Dissatisfaction is nothing new to Bengals fans, who have unwaveringly supported an organization that lost two Super Bowls in the 80s, experienced a decade of futility in the 90s, then finally strung together seven playoff appearances in the 2000s, only to come up short every time. Joe Montana’s drive, Carson Palmer’s knee, Jeremy Hill’s fumble. Heartbreak after heartbreak after heartbreak.
Excitement is rare in the Queen City. But outside of 2005 and 2015, this season was the most fun one I can remember. That’s why last Sunday was so devastating.
Watching Joe Burrow grasp at his left knee on the FedEx Field grass ripped the heart out of my chest. 10 weeks of promise and development was over in the blink of an eye, before I even had the chance to truly appreciate it for what it was.
It felt like the organization finally had what it needed: a player who was capable of making up for all its flaws and then some. An organization that refuses to modernize and hire a GM or develop a Ring of Honor; an organization that won’t invest in an indoor practice facility; an organization that doesn’t typically prioritize free agency; an organization that stubbornly believes what it believes, regardless of the consensus opinion; an organization that is known for its failures as opposed to its successes; an organization that national talking heads warn potential #1 picks to avoid at all costs.
Despite all of that, we finally had someone who made people believe, those in the locker room and those in the stands. Someone that everyone rallied behind, on a local and national level. Someone who didn’t feel like a fluke, with whom you didn’t even have to consider how things could go wrong. It was just good. And it was exhilarating.
Then came last Sunday.
When Burrow made that fateful throw and those Washington defenders collapsed on his knee, it wasn’t just the star rookie who went down. It was Zac Taylor. It was Jessie Bates. It was Tyler Boyd. It was the entire organization, which very well may not win another game until Burrow heals.
It was the NFL, too. Rookies have taken over the league this year, few more so than Burrow. His absence will be noted league-wide.
This stretch of games was supposed to be a preview of what is to come from the Bengals and Burrow. Facing beatable opponents, two-thirds of the way through the season, the offense firing on all cylinders. Instead, it’ll be an ugly extension of the 2019 season.
This wasn’t a playoff team. But it was an exciting team that was led by an exciting player, and Cincinnati hasn’t had that in a long time. I liked having something to believe in, and I just wasn’t ready for it to be over, man.
I’m talking like Burrow will never play another snap for Cincinnati, which is entirely overdramatic. Injuries heal, and he’ll be back. But it’s unclear just how long the rehab will take. The team’s hope is that he’ll be ready for next season, but a specific timetable won’t be known until the doctors can examine the extent of the structural damage during surgery.
The biggest bummer to all this is how it will stunt Burrow’s development next season, should he return then. I think Joe Goodberry sums it up perfectly here, which explains why the injury was so unfortunate.
We wanted him to be a better player in year two. We wanted him to get his arm stronger. Get time to throw in camps. A preseason this time! Instead, he'll be rehabbing his knee and wearing a brace into the season. Just being the same is now the expectation. https://t.co/le7YtwbsnS
— Goodberry (@JoeGoodberry) November 25, 2020
There have been players who come back from similar injuries and perform well. Alex Smith, Teddy Bridgewater, and Carson Wentz all overcome equally horrific injuries, earned starting jobs, and performed well. Jimmy Garoppolo and Deshaun Watson have bounced back from ACL tears in impressive fashion, too.
But regardless of our expectations or the team’s desires, it’s important that Joey B. takes all the time he needs. Whether it’s 2021, 2022, or 2030, that’s a guy worth waiting for.
Let’s shift our focus back to the present, where today, the 2-7-1 Bengals host the 3-7 New York Giants. Don’t let their record fool you, the G-Men are in the thick of things in the NFC East.
I’ve got some notes about the matchup, but like usual, let’s catch up on some Bengals news from the week.
Brandon Allen is your new QB1
Yep. Instead of going with Ryan Finley, who had been Burrow’s backup all season, Taylor’s elected to roll out practice-squader Brandon Allen. It seems that the Bengals have seen all they need to see of Finley, who added a horrendous relief appearance versus Washington to his unimpressive NFL resume.
In three starts with the Denver Broncos last year, Allen went 39/84 for three TDs and two INTs, winning one game and losing two. He inherits an offense with some dynamic playmakers in Tyler Boyd and Tee Higgins, but it’s hard to expect much production from this Cincy offense moving forward, especially in Allen’s first start.
