It’s been a painfully long NFL offseason, especially so in Joe Burrow’s case—he spent the majority of it either rehabbing his shredded left knee or assuring everyone (and himself) that he’s fine and back to his old self. We Cincinnati Bengals fans spent far too much time parsing every move No. 9 made, looking for the telltale grimace or limp. That, along with the draft discourse that dominated the spring (“Protect Joe at all costs, unless there’s a wide receiver available in the top five”), has made the time between football seasons far more interesting than usual.
As the regular season returns at last on September 12, let’s recap the Bengals-oriented news of the last few months.
The 2020 season effectively ended on November 22, when Burrow got injured in D.C. It was a devastating injury, an ACL tear plus more damage, but apparently the surgery went well. Burrow, unsurprisingly, attacked the rehab process like a hyena tears apart an antelope carcass.
You’ve got to love his confidence in these matters, as proven when the Bengals trotted out their uniform changes in April. (For the record, I am agnostic about minor revisions like this. Unless it’s a 1981-style wholesale change, I don’t care much about this shade of orange or that drop shadow.) Burrow appeared in the photos modeling the unis in shorts, with his gigantic surgical scar revealed. “Check it out, folks!” he seemed to be saying. “I’m cool with it, so you should be too.”
That’s why it was so shocking when he admitted to feeling out of sorts in his first training camp practices. It wasn’t a case of his repaired knee giving way, but rust and discomfort left Burrow unable to see the field in his normal clinical fashion. Among all his other remarkable traits, he appears to be brutally honest and was open about how he was struggling—as well as how it all cleared up later and is now fine, which reports from practice appeared to confirm.
Of course, we won’t really know how well the Franchise QB has healed until he starts winging passes around and, more to the point, starts dodging pass rushers and making the magic he did for the first nine weeks of last season. Which brings us to talking point 1A of the offseason: the offensive line.
Protecting Burrow is the priority, the team acknowledged. Yet, somehow, the Bengals went from “we’re going to draft a lineman with the No. 5 pick and sign a couple of top-flight free agents up front” to “eh, not actually.” As we all know, they passed on Penei Sewell (or Rashawn Slater) in order to draft Ja’Marr Chase, who can’t seem to catch (more on that in a second). That strategy was dependent on getting starting-quality linemen later in the draft, which didn’t happen, at least to this point. Three rookies do make up the second-string interior line—guards Jackson Carman and D’Ante Smith and center Trey Hill—and they’ve shown various levels of promise and inconsistency over the summer.
The free agency period netted just right tackle Riley (Great Barrier) Reiff, who is a clear upgrade from last year’s weak soup at the position but a 32-year-old vet whom the Vikings let walk. So somehow the Bengals are still fraught with question marks up front. Jonah Williams is presumed to be a rock at left tackle, but he’s played just 10 games in his first two injury-stricken seasons. Trey Hopkins, at best a decent center, comes back from his own ACL tear. And the starting guards, Quinton Spain and Xavier Sua-Filo, are castoffs whose ceilings are low, though they’re better than other guys Cincinnati put in there (like the recently discarded Buckeye combo of Michael Jordan and Billy Price). When they flub a play, it generally isn’t catastrophic; they’re able to recover and limit the damage. And the aforementioned young backups, who are almost certain to have to play at some point, have a combined 22 games among them, 18 of those belonging to swing tackle Fred Johnson.
How did this happen? Other teams, notably San Diego and Kansas City, attacked their offensive line issues by spending top dollars for the likes of Joe Thuney and Corey Linsley and taking linemen early in the draft. Cincinnati, well, didn’t. What they did instead was place an enormous burden on the talents of O-line coach Frank Pollack, who everyone loves but isn’t a miracle worker.
To the credit of both Pollack and the linemen themselves, the Bengals front line didn’t allow a sack in the summer’s three preseason games, save for a broken play when the ball was snapped and no one else moved. But taking much stock from the vanilla exhibition season is a fool’s errand. The true NFL test comes in the season’s first two weeks with the likes of Danielle Hunter and Kahlil Mack, not to mention multiple later doses of Myles Garrett and T.J. Watt. And if you’re an enemy defensive player, at this point there still (still!) isn’t anyone on the Bengals line who makes you quake.
Meanwhile, Chase, who was too good to pass up at No. 5, had a difficult, drop-strewn summer as he struggled to regain his football feel after opting out of the 2020 college season. Fortunately, the Bengals are strong enough at wideout to be able to move the ball as the rookie finds his footing, which is (don’t panic!) inevitable.
Incredibly, the unit that seems to be on sound footing is the defense. The Bengals were terrible defensively in 2020, in no small part due to a rash of injuries that left them trotting out street free agents at multiple positions. Cincinnati’s front office decided that depth was more important than star power. Yes, they brought in Trey Hendrickson when Carl (Always Injured) Lawson left in free agency, but otherwise they concentrated on building depth on the defensive line interior and in the secondary.
It still seems like a leap to think the Bengals will consistently play 19–16 games, but it isn’t impossible that the defense will morph from a glaring weakness to something near a strength. Last year, the Bengals D was actually top five in DVOA (Football Outsiders efficiency stat) in the first quarter before plummeting to 31st over the last three stanzas. In large part that speaks to depth issues, and Cincinnati seems better prepared in that area this season.
And let’s not forget the most important acquisition of the offseason: kicker Evan McPherson. The fifth-round draft pick was letter perfect with his booming leg in the summer. Can the Bengals, at long last, have a weapon at kicker? That would be a pleasant development.
Overall, it was a more eventful offseason than any in recent Bengals history. It didn’t necessarily reset the team’s fortunes, but it certainly kept everyone engaged over the many months without games. As for what is likely to happen in this season’s games, we’ll save that discussion for my official 2021 preview next week.