The Bengals Have Invested in Joe Burrow—Now, Will They Invest in the Franchise Around Him?

Will the Bengals build the kind of team, and become the kind of franchise, worthy of their new quarterback?
Author:
Updated:
Original:

Sixteen years after taking Carson Palmer with the No. 1 pick, the Bengals are back atop the draft hoping to find the long-term answer—this time in LSU quarterback Joe Burrow.

Despite early rumblings that Burrow would stage a coup similar to that of Eli Manning, despite reported attempts from other clubs to move up to the No. 1 spot to snag the pick, despite the fact that the team bottomed out under first year head coach Zac Taylor in 2019, the Bengals opted to set a new course for their franchise by selecting the Heisman Trophy winner.

Leading up to this year’s virtual draft and the potentially condensed season to follow, there brewed an idea that taking a quarterback would be a fool’s errand. Coaches will not have the same hands-on time. There is a good chance that rookie minicamps will be virtual, or nonexistent altogether. A pivotal acclimation period between a player and the new teammates he’s supposed to corral will be short and manufactured at best.

But the bigger question for the Bengals is whether they will continue to operate like the Bengals of old. In support of Taylor, the team finally found themselves in whiffing distance of free agency’s top spenders, doling out more than $130 million in contracts—the third-most behind only the Dolphins and Lions. While spending in free agency doesn’t typically signal a healthy roster, it is an indication that the franchise is willing to create a viable foundation, something that the Bengals have been accused of not doing in the past.

When it became clear that Burrow had elevated to the top of the 2020 quarterback class, Palmer spoke out on a radio appearance, warning anyone who would listen that he felt like the team was simply treading water. The difference, he said, between the Bengals and Cardinals was stark.

So it goes for the Bengals, who may interpret tonight as the greatest indication that they have to change before the results do. It took a Sisyphean effort over the course of nearly two decades by Marvin Lewis to overhaul the roster and identify some foundational pieces, but even then the organization was not able to secure a playoff victory. Over the past few seasons, as NFL teams have begun to utilize new analytics and technology to push their franchises forward, Cincinnati is often regarded as one of the slowest to adapt and invest in the future.

In comes Burrow, whose circuitous route to the top pick in the NFL Draft has contributed to his unique combination of poise and humility. Like Baker Mayfield in Cleveland, Burrow represents a breath of fresh air for a woebegone Ohio-based franchise in search of identifiable star power both on and off the field. In recent months, he’s broken down the perceived thaw between himself and the organization and seems ready to embrace the massive lift ahead.

Will the Bengals respond in kind by treating Burrow unlike any franchise quarterback they’ve had before?

Everything You Need to Know About the NFL Draft: Sign up for Sports Illustrated’s newsletters and get complete NFL Draft coverage and analysis—delivered right to your inbox.