The Bengals failed Joe Burrow, and the NFL is worse for it

In this new era of elite quarterback preservation, we were supposed to be beyond this.

We were supposed to be through with the days of the injury cart ferrying off the most prized franchise commodity, often to the disgust of every competitor on the field. Rule changes were made for this. Offensive philosophies were augmented. Equipment was enhanced. All in the name of extending the longevity of special talents — in the hopes that guys like Patrick Mahomes, Kyler Murray and Deshaun Watson can all play into their 40s.

But as the Cincinnati Bengals have taught us this season, the NFL can go only so far to protect the best parts of the league’s product. The NFL can penalize defenseless hits, dirty shots and earhole-slapping concussions — but it can’t force franchises to build the right way around a quarterback. It can’t dictate scheme tweaks that are meant to preserve the future. And it sure as hell can’t fix bad management.

If the NFL could, maybe it could have changed what happened to Joe Burrow on Sunday. But it can’t, leaving the Bengals to finally break the best thing they had going for them. It’s not just bad for a Cincinnati franchise that can’t seem to protect anything nice but also terrible for the NFL, which is trying its damndest to preserve special quarterbacks who can resurrect franchises and become centerpieces in the next phase of the game.

Through the first nine games of his professional career, Burrow was looking like that kind of guy. Now, the left knee of the No. 1 overall draft pick is shredded — in the midst of a rookie season that had often seen him exposed by both his scheme and the surrounding talent.

Cincinnati Bengals rookie quarterback Joe Burrow yells in pain while on the ground after injuring his knee.

Why was Joe Burrow injured if NFL is focused on protecting QBs?

Since the infamous destruction of David Carr’s career in Houston nearly 15 years ago, NFL teams were supposed to be past this kind of thing. After all, the league had spent the better part of the past decade legislating out much of the violence that was destroying quarterbacks. Not just because it wanted a higher-scoring and more exciting product (which it does), but also because it wanted to protect the most important and highest-paid investments that good franchises have.

The underlying ideology was hard to argue: Healthy quarterbacks are good for virtually everyone, including the fans who consume the product.

There has always been a flip side to the league’s efforts. And it required really only one thing from teams. When a franchise is blessed with a quarterback who can dramatically alter its future for a decade or more, handle him with care.

The league can’t legislate stupidity out of the system. So it has been incumbent upon team owners, general managers and head coaches to make sure they do their part with their defining quarterbacks. If they have someone special under center, do everything they can to preserve him — both schematically and from a roster-building standpoint.

The Bengals screwed that up in 2020. Plain and simple.

That’s how you ended up with Burrow’s left knee getting folded under him Sunday, in a moment that cast a pall over much of the league. In the third quarter, Washington defensive tackle Jonathan Allen (who was being held, no less) slammed into Burrow and then rolled over the quarterback’s pinned leg.

The outcome was as instantaneous as it was brutal, leaving Burrow writhing in pain and Allen sitting next to him on the turf shaking his head in disgust over what had happened.

Few things telegraph how screwed up a quarterback injury is more clearly than the defender who had a part in it reacting the way Allen did. Just like Dak Prescott’s ankle injury earlier this season, pretty much everyone knows the gravity of a season-ending injury to a franchise quarterback.

Zac Taylor defiant over Joe Burrow injury, offensive line’s struggles

Don’t think the Bengals don’t know it, too. Cincinnati head coach Zac Taylor seemed to express a moment of defiance after Burrow’s injury on Sunday, when he shot back at criticism over his team’s offensive line. It’s worth wondering how much of the emotion was tied to Taylor sensing the microscope that is coming.

“We gave up a lot of pressure in the beginning of the season,” Taylor said after the loss to Washington. “In these last couple weeks, our guys have done a great job of keeping people off Joe. He’s had a great pocket. He did not have a sack in the first half. The hit, as I saw it, wasn’t with the ball in his hand. People keep talking about the offensive line without seemingly watching the film for the last four weeks. Again, those guys have done a good job, it’s been a revolving door of players [and] they have been doing a great job. Joe has done a great job moving us down the field. We felt like we were making a lot of progress over the last five weeks, and we are not going to apologize for any of that.”

Frankly, that’s a weird angle on this injury. Probably best not to mention the revolving door at offensive line after your franchise quarterback suffered a blown-out knee in a game that saw him throw an absurd 29 passes in the first half. People might question whether you could have possibly drawn up the game plan differently. That is, unless you view a 50-plus pass attempt game a good thing behind a “revolving” offensive line.

Nobody is asking Taylor to apologize for progress on the offensive line. But he can absolutely make progress while also adjusting his scheme to protect a quarterback behind a shuffling line that has not been remotely consistent this season.

Maybe Taylor should apologize to Burrow for not running the ball on that third-and-2 play that got Burrow injured, while throwing a deep ball against a blitz.

Maybe Taylor could apologize for calling an offense that put Burrow on pace to smash Andrew Luck’s record for rookie pass attempts (which again, isn’t a record a team wants to achieve behind this line).

Maybe Taylor should apologize to Burrow for him being the second-most sacked quarterback through nine games, including a litany of sledgehammer hits that came after releasing the football.

Or maybe Taylor should apologize for the start of Burrow’s 2020 season unfolding in a similar fashion to that of Carr, including taking 72 hits heading into Sunday. A situation so concerning, Carr himself has commented on Burrow’s duress multiple times since he was drafted in April.

Similarities to David Carr, Carson Palmer injuries

If anyone isn’t getting the point here, the aforementioned comparisons aren’t a good thing for Burrow. On one hand, you have Luck, a former first overall pick whose punishment and litany of injuries forced him into early retirement at 29 years old. And on the other, you have Carr, a promising former first overall pick who took so many hits and sacks the first three years of his career that he never looked right again. Both of these guys had their careers unquestionably altered by schemes and offensive lines that exposed them to a staggering number of hits.

Sound familiar?

At some point in all of this, team owner/general manager Mike Brown has to have some kind of institutional memory here. Perhaps he should have recalled what Carson Palmer’s knee injury did to that promising career in Cincinnati. Or Brown should have had the presence of mind to understand that a franchise quarterback has to be protected inside the build. Sometimes from himself. Sometimes from the head coach. And always from the percentages that expose him to more danger when the offensive line is swapping out players from one week to the next.

Then again, maybe Brown could have prepared for this better like the other NFL team in Ohio, the Cleveland Browns, which had an offensive line that was an atrocious mess in 2019. The Browns spent last offseason upgrading both of their tackles, while adopting a scheme that was heavily predicated on running the football and incorporating tight ends in their protections. Basically, all of the things that might have helped Burrow this season.

The Browns figured it out. The Bengals didn’t. Now, Joe Burrow is injured and none of this is a revelation. For months, there has been a chorus of voices bellowing about that line and the exposure of Burrow inside the scheme. At some point, something bad was bound to happen. And then, it did.

It happened in a game against a Washington team that was largely meaningless, creating a problematic injury for Burrow that is anything but. The NFL is left to again ponder that it can protect a franchise quarterback only to a certain point. After that, failure falls on the team. Sometimes, it lands right at knee level.

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