The Bengals have two question marks behind Joe Burrow

Russ Heltman

The backup quarterback position is one of the biggest conundrums in sports because it's simultaneously irrelevant and crucial. Every year we see a few NFL teams keep their fortunes afloat or sink based on the play of their backup.

The Saints relied on Teddy Bridgewater's steady play for five games last year and it helped them win the NFC South, while the Steelers would’ve made the playoffs with a competent backup quarterback. It’s important to have a quality backup signal-caller.

When you look across the NFL landscape, not many teams have great backup quarterbacks, but it's clear Cincinnati has one of the worst groups in the league. Training Camp is a few weeks away and the Bengals haven't added any new blood to compete with Ryan Finley and Jake Dolegala for the backup job.

Head coach Zac Taylor says the team is “set” at quarterback. He has a few weeks to change his mind.

Joe Burrow stayed healthy at LSU, but he's dealt with injuries dating back to his time at Ohio State.

The first man off the bench in the event of a Burrow injury would probably be Finley, whom Bengals fans might praise forever when we look back on his rookie performance 20 years from now.

He completed 41-of-87 passes for 487 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions in three starts. Finley averaged 5.4 yards per attempt. To put that in perspective, Bears signal-caller Mitch Trubisky averaged an NFL worst 6.1 yards-per-attempt. Steelers quarterback Mason Rudolph averaged 6.2 yards-per-attempt.

The nadir of the Finley experience came in Week 11 against the Raiders. The NC State product completed 13-of-31 pass attempts for 115 yards and an interception against a defense that gave up the eighth-most yards and sixth-most touchdowns to opposing quarterbacks last season.

Finley is already 25-years-old, which means he’s close to his athletic peak. Velocity was his biggest issue last season. Arm strength doesn't magically improve in the NFL.

Andy Dalton was healthy during those fateful three weeks in November. If he had played, Bengals fans might’ve gotten to see what Tua Tagovailoa or Justin Herbert looked like in stripes. Alas, Finley tanked it to perfection, making it hard to trust him if Burrow went down.

Right behind Finley is another second-year player in Jake Dolegala, who used a nice performance against the Colts in last year's preseason finale to earn a roster spot. Dolegala is the all-time leader in passing yards and touchdowns at Central Connecticut State.

He didn't take the field during the regular season, but completed 37-of-53 of the passes he threw in the preseason for 347 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions for a passer rating of 100.1. That solid play kept Dolegala on the team, but watching his start against Indianapolis, he was never dominant or in full command of the offense. Similar to Finley, the velocity was inconsistent and he struggled to process quickly after the snap.

A comfortable backup situation helps the locker room overcome an injury to their starting quarterback — not only physically, but also mentally. The players need to feel like they have a chance to win with the guy that’s under center. Finley didn't have that in 2019, while Dolegala never got a chance to show it.

One of these guys could develop and take multiple steps forward in 2020, but with the pandemic upending everyone's lives, that's hard to bank on. Now that Joe Flacco signed with the Jets, the only viable backup option left on the market is Blake Bortles.

Bortles has been the definition of average as a starting quarterback. He’s completed 59.3 percent of his passes in six NFL seasons. He has 103 touchdowns and 75 interceptions in 78 games. Those numbers haven't wowed anyone enough to give him a deal, but they represent a massive upgrade over whatever Finley and Dolegala can offer at this point in their career.

On top of baseline play, Bortles has a wide range of experience to help guide Burrow early in his career. The former LSU captain has always been a strong presence wherever he goes, but it's hard to be the unquestioned leader of a team and learn the nuances of NFL football at the same time.

Bortles has won a playoff game and came within a few yards of going to the Super Bowl. That experience would benefit a young Bengals’ roster. All signs pointed to him being a positive presence in the Rams’ locker room while backing up Jared Goff last year. Bortles would have no problem adjusting to Zac Taylor’s playbook.

The backup quarterback is like home insurance or an epi-pen — no one wants to use it, but it's better to have a reliable one. Bortles has malfunctioned before and still saved the day, Finley and Dolegala can't even get the system up and running.

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