Joe Burrow
Gerald Herbert/Associated Press

Will Joe Burrow Thrive in Cincinnati?

With a 2-14 record last season, I would not have held it against Joe Burrow if he had pulled an Eli Manning and refused to play for the team with the first overall pick.

The Bengals record last year was no fluke, either. Following a 12-4 record in 2015, Cincinnati has gone 21-42-1 in the past 4 seasons. Their first season with new head coach Zac Taylor saw a league-worst record, as mentioned above. On the bright side, that abysmal 2019 record scored them the first pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, where they chose LSU signal-caller and Heisman Trophy winner Joe Burrow.

Burrow was phenomenal at LSU in 2019, but as we know, it is damn-near impossible for a rookie quarterback to take carry a team that had a 2-14 record the year before. The Bengals are nowhere close to “a quarterback away”, and Burrow will bear the brunt when Cincinnati’s dysfunction starts to show.

As described at length in one of my previous posts, a rookie quarterback needs a massive amount of support to be successful early on. If that support is not there, a team runs the risk of ruining a quarterback’s entire career. While this is obviously something that is not in the best interest of the player, surely no team wants to effectively waste a first-rounder, especially the first overall pick.

So, will Joe Burrow’s potential be wasted in Cincinnati? In order to get an answer, we’ll examine the four major areas needed for a young quarterback’s success.

Offensive Play Calling and System

Zac Taylor had a terribly difficult first year as a head coach, but also as an offensive play caller. The Bengals offence managed just 5169 yards of total offence in 2019, ranking 26th in the league. The passing game was particularly stagnant, managing only 18 passing touchdowns (ranked 28th in the NFL) against 16 interceptions.

Taylor was something of a strange hire in the first place. Much like Freddie Kitchens, Zac Taylor’s job the year prior to being a head coach was as a quarterbacks coach. Even though he worked under Sean McVay, one of the league’s rising stars as an offensive play-caller, there is absolutely no way that someone with no NFL experience as a coordinator should be hired as a head coach. The Freddie Kitchens experiment has proven that.

Taylor’s management of the offence was horrible in 2019. In a week 14 matchup against the Cleveland Browns, the Bengals made their way to the redzone five times but managed only a single touchdown by Joe Mixon. This included a turnover on downs on Cleveland’s 2-yard line. All season, Taylor chose to put unnecessary pressure on a struggling group of quarterbacks instead of looking to one the Cincinnati’s only bright spots: Joe Mixon.

Maybe I’m wrong, but Taylor looks in over his head. It was clear last season that he is not qualified to call the offence, let alone be a head coach.

Offensive Line Play

While Mixon is a top runner in the NFL, the offensive line left much to be desired in 2019. The group is bottom-5 in the league in every credible ranking. They managed only 3.9 yards a carry last year and 1.7 yards before first contact. They also allowed 48 sacks. The return of Jonah Williams may help with the group’s overall success, especially in pass protection, but we have yet to see how Williams will even translate to the NFL after he was sidelined for his entire rookie season with a torn labrum.

Joe Burrow had a great offensive line at LSU, but when he did see pressure, he dealt with it better than almost anyone in the FBS. Burrow also showed great escapability. While he does not have top-end athleticism, he did a great job of getting out of pressure and keeping his eyes down the field, often finding wide-open receivers in the process.

While he was able to do this at LSU, the college level is much different than the NFL. It is unlikely that Burrow will have the athleticism to be able to consistently extend plays the same way in the NFL. It is even more unlikely that if he does manage to escape the pocket, that receivers will be wide-open. In order for Burrow to overcome a sub-par offensive line in the NFL, he will need to make much tighter throws under much more pressure.

Offensive Weapons

On a brighter note, the receiving core for the Bengals is actually not half-bad, in theory. AJ Green was once one of the most electric receivers in the NFL. At 32 years old and with an extensive injury history, however, it is unlikely that he will reclaim his elite status. In 2019, he missed the whole season due to torn ligaments. In 2018, Green missed 7 games with a toe injury. It is not looking good for this season, either. Green has yet to practice in pads with the Bengals in training camp, apparently recovering from a tweaked hamstring.

Despite Green’s lack of durability, Tyler Boyd stepped in to become the Bengals’ number one pass-catcher. In 2019, he caught 90 passes for 1046 yards and 5 touchdowns. Tee Higgins is also an intriguing rookie. Higgins had an outstanding career at Clemson, hauling in 135 passes for 2448 yards and 27 touchdowns in his 3-year college career. John Ross, who will probably be the number 4 receiver, has the kind of speed that an OC loves to work with. Even if the intention is not actually to throw the ball to him, defences would be stupid to not respect the deep pass anytime he is on the field. Make no mistake, Ross is a bust. After being picked ninth overall in 2017, Ross has managed only 49 catches for 716 and 10 touchdowns despite his eye-popping athleticism. That being said, Ross may be a great decoy to have on the field, simply because his speed makes him a credible deep threat.

The Bengals’ receiving core is one of the bright spots on the team this year, even if AJ Green cannot stay healthy. It seems to me that if Green is able to play a significant role this season, Burrow will be more than happy with his receivers. Even if Green struggles with injuries this year, Cincinnati’s receiving core is more than capable.

Defence

Cincinnati’s defence was awful last year. The unit allowed 6.1 yards per play on their way to ranking 29th in total defence. Despite last year’s horrible showing, though, the Bengals have done a decent job in free agency and the draft. The team signed five projected starters including stout defensive tackle DJ Reader and former Vikings cornerback duo Mackensie Alexander and Trae Waynes. These signings are not team-changing by any means, but the addition of 5 starting-calibre players is a big improvement for this particular unit. On top of the team’s success in free agency, they also spent four picks on linebackers and defensive ends. Logan Wilson (LB, Wyoming) will undoubtedly contribute in year one with his rare mix of size, athleticism and ball skills. Khalid Kareem (DE, Notre Dame) will also add some versatility and depth to the defensive line.

My contention is not that the Bengals will be a top-10 defence in the NFL this year – they very well might still be in the bottom half of the league. That being said, if they are even 5 spots better than last season it will pay dividends in the pressure that it takes off of Burrow.

The Consensus

In my evaluation, the Bengals only have one area of support that is able to take pressure off of Joe Burrow. The receiving core will be decent and the defence may be marginally good, but the offensive line and play calling leaves much to be desired. Unless the Bengals can sure up their offensive line, and Taylor takes a HUGE step as a play caller in 2020, I don’t see how this is an acceptable situation for Burrow.

I want him to succeed, I really do. I just think that the odds are stacked against him in a big way. I hope that Joe Burrow does not have his career wasted in Cincinnati, but I cannot see him succeeding until they get rid of Taylor and address their offensive line issues.

The sky’s the limit for Burrow, I just hope that he is given a reasonable opportunity to reach it.