The past 48 hours have been a serious storm for the Cincinnati Bengals, and for good reason.
In the aftermath of Joe Burrow’s devastating, multi-ligament knee injury on Sunday against Washington, the Bengals have taken a blizzard of criticism. Fate was building toward this moment given all the unnecessary punishment Burrow absorbed behind a porous offensive line.
Over the first nine games of the season, Burrow, the No. 1 overall pick and the team’s future, took a league-high 72 hits. It didn’t take long for Burrow to start being conscious of the punishment he was taking.
Earlier this season against Philadelphia, Burrow purposely went to the ground instead of trying to extend the play. It was the first time I saw Burrow, a cocksure, creative playmaker with flair and a bright future, take the “L” on a play instead of trying to make something happen. I worried that it was the kind of thing you see a young quarterback do when they’ve been hit too much.
And for that, I blamed the Bengals’ front office, specifically team owner Mike Brown, and you should, too. They knew their offensive line was bad last year, and despite the millions they spent on defense in free agency to improve that side of the ball, the offensive line did not receive any significant fortification, aside from the return of 2019 first-round pick Jonah Williams. And yes, we should also blame the coaching, including o-line coach Jim Turner.
It was clear after last season that without a consistently strong ground game to relieve pressure on the passing game, Burrow would likely take a lot of punishment, especially since Cincinnati plays in a super-competitive division. The Bengals finished 24th in rushing DVOA last season and again, they didn’t really improve the o-line this offseason.
That’s not always a death knell for young quarterbacks now. Some Hall of Famers took beatings as young quarterbacks and made it through just fine, including Troy Aikman and Peyton Manning. But many others, including Patrick Mahomes, Russell Wilson and Lamar Jackson, have been dropped into situations with solid offensive lines and immediately fared well.
These questions are inescapable: Why would a franchise risk putting its star young quarterback in unnecessary danger if it can be avoided? Why wouldn’t it prioritize shoring up the protection and giving him the pieces he needs up front early to avoid another David Carr or Andrew Luck situation?
That’s the lesson the teams currently jockeying for a top-two pick in next spring’s draft — where prizes Trevor Lawrence and Justin Fields await — need to take from Burrow’s injury, and the avalanche of criticism that the Bengals are buried under. Protect your most important asset by investing in the offensive line via the draft and free agency.
Period, point-blank, end of story.
It’s a message that one team in particular that seems destined to draft Lawrence or Fields, the New York Jets, would be wise to heed. While the Jacksonville Jaguars, who currently own the No. 2 pick at 1-9, have an average pass-blocking offensive line, the Jets’ unit is easily one of the worst in football (2020 first-round left tackle Mekhi Becton notwithstanding). Hopefully the Jets recognize it and don’t risk their future in the same way the Bengals did.
As for the Bengals, well, the only good news for them is that, as ugly as the injury is, Burrow will eventually make it back. After all, if Alex Smith can return from an injury one of his doctors described as “warlike,” an NFL quarterback can return from just about anything. Remember, Carson Wentz also returned from a complicated multi-ligament knee injury, and so did Teddy Bridgewater.
But … it could take a while. It’s a 9-12 month injury, which means that even if he heals like the Marvel character Wolverine, it’s still a stretch to assume he’ll be full go by the start of the 2021 regular season.
And if that proves to be the case, that could dramatically alter the competitive timeline of the Bengals, who will be entering Year 3 of coach Zac Taylor’s stewardship and thus, need to be showing signs of meaningful improvement in an extremely difficult division. It’s hard to imagine that happening without Burrow, who the Bengals cannot afford to rush back.
It’s an unfortunate pickle to be in. Yet, it’s one the Bengals brought on themselves. Here’s to hoping that when one of the league’s brightest young stars at the NFL’s most important position returns, he’ll be doing it with the type of help around him that he should have had from the start.
More from Yahoo Sports: