Joe Burrow’s charmed NFL career has been disrupted by injury – torn knee ligaments, an appendectomy, and his recent calf strain have sidelined him at various points – and marred by postseason heartbreak.
Burrow’s Bengals rank third in the AFC in victories over the past two seasons. Only the Chiefs and Bills won more games, and Kansas City alone climbed higher in the playoffs. In February 2022, Burrow sprung Tee Higgins for a 75-yard touchdown on the first snap after halftime in Super Bowl LVI. But he absorbed seven sacks, Cincinnati’s offense sputtered, and the Rams found the end zone with 1:25 left to win 23-20.
The Bengals eliminated Josh Allen’s Bills last winter, but Patrick Mahomes outdueled Burrow in the AFC title game on a sprained right ankle. Flagged for roughing Mahomes out of bounds with eight seconds left, Cincinnati pushed the Chiefs into field-goal range to lose by the same agonizingly thin margin.
The Bengals orbit around Burrow. He just signed the NFL’s richest contract, reportedly extending in Cincinnati for an average annual value of $55 million. Considering what he’s accomplished, a Super Bowl breakthrough seems inevitable, but it’s never guaranteed.
Besides Mahomes, Jalen Hurts is the only quarterback in Burrow’s peer group – the twentysomething MVP candidates – who’s reached the Super Bowl. Allen, Justin Herbert, Lamar Jackson, and Trevor Lawrence are the QBs close to his level aiming to conquer the AFC.
That’s been achievable for Burrow since 2021, when he rebounded from the ACL and MCL tears that shortened his rookie campaign to become elite.
Smart, accurate, and efficient, Burrow ranks third in passing TDs (69) and fourth in yards (9,086) over the past two seasons on the NFL’s eighth-most attempts. Geno Smith is the only QB he trails over that span in completion percentage (69.3%) and completion percentage over expectation (4.6), per Ben Baldwin’s data. Burrow’s favorite targets rank sixth (Ja’Marr Chase), 16th (Higgins), and 34th (Tyler Boyd) in receiving yardage over that period.
The start of Burrow’s career rewrote NFL history. He owns the top completion rate (68.2%) and put up the most 400-yard games (five) across a quarterback’s first three seasons in the league. Only Herbert, Andrew Luck, and Peyton Manning amassed more passing yards from Years 1-3, and Burrow bested Luck and Manning in yards per game, according to Stathead.
Almost everything clicked for Burrow in 2021 and 2022, but his setbacks mirrored the ones Dan Marino endured.
The NFL’s MVP and first 5,000-yard passer in 1984, Marino carried the Dolphins to the Super Bowl in his second season. Miami lost that game and the following year’s AFC title matchup in blowouts, then proceeded to miss the next four postseasons. Marino appeared in one more conference championship and retired in 2000 as the greatest ringless QB, a label substantiated by Pro Football Reference’s Hall of Fame Monitor rating.
Fran Tarkenton, Philip Rivers, and Matt Ryan never won a Super Bowl either. Manning and Drew Brees both required nine seasons to summit the mountaintop. Burrow’s battles with his sensational AFC QB cohort will determine how many shots he gets to triumph.
Burrow’s offensive line, the weak link in Super Bowl LVI, was revamped over two free-agent frenzies. Center Ted Karras and right guard Alex Cappa had decent debut seasons in Cincinnati even though the 2022 Bengals received PFF‘s No. 30 team pass-block grade. Charged with allowing a league-high 12 sacks at left tackle, Jonah Williams was bumped to the right side when Orlando Brown Jr., a perennial Pro Bowler, signed for $64 million in March.
Defensively, the Bengals bent but rarely broke in 2022, allowing the NFL’s fourth-fewest touchdowns per game. Strong against the run but 29th in sacks, they drafted edge rusher Myles Murphy at No. 28 overall to complement Trey Hendrickson and Sam Hubbard. Safeties Jessie Bates and Vonn Bell moved on as free agents after combining to intercept eight balls. That puts pressure on Daxton Hill and Nick Scott to shut the door and force turnovers.
Seeded third last season, the Bengals could rise or slip within the AFC. They have the talent to deny Mahomes a repeat championship and stop Allen, Herbert, and Jackson from clearing the hump. Lapsing a little could force them to fight for a wild-card berth in a conference filled with postseason hopefuls.
Burrow’s imminent raise makes this a pivotal juncture. His cap percentage is 5.1% in 2023, per Over The Cap. His cut will grow substantially when the extension kicks in.
The starting QB for 11 of last season’s 14 playoff qualifiers cost less than 10% of the cap. Teams that deploy such a passer get to spread the wealth throughout the lineup. Cap constraints force sacrifices that only a special QB can offset. Mahomes, one of the expensive outliers in 2022, did that by leading the Chiefs to the Lombardi Trophy on his bum ankle after star wideout Tyreek Hill was traded to Miami.
Key decisions loom in Cincinnati. The NFL’s least valuable franchise as appraised by Forbes will have to spend big to keep its playmaking nucleus intact. Higgins and Boyd are pending free agents. Chase becomes eligible to sign his own lucrative extension next offseason.
The Bengals may be prepared to deal with the crunch. PFF ranked Cincinnati first in the league in “cap health” before Burrow signed his megadeal, praising the franchise’s three-year outlook. Derided for decades as cheap, team owner and president Mike Brown has started to loosen the purse strings, guaranteeing $219 million of Burrow’s salary and $31.1 million of Orlando Brown’s four-year pact.
Hendrickson and nose tackle D.J. Reader are the only Bengals whose cap hits exceed $15 million this season. Per Spotrac‘s calculations, Chase’s market value is $24.9 million and Higgins is worth $22.7 million annually. Those negotiations will test Mike Brown’s commitment to keep the core together.
For now, fifth-year head coach Zac Taylor’s squad faces the Browns on the road Sunday and hosts the Ravens in Week 2. Clashes with the 49ers and Bills immediately follow Cincinnati’s Week 7 bye. In the back half of the schedule, the Bengals visit the Ravens, Jaguars, Steelers, and Chiefs.
The AFC North looks deep. The Ravens enhanced Jackson’s receiving corps in the offseason, the Browns field superstars in Nick Chubb and Myles Garrett, and the Steelers think Kenny Pickett is about to level up in the quarterback’s second year. Burrow went 1-1 against each opponent in 2022 to bring his middling career divisional record to 7-8.
Straining his right calf in July upended Burrow’s preparation for the season. He’s used to that happening; Burrow has led one preseason drive in his pro career. COVID-19 nixed the exhibition slate when he was a rookie, and an emergency appendectomy kept him out of last year’s training camp.
Ultimately, that procedure wasn’t a hindrance. Pro Football Reference’s Simple Rating System, which uses point differential and schedule strength to assess team quality, regards the 2022 Bengals as one of the five strongest teams in franchise history. They had what it took to vanquish Mahomes, but they didn’t finish the job.
The dynasty that downed Marino’s Dolphins in the Super Bowl – Joe Montana’s 49ers – also beat the Bengals in two title games in the 1980s. Burrow brought Cincinnati back to the big stage. His attempts to repeat the feat and win it all next time will be fun to watch.
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