing ping-pong, cards all day. It’s competitive. Everybody practices hard. We don’t have guys who take practices off. That’s what you learn when you go through winning. You understand you got to work through those kinks at full speed.

“Guys understand what it takes to win. Those programs, they’re built a certain way. There’s a lot of work put into those programs. That’s important, to learn and understand how to win games, to have guys who have chemistry, who understand what it takes and what a winning team looks like.”

If the Bengals want to know what a winning team looks like now, all they have to do is look around their own locker room as they prepare to defend their conference title against the Chiefs on Sunday. They have become one of the NFL’s best in big games, an attribute that formed before they came together.

“It does help your team if you get guys that have that big-game experience, whether it’s in college or the pros,” Callahan said. “It brings something to the locker room that, if they didn’t have it, you would miss.”