After yet another uninspiring, ugly loss, the Cincinnati Bengals find themselves 1-3. It’s the worst start for the franchise since Joe Burrow‘s rookie year where they started 1-2-1 after four games. Burrow and his offense looked terrible. The Bengals defense could not get off of the field or make any stops. It’s time to start asking difficult questions and having difficult conversations.
Heading into the year, Cincinnati was among the Super Bowl favorites. After four weeks, they’re struggling to do anything and don’t resemble anything close to a playoff team.
It’s Time for Some Difficult Conversations, Bengals
Protect Burrow From Himself
The most obvious thing about Burrow and this offense is the fact that the franchise quarterback is nowhere near 100%. He continues to reassure the media that his calf “feels good.” However, the fact remains that this is by far the worst version of Burrow we’ve seen in the NFL.
Through four games, Burrow has thrown for just 728 yards and two touchdowns while completing just 61.7% of his passes, by far the worst of his short career. He’s been sacked eight times which, to be fair, is on pace for 34 this year and the fewest over the last two full seasons.
Burrow’s calf is not healed. Those soft tissue injuries are notorious for being difficult so no matter if Burrow thinks he’s okay, it’s still affecting him. He has not been able to roll out, buy time and extend the play, or just take off and run. He may not be Lamar Jackson but Burrow can scoot when healthy. This year? He’s a statue back there. Even worse is the fact that he was 1/9 on passes travelling 20+ yards entering the day and missed on his only two deep attempts in Week 4. He is clearly affected by the calf.
Burrow is a competitive individual. However, no matter how poorly Jake Browning plays, he likely would not have been much worse. The Bengals have the worst offense in the NFL with just 236 yards and 12.3 points per game. With the bye in Week 7, there is a decent case to sit Burrow for the games against the Cardinals and Seahawks to make sure he’s as healthy as he can be for the back half of the schedule. Either way, this Bengals offense is Andy-Dalton-in-Primetime bad.
Offensive Line Still Not Good
Compounding a hurt Burrow with an offensive line that is still struggling is a dangerous game. Sure, this unit is better than anything they put on the field in Taylor’s tenure but putting lipstick on a pig doesn’t change the fact that it’s still a pig. And boy does this unit squeal.
This year, while blocking for Burrow, the offensive line has allowed a pressure on 20.4% of snaps and has allowed eight sacks in four games. Last year, that rate was 16.5% but allowed 2.6 sacks per game. In 2021, it was 24.5% and 3.2 sacks per game. Thankfully for Burrow, his pressure-to-sack ratio is down but when he’s hobbled, it feels like he’s getting hit on each play. Against the Titans, that number skyrocketed to 34.3% and he was pressured 12 times and hit seven.
With the signings of Ted Karras, Alex Cappa, and Orlando Brown, Jr. over the last two seasons, these are not the results the Bengals are looking for. Jonah Williams, through four games, has not been fantastic but he’s actually graded out as the top offensive lineman for Cincinnati with a 61.5 PFF grade. Karras (60.7) follows Williams with Brown (57.1) and Cappa (55.5) behind. Cordell Volson, with his awful 0.0-rated performance against the Rams, is rated at 38.4.
The idea was that the Bengals could be a contender with even an average offensive line. With all of those resources spent on protecting Burrow, there have been conversations about whether or not Frank Pollack is the answer. Sure, he’s better than Jim Turner was but being better than a coach who should never have been in consideration for an NFL job is not saying much.
The Season’s Not Over…But…
Starting off 1-3 is about as close to a worst-case scenario for the Bengals. While the schedule is not technically as difficult as it was last year, according to Tankathon, they have the fourth-hardest remaining schedule in the NFL. Realistically, there are only a few routes the Bengals can go.
The first option is to shut Burrow down through the bye. It’s not happening, obviously, but it would allow Burrow to get as healthy as possible. The benefits of this decision, along with Higgins’ injury, the Bengals could be as close to healthy as can be for a run at the playoffs. The drawback is what if Jake Browning is awful and Burrow inherits a 1-5 team after losses to the Cardinals and Seahawks? The season would be too far gone at that point.
Another option is to just shut Burrow down for the year. Also, not happening. However, this season is looking more and more lost as the weeks go by and if the Bengals want to retool the roster, unofficially tanking then trading back to stockpile picks to get a youth movement could be the move. Again, this is not going to happen.
Finally, the Bengals can keep going as is and reassess the situation each week. The issue is the fact that Burrow is obviously not 100% and the offense just cannot get going. Even injured, Burrow is a better quarterback than any other quarterback they could start.
The season is 17 games. Only four have passed. Righting the ship is not impossible but it is growing more and more improbable. The social media noise is not reality but the boos raining down on the hapless Bengals on Monday Night Football against the Rams were. If the loss to Tennessee were to have happened in Cincinnati, it would have been worse.
The Bengals are at a crucial moment in the season. Are they going to regroup and rally as they have done in each of the last two years? Or are they going to lie down and look towards 2024?
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