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What Does Jake Browning’s Success Mean for Joe Burrow and the Bengals?

When Joe Burrow was lost for the season with a wrist injury in Week 11, optimism for the remainder of the Bengals season was in short supply, and it wasn’t hard to figure out why.  The offense had been inconsistent even with Burrow – what was it going to look like with Jake “One-Career Pass Attempt” Browning taking over under center?

And it wasn’t just the quarterback spot that was driving Bengals fans up a wall – the play-calling, the still-underwhelming offensive line, the big plays on defense…Burrow’s injury was an exclamation point on a maddeningly disappointing season.  Without him, the Bengals were destined to fall into the AFC’s gutter.  But incredibly, that hasn’t happened.  How is this possible?

Well, for one thing, Browning has been a revelation.  Sure, he had his struggles against a top-ranked Pittsburgh Steelers defense, but outside of that, he’s been money.  In his next two games following Pittsburgh (against Jacksonville and Indianapolis), Browning has put up Burrow-like numbers: 50 completions on 61 attempts (82%) for 629 yards and three touchdowns with just one interception (that wasn’t really his fault).  He’s been accurate, he makes good decisions with the football, and he plays with a confidence that belies his lack of reps.

In other words, Browning rocks, and he’s kept the Bengals afloat despite so many fans jumping ship back in November.  With Browning at QB, the Bengals playoff hopes are still alive – but this still begs the question: how?  How is Browning playing so well?  What does this mean for Burrow and the Bengals in 2024?

Let me make something clear: Browning is not better than Burrow.  He’s not even equal to Burrow.  The past two weeks have been magical, absolutely, but Joe’s job is not in danger.  Still, there’s a reasonable conversation to be had about how effective the offense has been under Browning, and whether that’s a sign that things need to change when Burrow returns.  

We have to start with the run game.  Yes, the run game, which was basically non-existent during the first twelve weeks of the season.  Since Burrow went down, the Bengals have leaned more on this semi-invisible part of their offense to great effect.  Joe Mixon continues to run hard, despite lacking the wiggle and burst to break tackles consistently, and rookie Chase Brown has burst onto the scene with game-breaking speed.  The thunder and lightning backfield has suddenly materialized, and it’s exactly what the Bengals needed.

But the running backs alone don’t get all the credit.  The Bengals much-maligned offensive line, which has been the source of so much frustration over the years, has been at their best over the past two weeks.  Their blocking has been central to the Bengals success on offense.  Whether it’s runs up the middle or screen passes out wide, the Bengals blockers have been moving people.  And when they’ve been asked to hold up in pass protection, they’ve given Browning all the time he needs (culminating with their first zero sack performance of the season against the Colts).

Of course, none of this would be possible without the coaching staff being at the top of its game as well, and that’s certainly been the case.  Ever since Browning took over, Zac Taylor and the rest of the offensive coaches have adjusted their game plan to suit Browning.  It’s the football equivalent of not trying to stick a square peg in a round hole, and the Bengals coaches have been masterful.

But what does this mean for the Bengals when Burrow returns?  Can the Bengals continue to have this same success with Burrow under center?  The obvious answer is yes, of course they can.  We’ve seen Burrow be elite.  He’s a top-five QB in the sport and has given the reigning top QB in the league, Patrick Mahomes, more trouble than anyone else.  However, for Burrow and the Bengals to be at their very best, the Bengals may have to ask their superstar to be a little more like his backup.

Now, what do I mean by that?  I don’t mean that Joe should lower his standard of play.  I don’t mean that the Bengals should suddenly transform themselves into a run-first team.  What I do mean, though, is that the Bengals coaches need to stop asking Joe to do so much.

When Burrow is under center, the Bengals like to play a certain way.  They line up almost exclusively out of shotgun, and they spread the field with their trio of outstanding receivers.  They utilize a quick-passing game in lieu of a run game.  The tight end position is minimized.  And their strict adherence to this style of play is hamstringing them.

Obviously, Burrow prefers to play this way.  He likes to see the whole field and use his outstanding processing ability to find the appropriate receiver.  And don’t get me wrong, if I was Taylor and the offensive coaches, I’d be building my offense around what my once-in-a-lifetime #1 pick likes to do too.  But if the last two weeks have taught us anything, it’s that Taylor and the offensive coaches have a few tricks up their sleeves.  They’ve been asking Joe to do everything because Joe is willing and capable – but to reach their ultimate ceiling, Joe is going to have to let the coaches do their thing as well.

When Burrow was at the helm this year, the offense was far too predictable.  Defenses keyed on the pass, knowing that the Bengals were reluctant to take the ball out of their star QB’s hands.  There’s always a time and place for letting Joe cook, but as a default strategy?  Compared to the Bengals offense under Browning, the difference has been night and day.

Browning does not have Burrow’s cache.  He wasn’t the first pick in the draft – come to think of it, he wasn’t drafted at all!  He doesn’t have Burrow’s natural ability.  He hasn’t accomplished anything close to what Burrow has.  But because of that, Browning isn’t walking into the offensive meetings and dictating what he wants to see week to week.  He’s letting the coaches develop a game plan that accentuates his strengths and minimizes his weaknesses, all while being perfectly curated to their specific opponent that week.

Moving forward, the Bengals need to be more committed to the run, even though that means taking the ball out of Joe’s hands from time to time.  It means a greater commitment to running plays under center instead of out of the shotgun.  It means more play-action and fewer traditional dropbacks.  It means allowing the coaches to really coach, instead of just offering suggestions to Joe as he chucks the ball around 50 times a game.

Make no mistake: the Bengals are absolutely capable of winning games with Burrow slinging the ball all over the yard.  But with Burrow around as a cheat code, they’ve gotten stagnant.  If the past two weeks have taught us anything, it’s that the Bengals don’t have to win that way.  They can shapeshift as needed.

If I’m the Bengals coaches, this offseason I’m making a point of asking Joe to become just as good playing under center as he is out of the gun.  If you believe as I do that Joe is a no-doubt franchise QB, then this isn’t asking much.  He’s got the talent, the competitiveness, and the intelligence to make it happen – and once it does, stopping the Bengals offense will be impossible.

I’m not pointing fingers here.  Like I said before, if I was Taylor and the offensive coaches, I’d have done exactly what Burrow wanted too.  It was a fast-track towards competing.  It got them to a Super Bowl.  The Bengals developed their haymaker quickly, but this next stage of Burrow’s development is about their counterpunch.  Burrow has always been capable. Next year, we should expect the Bengals offense to look a lot like it has the past two weeks – just with Joey B leading the way.  Browning just had to show us first.

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