It’s good to know that in these crazy, unpredictable times, some things never change. Yes, the spanking new Joe Burrow Era, which filled the greater southern Ohio region with so much optimism lo these many pandemic-laden months, at long last began in Cincinnati on Sunday. And somehow it ended in much the same way games always seemed to end when Andy Dalton or Carson Palmer or Neil O’Frigging Donnell was quarterback—with defeat snatched from the jaws of victory in a previously unimagined and impossibly cruel manner.
You know the details by now. After getting rag-dolled by the L.A. Chargers’ impressive pass rush for the first half, Burrow, true to his scouting report, remained poised enough to lead the Bengals (trailing 16-13) down the field with impressive dispatch and efficiency in the final moments. He threw an apparent game-winning touchdown to A.J. Green in the dying seconds, but it was called back on a ticky-tack offensive pass interference flag. Then kicker Randy Bullock, usually automatic inside the 50, did his imitation of Elaine Benes dancing while spasming his short field goal attempt wide right. Bullock said he cramped up while kicking. Next time, have a banana before trotting out on the field there, Randeroo.
So much for the Hallelujah Chorus singing as Burrow trots off the field a winner in his first appearance at Paul Brown Stadium, en route to the Bengals turning magically overnight into the Steelers.
Now for the guarded optimism, beginning with the fact that it literally was Joe’s first time playing at PBS, with no preseason games to so much as rehearse walking in from the team bus to the locker room. Given the inherent lack of cohesion and timing with his teammates and that Green was back after a year and a half on the shelf and it was left tackle Jonah Williams’ first game as well, some sputtering was certainly expected. I know the dream was that Burrow would light up the NFL the way he did the college football playoffs back in January, but that wasn’t realistic given the circumstances.
Despite that, though, he played well. The traits that made him the top overall pick—especially his competitiveness, toughness, and leadership—shone through, especially in that final drive to nowhere. Almost as impressive was the audible he called that resulted in Cincinnati’s only touchdown, a quarterback draw that exploited a wide open middle of the field, with Burrow deftly using his blocker at the second level to get into the end zone.
Of course, he also had some rookie moments, notably an awful pick on a shovel pass in Chargers territory as well as an overthrow of Green that would have been a walk-in score, one that Burrow later said, correctly, a “high-schooler could have made.” Indeed, his sucking up of all blame post-game, in the manner of one Norman Julius Esiason, made you feel better about the mistakes, as Burrow displayed the characteristics that led his teammates to vote him as captain. Let’s just hope he has fewer occasions to do so in the future.
Despite Burrow’s promising afternoon overall, little was different from the frustrating team that went 2-14 last season. At the end of the day, the Bengals scored just 13 points. It was yet another touchdown-free second half, the 10th time that has happened in Taylor’s 17 games as coach (remember when we all railed against the lack of mid-game adjustments during the Marvin Lewis era?). For all the tremendous skill players Cincinnati supposedly is trotting out to support Burrow, their opening day numbers were extremely pedestrian (Joe Mixon’s 69 yards rushing was the high fantasy number for any back or receiver). The defense hung tough and showed signs of improvement, but then they did just that repeatedly in the early stages of last season as well, before the offensive ineptitude on a weekly basis wore them down and out.
One good thing is the team gets to wash away the bitter taste quickly, with the boys lining up Thursday night in Cleveland, a chance to not only put Sunday behind them but also to take some whacks at the hated big mouths to the northeast. The Brownies were poleaxed in Baltimore in the opener, which will likely happen to plenty of teams. But there is pressure on Cleveland, on Baker Mayfield, and on Odell Beckham, who is already the subject of trade rumors one week into the season.
Cincinnati will probably need to stomp the Browns, since they continue to find ways to drop the close ones. One of the precepts in the season preview I wrote last week was that the Bengals, mathematically speaking, were unlikely to lose every one of their one-score games again, as they did in 2019. Well, not so far. Zac Taylor is now 0-9 as a head coach in games decided by fewer than eight points. At some point, this isn’t statistical noise but a thing that matters. Perhaps we aren’t there yet, and the only way to describe this particular one-score loss is “fluky,” but it’s long past time the Bengals and Taylor win one of these tight games already.
We all know the definition of insanity, so that begs the question of who is more nuts—us fans for continuing to watch and cheer for this franchise or the staff for trotting out this sieve of an offensive line year after year? I mean, I knew Bobby Hart would get his lunch, brunch, and multiple midday snacks handed to him by Joey Bosa, thus significantly hampering any offensive scheme the Bengals wanted to deploy. Why didn’t Taylor, Brian Callahan, and Jim Turner? What does Hart have on Turner, anyway? For how long will we have to watch Burrow get walloped by Hart’s man to cry, at long last, “Enough!”
Meanwhile, there were so many other familiar pains for the Bengalphile. The newly rich running back committing a key turnover (Mixon’s fumble). The expensive free agent signing getting carted off the field in his debut (fortunately, D.J. Reader was only cramping up and came back in). The linebackers getting exposed (though they weren’t as brutal as last year, especially in tackling). And the lack of overall respect for the organization, exemplified not just in the call pass interference against Green (Michael Irvin never would have had a reception if they called him for what Green was flagged for doing) but in the next day reaction of the pigskin chattering classes. While a controversial OPI against the Cowboys was the top story in the NFL, Green’s penalty—which actually cost Cincinnati the game, unlike the one called on Dallas’ Michael Gallup—went mostly unmentioned. It was “Joe Burrow got Bengaled by his kicker.”
And that’s fair. Cincinnati hasn’t earned the national audience’s respect or attention. Burrow is here to put an end to that perception, which was created by decades of insipid play and cemented by screwing up countless winnable games, most notoriously the 2015 playoff nightmare. The fact that he wasn’t overmatched in his debut on the big stage, despite all that was stacked against him, is a great sign. The fact that he got Bengaled anyway, not so much.
Robert Weintraub heads up Bengals coverage for Cincinnati Magazine and has written for The New York Times, Grantland, Slate, Deadspin, and Football Outsiders and authored four books, including his newest, “The Divine Miss Marble” from Penguin Random House. You can follow him on Twitter at @robwein.