And while the team won’t say anything other than they’re attempting to win every game, the reality is, barring a stunner, the rest of the schedule is more about evaluation, development and long-term decisions.
When an organization falls into a hole like this, there is always a risk of handwaving issues and attributing it to the quarterback being out, which could create long-term problems for when he actually returns.
Add in things like draft position and developmental reps for rookies and there are certainly some best and worst-case scenarios worth examining as the Bengals finish out this season.
Best case: Draft positioning
Let’s get the easy one out of the way first: The Bengals could get a really nice draft pick with a handful of losses the rest of the way. There’s no such thing as tanking in the NFL (players have too much at stake to do it), but the team flirting with a top-10 pick could net them a blue-chip prospect at a position like offensive line or pass-rusher. Heck, even wideout if Tee Higgins leaves, but that would be a big risk.
Bengals fans are well-versed in this — each loss will have a sort of silver lining, if nothing else.
Worst case: The team makes excuses
It’s OK to be honest — this struggling defense probably wasn’t winning the big one anyway. And the offensive line? Not good enough.
The worst thing the Bengals could do, then, is shrug off these blatant issues and say things will get better when Burrow returns. And don’t say they would never do that — look at how they treated backup quarterback, running back and tight end last summer and how it has come back to bite them.
If they don’t address those spots, beef up the line, etc., and otherwise just hope Burrow fixes it all, the championship window might just slam shut.
Best case: Rookies break out
Now is the time for rookies to get run. It’s very, very hard to understate the importance of live-game reps for the development of new players.
On paper, this should mean big playing time for Charlie Jones if Higgins remains out. It should mean an uptick in play for Myles Murphy in the hopes he can really become that in-house solution to the pass-rush besides Trey Hendrickson.
When many of the problems on defense this year are experience, communication and chemistry issues after big personnel changes, these next seven games could be a sort of blessing in disguise.
Worst case: This is goodbye
Just like that, some major names could be playing their final games before free agency next summer:
The list goes on. That’s a big chunk of the core and given cap constraints, not everyone will be back. If they lose Reader, will they be able to find another game-changing replacement? If Higgins walks, is Andre Iosivas comparable?
Best case: Spoiler
Two things can be true: Better draft positioning is nice, but so would playing the spoiler.
If the defense can continue to mesh well and the offense is merely adequate, the Bengals could pull off a few upsets that cause chaos in the AFC. It would be fun to watch, if nothing else. Knocking a divisional foe from the playoff race for good would be good for the players, at least.
Best and worst: Burrow does/doesn't adapt
Burrow has missed a lot of time now. He’s not injury-prone, not when a couple of freak injuries and a natural life event (appendectomy) cause him to miss time.
But the hero-ball style comes with a price and we’re seeing it now. It’s not reckless, but Burrow himself admits it’s part of his play style and these are the consequences sometimes.
It will be interesting to see if Burrow dials it back a bit upon return when it comes to trying to escape and make plays. He takes too many hits and it’s not just on the offensive line. You solve this by diversifying the offense more and through Burrow’s own choices, but right now, everyone is experiencing the worst-case scenario.