“Confidence…thrives on honesty, on honor, on the sacredness of obligations, on faithful protection and on unselfish performance. Without them it cannot live.” – Franklin D. Roosevelt
Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow, 2020’s NFL wunderkind until he shredded his ACL in Week 11, is an interesting study.
2019’s Heisman Trophy winner, Burrow was trotted out to start immediately by the Bengals in 2020 – who had few other options, really – despite the obvious fact the team was undergoing a substantial rebuild. Burrow’s injury and subsequent languishing on IR were most likely not part of that rebuilding process, but it bears asking – where’s the wisdom in starting a rookie QB, no matter how talented, behind a suspect offensive line in what was most assuredly a transition year? This isn’t to say Burrow would’ve been idle all season, but the Bengals could’ve been more judicious in doling out his minutes, at least through the first half of their schedule. By leaving him exposed, they’ve risked the possibility that their blue-chip, highly-touted franchise-icon-for-the-next-decade may never be the same. Given the travails of this franchise under third-year coach Zac Taylor, including accusations of playing locker room favorites and fostering a “college atmosphere”, this hardly seems prudent for a franchise seemingly set on reinventing itself into a contender.
To be clear, the Bengals don’t have a “dilemma”, really. It’s more of a mandate to invest in their offensive line, if only to keep Burrow upright long enough for him to read through his first receiving option. Burrow was sacked 32 times through 11 games, but the amount of pressure and subsequent movement he had to undertake resulted in his getting hit far too often – 72 times, a record-setting pace – especially on dumpoff passes and quick reads, where his sightlines were normally limited anyway.
The Bengals, to be fair, have been adding youth to their offensive line, with first-round selections in 2018 (C Billy Price) and 2019 (T Jonah Williams). Price has been a bit underwhelming and Williams suffered a season-ending injury before his rookie year, so neither had much time to mature into the starting-caliber forces they will supposedly become before Burrow came along. It should be noted player assessment data was faulty across the NFL last season; the robbery of a preseason by COVID-19 forced many clubs to rush rookies and younger players into starting roles ahead of schedule, without the benefit of training camps and open competition for starting positions. To say the Bengals had no choice wouldn’t be correct, but their options were certainly limited by the pandemic, and the talent base, presumably, just wasn’t ready to provide Burrow with the consistent protection he needed.
The team’s made progress in free agency with the signing of surprise Vikings castoff T Reilly Reiff, who would immediately start at RT if the current depth chart holds. The Bengals are widely expected to select standout T Penei Sewell in April’s draft, and his addition would presumably push Williams into a swing tackle role, which he appears versatile enough to handle until eventually (and presumably) taking over for Reiff, a nine-year veteran. The interior could possibly stand an upgrade as well, although Price and LG Michael Jordan are solid enough to maintain their starting jobs for the time being.
It appears the Bengals are now cognizant of the fact that Burrow will probably need additional protection this season as he re-establishes his confidence not just in his team, but in his knee as well. His rehab is supposedly ahead of schedule and his NFL future pre-injury was certainly positive, so given the team’s apparent commitment to improving his protection, he should enjoy a solid second year. But as we know, this is the Bengals, whose run of just plain old bad luck has been among the league’s most notable.
Good luck, Joe. Here’s hoping you don’t need it.