Reports of dysfunction abound
On Tuesday, Sports Illustrated’s Elise Jesse published a report detailing some toxic behavior from within the Bengals locker room.
There are comments from anonymous sources alleging some absolutely putrid insults from the mouth of defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo and displays unfair favoritism from offensive line coach Jim Turner.
One person compared the locker room vibe to that of a college program, and several insist they aren’t buying what Zac Taylor continues trying to sell.
Here’s the story if you’re interested in reading more:
The Bengals locker room culture includes- Abusive language towards players, trust issues, and zero accountability according to multiple sources. https://t.co/CY8QA2mVYJ
— Elise Jesse (@EliseJesseTV) November 24, 2020
Taylor and Giovani Bernard refuted these claims in press conferences this week, but where there’s smoke there’s often fire. Four wins in two seasons have to wear on a team.
Auden Tate and B.J. Finney were placed on and subsequently removed from the Reserve/COVID list
Along with the alleged toxic culture, COVID-19 continues to linger in the Bengals locker room. Earlier this week, both Tate and Finney were added to the COVID-19 list; however, Saturday afternoon, both were removed.
Tate emerged as a sure-handed receiver for Burrow this season, and you might remember Finney as the player Cincy got in exchange for Carlos Dunlap (who’s been absolutely dynamite for Seattle, recording three sacks in three games).
WR Auden Tate, OL B.J. Finney removed from Cincinnati's COVID-19 list.
— Ben Baby (@Ben_Baby) November 28, 2020
Both will be available for the game today.
Deshaun Watson offers Burrow words of encouragement
The QB of the Bengals’ Week 16 opponent, who also suffered a torn ACL his rookie year, offered some valuable insight into Burrow’s injury.
Deshaun Watson extends his well wishes to #Bengals QB Joe Burrow.
— Vanessa Richardson (@SportsVanessa) November 24, 2020
It’s time. Take a deep breath, strap on your best walking shoes, and join me on the exhausting trek that will be the last six games of this Burrow-less season.
Bengals/Giants talk coming just as soon as I see ya next year…
Thanks for all the love. Can’t get rid of me that easy. See ya next year✊
— Joey Burrow (@JoeyB) November 22, 2020
Four things to know
1. The Giants are battling for a playoff spot. When you think of competitive divisions, you probably think of those with good teams. Like the NFC West that features the likes of the Seahawks, Cardinals, and Rams. Or perhaps the AFC North, which is stacked with the Steelers, Browns, and Ravens. But the NFC East, paced by the 4-7 Washington Football Team, is out to flip that narrative on its head.
All it takes to get in the playoffs is a better record than anyone else in your division, even if that record is 8-8 or 6-10. If New York wins today, it would be huge for its playoff hopes.
2. The Bengals offensive line gets a bit healthier. Bobby Hart will be back in the lineup at RT today and RG Xavier Sua-Filo will be back next week, per Taylor. That’s good news for Allen, who will undoubtedly see lots of pressure from opposing defenses.
Here’s a projection for the line this week from ESPN’s Ben Baby:
If I had to guess on a Bengals OL this week, I'd place my bets on Williams-Spain-Hopkins-Redmond-Hart. We'll see on Sunday.
— Ben Baby (@Ben_Baby) November 27, 2020
That means Hakeem Adeniji ought to be a swing tackle off the bench, and Michael Jordan and Billy Price will back up the interior positions.
3. The Giants have an underrated defense. Though their record might not indicate it, New York has put together a solid defensive season. They allow 100 rushing yards per game, a mark that’s sixth-best in the league, and opposing offenses are recording around 23 points a game on them. The pass defense is about even with the Bengals, but New York has a lockdown corner in James Bradberry. The former Carolina Panther signed a three-year contract worth $43.5 million, which, in hindsight, was one of the best signings of the free agency period. He’s given up just 31 receptions on 56 targets this season, recorded three picks, and defended 14 passes. He’s been a thorn in the side of opposing team’s wide receivers, so I’ll bet A.J. Green and Tee Higgins see a lot of him today.
If you want a glimpse of what he’s capable of, take a look:
James Bradberry is ranked second in the league for most pass breakups this season with 1️⃣4️⃣! @brad_B21
— NFL (@NFL) November 28, 2020
4. Gio Bernard is questionable after being limited in practice due to a concussion. It would be an unfortunate week for Gio to miss, as the running backs ought to get tons of work today with Allen under center. He was a full participant in practice on Friday but enters today questionable to play thanks to a concussion. Regardless, Taylor seems to think he’ll be out there.
