Photo Credit: AlexanderJonesi, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
It’s the doomsday scenario that we all knew was possible but pretended to ignore. As the Cincinnati Bengals approach their Week Three contest against the Los Angeles Rams in a rematch of Super Bowl LVI, the status of star quarterback Joe Burrow is in doubt. After missing the entirety of training camp with a calf strain, Burrow tweaked his calf again in the Bengals last offensive drive this past Sunday versus the Baltimore Ravens, and his status is, according to head coach Zac Taylor, “hard to know.”
Ruh roh, Raggy. This isn’t what anyone envisioned. After starting the season 0 - 2 for the second consecutive season, the Bengals are staring down the barrel of an 0 - 3 start that would almost certainly eliminate them from playoff contention (historically, if not mathematically). The Rams were thought by many to be in “tank mode” following their historic, post-Super-Bowl collapse in 2022, but it appears the memorial on Matthew Stafford’s career was written a little early. The Rams are back to being a dangerous offense, and with Aaron Donald causing problems on defense, this is a terrifyingly balanced team facing the Bengals this Monday.
With a healthy Burrow in the fold, this would be an easy choice, despite the 0 - 2 start. You would have to like the Bengals in this one. Burrow is superior to Stafford, Cooper Kupp is out, and the defense that terrorized the Bengals in the Super Bowl has been almost entirely liquidated – oh yeah, and that pitiful Bengals O-line has been remade too! On paper, the Rams don’t seem to have many advantages…but if Burrow isn’t available, things start to even out.
We all know Burrow is tough. He’s going to do whatever he can to play on Monday night. But the fact that Burrow could play is a much different proposition than whether he should play. He’s already re-injured his calf once – what happens if he tweaks it a third time?
Some have speculated that Burrow could end up on the Injured Reserve, which would give him an opportunity to fully heal. There’s some wisdom there: the Bengals can’t hope to win the Super Bowl without their QB, so why risk losing him for the year? Sit him ‘til he’s right, and then hope the Bengals have enough in the tank for a playoff run with eleven games remaining.
Here’s the problem, though: the Bengals are already 0 - 2. One more loss could kill the season anyway. There’s a history of 0 - 2 teams making the playoffs (heck, the Bengals did it last year), but 0 - 3? That’s a much bigger challenge, and one that’s hard enough without a hobbled QB. And even if they did make the playoffs after starting 0 - 3 (which would be a remote possibility), no team that has started 0 - 3 has ever won the Super Bowl. In fact, among the six teams that have accomplished the feat, everyone lost in the Wild Card Round, except for the 1992 San Diego Chargers.
The backup QB situation in Cincinnati does not inspire confidence. It’s either Jake Browning (who has never taken a snap in a regular season game) or the recently signed Will Grier (who has started two games). No matter who the Bengals choose to ride with, he’s a massive downgrade from Burrow. The Rams will be licking their chops.
So, let’s say the Bengals end up putting Burrow on IR (which, to be fair, there has been no indication yet). What should we expect? What will their record be over those four games? Is there any hope left? Let’s break it down:
Los Angeles Rams @ Cincinnati Bengals (9/25/2023)
Burrow sitting could be a big problem for the Bengals in this one. The Rams were written off as a non-contender, but Stafford appears to be re-energized, rookie receiver Puka Nacua has taken the league by storm, and head coach Sean McVay continues to demonstrate his offensive play-calling wizardry.
McVay has also consistently found ways to scheme open his young wide receivers, whereas Taylor has…not. Now, I’m not one to go on play-calling rants, but I think we can all agree that the Bengals offense has been in shambles for two weeks. If Taylor can’t find a way to give his backup QB a chance to make easy completions, the Bengals will be hard-pressed to keep up with the Rams offense.
Likely Scenario with Burrow out: Bengals lose to go to 0 - 3.
Cincinnati Bengals @ Tennessee Titans (10/1/2023)
The Titans like to run the ball. The Bengals have not been good at stopping the run through two weeks. But, if last year’s matchup is any indication, the Bengals might have a plan in place to slow Henry, who finished with just 38 rushing yards. The Titans have also suffered a ton of attrition along their offensive line and currently field one of the least talented groups in the league. The Bengals should capitalize…right?
Of course, the Bengals defense has hardly capitalized on any opportunities so far this season. After getting bullied by Wyatt Teller and the Cleveland Browns offensive line in Week One, the Bengals were unable to take advantage of a depleted Ravens line in Week Two. Forgive me if my optimism levels are a little low, but after what I’ve witnessed the first two weeks, can you blame me?
Likely Scenario with Burrow out: Bengals lose to go to 0 - 4.
Cincinnati Bengals @ Arizona Cardinals (10/8/2023)
Let’s face it: the Cardinals are tanking. Now, they’ve been a lot more competitive than many of us expected, but there’s no mistaking it – the Cardinals are more interested in landing the #1 pick than making a half-hearted attempt at a playoff run. Given the massive talent disparity, the Bengals should win this running away.
Keep in mind, though, that Cardinals QB Kyler Murray, who is currently rehabbing after a torn ACL last year, can first return against the Bengals in Week Five. If he suits up, that shifts the balance tremendously. For the first time in over two years, Bengals defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo didn’t seem to have an adjustment for what Jackson was doing Sunday. Murray brings a lot of those same skills to the table, and the Bengals better have an answer ready, or this could easily become another loss minus Burrow.
Likely Result with Burrow out: Bengals win to go to 1 - 4
Seattle Seahawks @ Cincinnati Bengals
Out of these four opponents, the Seahawks are the best on-paper. They are extremely balanced, with a QB in Geno Smith who has the ability to throw to all levels of the field and the maneuverability to extend plays, an explosive and powerful run game, a trio of excellent receivers, and a young, speedy defense. They can give the Bengals fits even with Burrow in the lineup.
There isn’t much we can glean for the previous matchup between these two teams, either. Russell Wilson is no longer a Seahawk and Andy Dalton is no longer a Bengal. Both defenses have experienced almost total turnover. Still, the coaching staff on both sides, in large part, remains. Despite their recent success, you still have to give the Seahawks the advantage over the Bengals in the coaching department. Ole’ Petey does have a ring, after all.
Likely Result with Burrow out: Bengals lose to go to 1 - 5
So, there you have it. If Burrow goes on the shelf for four weeks, I expect the Bengals to go 1 - 3. That will basically kill their season. They dug themselves out of a 0 - 2 hole last year to reach the playoffs, but they could be 1 - 5 following this stretch. Their margin for error has vanished. Maybe the Bengals can find a way to right the ship without their captain, but reality could see Burrow’s injury sink the Bengals season in short order.