The Bengals’ Future Rests on Joe Burrow’s Shoulders

Rookie quarterback Joe Burrow faces more than just on-field pressure. He could be responsible for the future of the franchise.

Joe Burrow is a professional athlete, which means that while you and I were couch-slouching our way through the pandemic, he was hard at work getting his body ready for the National Football League. The Cincinnati Bengals’ rookie quarterback looked in social media photos like he’d been crushing his delts, as the gym rats say. His shoulders appeared broad enough to threaten the width of most doorways inside the team complex at Paul Brown Stadium. That’s good, because there is quite a bit resting on Burrow’s shoulders as his career in stripes begins.

Illustration by Jason Schneider

By the time you read this issue, Burrow will have played his first games for the Bengals. He’ll have stepped to the mic to sing an aria with little rehearsal time, thanks to the COVID-canceled offseason practices and preseason games. While most rookie quarterbacks, especially ones asked to start right away, are granted semi-mulligans in Year 1, Burrow will be learning the toughest position in sports on the fly while carrying the expectations of a city on his newly swole physique.

Back in July, Burrow was asked—over Zoom, of course—about the pressures of being viewed as the franchise savior. “I try not to pay any attention to all that stuff,” was his response. That’s cool. But everyone else is.

Joe Burrow grew up in Athens, Ohio, and played briefly for the Ohio State Buckeyes before transferring to LSU, where he won the Heisman Trophy and the national championship last year.

Cincinnati’s status as an NFL city is hardly guaranteed. The highly controversial sales tax used to fund construction of Paul Brown Stadium remains a sticky issue with most local citizens, even devout fans of the team, and the 30-year lease the Bengals signed with Hamilton County is set to expire in 2026. Keeping the team in town will almost certainly require a major cash infusion to upgrade PBS, if not build an entirely new stadium, and the appetite for public funding of such rarely-used edifices has dwindled mightily in recent decades—even before the budgetary decimation brought on by COVID-19. The issue has become something of a, uh, political football in November’s election to fill a Hamilton County Commission seat, and the upcoming negotiations between the county and the Brown/Blackburn family are likely to be fraught.

One thing does seem clear: A few more seasons of bad football will do nothing to strengthen the team’s position or to boost civic pride in the Bengals, especially given the optimism surrounding Burrow’s arrival. If the Heisman Trophy winner falls flat as a pro, as many other top-flight collegians have done when playing for pay, the collective groan will roil the Ohio River, and ownership’s dreams of again filling Paul Brown Stadium will sink under the current. Cries of “Let them go!” will be heard across the Cincinnati region.

Last year’s giant swaths of empty seats at PBS were no doubt galling to the Brown/Blackburn family, and a few more seasons of “same old Bengals!” fan indifference will only give ownership incentive to seek out greener pastures elsewhere. Ironically, this season’s near or total prohibition on fans at games might actually salve the situation in the short term, giving Burrow and teammates some breathing room to improve without having to gauge success by gate receipts in addition to wins and losses.

But make no mistake, a reckoning between city and team is coming. If Burrow can develop into a star and help ensure the Bengals remain in Cincinnati, then it’s fair to already call him the most important player in franchise history. And that’s before he scarcely has the chance to throw a pass. Not even Atlas had to carry that kind of weight on his shoulders.

Robert Weintraub writes a weekly Bengals column for Cincinnati Magazine.

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