Bengals coach said Zac Taylor feels good about Gio Bernard's status this weekend. Will find out more this afternoon but an optimistic answer.
— Ben Baby (@Ben_Baby) November 27, 2020
And if he’s not, it’ll be the Samaje Perine and Trayveon Williams show.
Three players to watch
1. Tyler Boyd, Bengals WR
It’s no secret Boyd had developed an excellent rapport with Burrow; the duo had connected on 69 completions for 710 yards and three scores before Burrow’s season ended. He was the rookie’s main target on the downs that mattered most, and that chemistry will be impossible to duplicate with anyone else at QB.
Last year, in Ryan Finley’s three starts, Boyd’s stat line looked like this: 12 catches/163 yards/1 TD. If anyone in this offense devoid of Burrow and Joe Mixon can produce, it’s going to be Boyd. But that may be a big if.
2. Daniel Jones, Giants QB
Jones will be the key factor in either a Giants win or loss. He’s prone to turnovers and has made some embarrassing blunders in his short career. He’s thrown nine interceptions to eight touchdowns this year but has gone back to back weeks without committing a turnover.
There have been some flashes, certainly. He’s effective with his legs and ranks fifth in the NFL in passing grade on throws 10+ yards downfield. He’s got some solid weapons in Sterling Shepard, Darius Slayton, and Evan Engram. But if he slips into his old ways and turns the ball over a few times, he’ll give Cincy a solid chance at winning this game.
3. Wayne Gallman, Giants RB
Forced into action when Saquon Barkley went down with an ACL injury earlier this season, Gallman has filled in admirably. His yardage hasn’t been particularly impressive, but he’s gotten it done when it matters, scoring five touchdowns in the past four weeks. If New York gets in close on Cincy, which we can certainly expect them to do, Gallman will be the one getting the ball.
Two names to know
1. Xavier McKinney, Giants S
After suffering a fractured foot in the preseason, McKinney’s spent the entire season rehabbing, but the 36th overall pick out of Alabama may get to see his first action today. If he does, it would be a huge boost to a Giants pass defense, which allows 258 yards/game.
McKinney was a versatile playmaker for the Crimson Tide who snagged three interceptions and forced four fumbles in his junior season.
Here’s the latest from New York coach Joe Judge regarding the rookie’s availability today.
McKinney will likely be eased into the lineup in regards to playing time. Probably only be used in specific packages because his first padded practice since the summer was Wednesday. DC Pat Graham admitted this week they “can’t put too much on him.” #Giants https://t.co/qsvcOeHyJZ
— Jordan Raanan (@JordanRaanan) November 28, 2020
2. Akeem Davis-Gaither, Bengals LB
The Bengals’ fourth-round pick played on only one snap last week against Washington, his lowest total of the whole season. Davis-Gaither was known for his athletic and speedy profile as a linebacker, and it’s taken him some time to develop this season. However, his largest snap share of the season came in Week 5 against Baltimore, when he was on the field 79% of the time.
That was presumably to limit Lamar Jackson’s rushing ability, which the team undoubtedly did. In that game, Jackson had only managed three rushing yards, his lowest total of the season.
As the Giants have picked up some wins, Daniel Jones has been running the ball more and more. I believe Davis-Gaither will be featured today in a similar role to the Baltimore game, perhaps spying Jones on some plays or using his athleticism to limit designed QB runs.
One way the Bengals can win
If you want the real answer, the way the Bengals can win is to lose. With no Burrow on the field, wins don’t do much for this Cincinnati team other than bump it out of top-3 pick range, which is where they’ll need to be to land some premium talent next year (looking at you, Penei Sewell).
But on the flip side, if Zac Taylor doesn’t get some wins, his job could be in serious jeopardy. Four wins in two seasons are about as unattractive as it gets, and I don’t think that record magically gets turned around, even if you’ve got a great QB and blue-chip left tackle.
So here is the straight–alternative motives aside–answer to the question. Daniel Jones is no stranger to turnovers. If the Bengals defense puts some pressure on him and takes the ball away once or twice, I could see Allen leading Cincy down the field to a score or two. And that could be just enough in this one. But it’ll start with the defense creating opportunities for the offense, which it hasn’t done all that well this year.
It’s been a rough week, but we must shoulder on Bengals fans. ACLs heal, seasons end, and tides turn.
God, I hope so.
Bengals. G-Men. 1 p.m. on FOX. See you there.