True to form, Bengals rookie quarterback Joe Burrow didn’t take long to let NFL fans know he will return from a torn ACL suffered during Sunday’s game against Washington.
Burrow was one step ahead of the social media reaction to his injury.
Thanks for all the love. Can’t get rid of me that easy. See ya next year✊
— Joey Burrow (@JoeyB) November 22, 2020
The No. 1 pick in the 2020 NFL Draft showed promise this season that goes beyond the stat sheet. Burrow displayed all the intangibles — the toughness, swagger and leadership — that made him a Heisman Trophy winner and national champion at LSU. Despite a 2-7-1 record, the Bengals have a franchise quarterback to build around.
It’s now on the team to do the building.
The Bengals have been down this path before with a No. 1 pick. In 2005, Carson Palmer led the NFL with 32 touchdown passes. Cincinnati finished 11-5 in his second season as a starter. Then the tenor of his career changed when the Steelers’ Kimo Von Oelhoffen barreled into his knee during an AFC wild-card game on Jan. 8, 2006.
Palmer suffered two torn knee ligaments and a dislocated kneecap. He played five more seasons with the Bengals but had a 29-41 record as a starter and made just one more playoff start.
It’s Cincinnati’s responsibility to make sure that does not happen again.
That starts with the offensive line. Burrow took 32 sacks in 10 starts this season. The hit against Washington wasn’t a sack — it was a fluke play, in fact — but it looked too much like the hit that knocked out Palmer. Burrow also took four or more sacks in four games. That can’t happen again, either. Cincinnati coach Zac Taylor defended the line’s progress after the loss to Washington:
That is not an adequate response. The Bengals will still need to make upgrades and invest in that future. Look at Aaron Rodgers. He took 84 sacks in his first two seasons as the Packers’ starter. He has taken 47 sacks in 26 games — less than two per game — under coach Matt LaFleur. Protecting the franchise quarterback is always the No. 1 priority, especially as they get older.
The Bengals can look up the road in Northeast Ohio and see what better protection can do for an offense. Cleveland signed Jack Conklin and drafted Jedrick Wills last offseason. They brought in offensive line coach Bill Callahan. The results speak for themselves.
The Browns are 7-3 and have a dominant running game with Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt, but there are still questions whether Baker Mayfield, the No. 1 pick in 2018, is the right quarterback for the franchise.
The Bengals do not have such questions at quarterback. Burrow is the guy; there should be no doubts about that.
Cincinnati does not have to be a place that ruins quarterbacks, either. Ken Anderson and Boomer Esiason won NFL MVP awards there. Burrow can do that, too, if he’s given the right offensive setup. Palmer was playing close to that level before the injury against the Steelers.
Burrow can be even better in 2021 if Cincinnati can get that setup in place. It should be good at the skill positions. Running back Joe Mixon, who has played in just six games this season, should be healthy. Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd have emerged as solid receivers, and the team is no longer dependent on A.J. Green. But there is room to get better.
Improvement is necessary to keep up in an AFC North where the other three teams should make the postseason in 2020.
Burrow has proven in less than one season he has the “it” factor to keep Cincinnati in that arms race with the Browns, Ravens and Steelers. What is more, he is embracing the challenge.
He is ahead of the game, even as a rookie. He has the potential to be better than Palmer, Anderson or Esiason, too. He’s that good.
It’s on Cincinnati now to make sure that happens.