The past few seasons have brought to the NFL an eternal optimism that, even without a classic, archetypal franchise quarterback, some kind of player-friendly schematic breakthrough can mask enough of a quarterback’s deficiencies to keep a team functioning at a playoff level.
It has also brought with it Joe Burrow, who, after Saturday’s 26–19 wild-card win over the Raiders, which gave the Bengals their first playoff win since 1991, proves that there is no greater lift to a moribund franchise than the arrival of an archetypal franchise quarterback.
We’re at a strange time in the position, where a wider array of possibilities have afforded coaches a broader spectrum of options from which they can win games. A Taylor Heinicke season, for example, is not an outlandish idea anymore. A maybe-let’s-see-what-Case-Keenum’s-got season doesn’t immediately dismiss a club from playoff consideration. Tyrod Taylor could get you to the playoffs. Under the right set of circumstances, Cam Newton, Taysom Hill and Jacoby Brissett could get you to the playoffs. Jimmy Garoppolo, Jared Goff and Nick Foles have played in recent Super Bowls.
Burrow, like Lamar Jackson and Josh Allen before him, is obviously different, in that the three of them have ushered in the kind of complete and total sea change that alters the trajectory of a franchise. We are not shaking up the academic world by making this point. But it is worth noting just how stark the difference between the two situations is. A year ago, the Bengals looked like a team holding a great player hostage. Now, they feature among the most efficient and complete offenses in football, with as good a chance to reach the Super Bowl as the Rams—a team that can compete in free agency at a time when veteran player movement is starting to resemble the star clusters of the NBA.
While remaking the Bengals from an image perspective will always be a tall order—owner Mike Brown has historically garnered a reputation as one who is reluctant to spend money or provide adequate resources, which is difficult to whitewash from the minds of prospective free agents, their contract advisors and all other stakeholders around the NFL—Burrow entered the NFL with the adequate gravitas and has spent the better part of two years backing it up.
His recovery from a knee injury and willingness to once again play behind an offensive line that left him as the most battered quarterback in football this year (Burrow was sacked a league-high 51 times this year) was nothing short of a triumph. His willingness not to secretly have his agent phone the Saints and beg them to yank him out of Ohio cemented him as a rare soul or perhaps a closet masochist.
On his first touchdown pass Saturday, Burrow hit tight end C.J. Uzomah on a seven-yard pass that, by recent, evolving-legend Burrow standards, would not have registered on a season highlight reel. The incredible thing about the throw was that Uzomah was not open by anyone’s measure. There was a player dropped in zone guarding an inside throw. There was a player in solid position to protect against an outside throw if Burrow had tried to stretch Uzomah’s frame and feed him like a post player. Yet, there was this instantaneous fearlessness
Burrow uncorked a pass that seemed to furiously rise and dip like a sinker due to the pure velocity. By the time Uzomah had completed the vintage Bengals tribute to Ickey Woods, the pass, the timing, the ball speed and the decision making were an afterthought.
The same could be said for Burrow’s sideline play with Ja’Marr Chase throughout the night, attacking the thin, soft spots in a pass-centric Raiders defense that prioritizes forcing the quarterback into consistently difficult throws.
In Cincinnati, it should never be an afterthought. Ever. This is a team that tried, for so many years, to survive at the quarterback position. The Bengals attempted good enough. Before that, they squandered elite talent, seeing it wilt at the hands of the same forces that could have easily swept Burrow away too, destined for a better career elsewhere.
As if this weren’t obvious enough now, the Bengals cannot let this opportunity go to waste. They cannot let this quarterback go unappreciated. Franchises can spend half centuries between quarterbacks who can expertly take over a game the way Burrow can. They cannot let something this good slip away.
For now, the team has guaranteed its fan base at least one more week to appreciate his gifts.