The Sword of Damocles that teetered over the Bengals franchise since the moment Joe Burrow was drafted first overall in April fell on Sunday, in the form of the catastrophic injury we all dreaded but quietly suspected was somehow inevitable. Partly because the O-line was as solid as polenta. Partly because the scheme demanded he drop back to throw it as much as any quarterback in the NFL. And partly because this is the Bengals, and rooting for this team is simply spreading your legs to make the inevitable kick in the nuts that much easier.
Maybe it’s the COVID death shroud that continues to hover over the country, but my initial thought in the wake of Burrow’s injury, after the nausea subsided, was that this was yet another year off my life where my No. 1 team of rooting interest won’t be doing anything. Morbid? Sure. That’s what being a Bengals fan does to you.
Then, as has happened so many times in my life, I went to bed and tossed and turned for hours, unable to dispel the image of Joey B.’s knee getting nuked from my mind.
I guess the good news is that such an injury isn’t nearly as concerning as it was even when Carson Palmer suffered his similar knee explosion—and the fact that Burrow wasn’t hurt at the hands of the Steelers is about the only surprising thing about this. DeShaun Watson blew out his knee as a rookie and is just fine. Carson Wentz stinks this year but his mobility and athleticism weren’t affected by his knee injury. Teddy Bridgewater and Alex Smith were on the verge of amputation, for God’s sake, and that was Smith beating the Burrow-less Bengals on Sunday while Teddy has been playing well for a couple of seasons now.
It doesn’t make anyone feel better in the moment, perhaps, but torn knee ligaments are no longer horrific injuries by NFL standards.
Meanwhile, the usual suspects raced to point fingers at anyone and everyone ever associated with the franchise. You don’t need me to re-litigate the blame game nor recount the failings of what the Bengals have done and continue to do.
Just a couple of points, however. The “Why don’t they max protect to maintain the asset?” crowd was out in force in the aftermath of Burrow going down, and there is a fair question about why head coach Zac Taylor hasn’t inherited Sean McVay’s penchant for play-action out of jumbo sets more often. But Burrow lit up college football working mainly from empty, spread sets; he’s extremely comfortable with them. Given that, and the COVID-limited pre-season time, it makes sense that the offense would be tailored around Burrow’s strengths. Quick reads and the resulting hyper-accurate throws are what make him special, and it was working—especially in the first half of the Washington game, where Burrow sliced up the WFT in that type of scheme. You can’t in good faith fault the staff for trying to maximize its chances for winning games, even at the potential expense of long-term damage to its best player. They have jobs to keep, after all.
The “We need to run it much more often” trope doesn’t pass muster particularly well, either. You know what team runs it to a fault, especially on first down, to protect its rookie quarterback? The L.A. Chargers. And that’s a big reason why their record is so bad, despite the strong play of Justin Herbert. He’s playing behind a weak, makeshift O-line and is taking a pounding, but so far he’s been able to stay in one piece. Should he suffer a horrible injury, it will be interesting to see if the Chargers coaching staff and franchise receives the same abuse.
Of course, had Joe Mixon been healthy for the Washington game or any others over the last month, certainly the Bengals would have been passing a little less. But he, too, is hurt. Lost in the Burrow hell is the fact that Cincinnati has yet another key contributor whose injury timeline runs from “He’s day to day” to “He may miss one game” to “We’re holding him out one more week to be cautious” to “Well, maybe one more” to “He’s going on IR” to “See you when we see you.” Was letting “the other Joe” run it a dozen times to kill off the Baltimore debacle several weeks ago a factor in his injury? Hard to say, but if that wasn’t protecting Burrow, I don’t know what was. And yet now both players are hurt anyway.
The glare on Burrow’s recovery will be intense, so perhaps he’ll be the exception, but the endless injuries and the seemingly worsening nature of so many of them make you wonder if anyone in the training room even has a medical or sports science background. The cavalier treatment of injured players in Cincinnati goes back decades—at least they aren’t playing on a strip of concrete painted green anymore. But this is getting absurd.
Also ridiculous is the fact that the Burrow calamity marks yet another first-round draft pick not to be able to play out a full schedule. The Curse of David Pollack has claimed multiple impact rookies. You have to go back to Kevin Zeitler in 2012 to find a first-rounder who managed to make it through all 16 games, a feat so un-Bengal-like the team let him walk rather than re-sign him. The dark cloud that hovers over this franchise spans the horizon.
So now what? The final six-pack of games have gone from must-see to must-avoid without Burrow. Ryan Finley is presumably the starting QB—or perhaps Brandon Allen, which likely won’t be any better—and Finley’s inability to play quarterback in 2019 was a great aid in allowing Cincinnati to finish with the worst record and select Burrow. Now he’ll do his best to ensure that the Bengals pick high enough in the 2021 draft to select a dominant tackle, namely Oregon’s Penei Sewell, considered a generational prospect akin to what Myles Garrett was for D-linemen when he was selected first overall by Cleveland.
The bad news is that Sewell opted out of the college season and declared for the pros, so you can’t get any joy from watching him the next few weeks and envisioning him in stripes, the way Burrow tantalized us all last winter. The good news is at least that means he can’t get hurt—at least in a game setting. I have no doubt that, considering the current fortunes in Cincinnati, Sewell will trip and fall down a flight of stairs or lop off a finger trying to grab a drone.
We will have plenty of time to assess the draft in the coming weeks, as once again the season is over before Thanksgiving. Sadly, this time the main area of assessment will be doctor’s reports and rehab progression markers. It just makes me want to vomit all over again.
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.