CINCINNATI — The Bengals are 0-2 again. But this feels worse than last year. Much worse.
Last year, following a 20-17 last-second loss to the Cowboys in Dallas, the Bengals were getting a stronger Joe Burrow back. He hadn’t hit his rhythm but you could sense it coming.
They had lost on the last play of overtime to the Steelers in Week 1 and suffered another heartbreaker in Dallas. But Burrow was getting stronger every week.
When Burrow pulled up lame on his second touchdown pass of the day to Tee Higgins, the f-bombs were easy to read on his face. He might as well been speaking for all of Who Dey Nation.
The Bengals lost 27-24 Sunday to the Baltimore Ravens at Paycor Stadium. They are 0-2 again in the AFC North. And now they don’t know if they’ll have their franchise quarterback for the game to keep them from their first 0-3 start since Zac Taylor’s first season in 2019.
You could read the uncertainty on Burrow’s face when asked about his re-tweaked right calf, suffered on the play before his fourth-quarter TD pass to Higgins. Earlier in the second half, he managed to avoid a pressure in the pocket and appeared to be back to his normal self as he threw for 187 yards in the second half.
“Yeah, that felt great and obviously, I tweaked it again,” Burrow said. “So, we’ll just have to reevaluate the next couple of days.”
“I don’t know. It’s tough to tell,” Burrow admitted. “It’s tough to look into the future and see that. I’m doing everything I can to get healthy and get that thing the way I need to so I can go out and perform the way I need to win. We’ll see.”
Until Burrow is 100 percent, there is no reason to play him and have him risk being lost for the season. Yes, that means they’ll have to start Jake Browning. But watching Joe Burrow hobble around won’t do anyone any good, most of all Burrow.
But if he’s going to play, then it’s on the offensive line to protect him the best they can. On Sunday, Burrow was sacked just once.
“I don’t know the details on what Joe’s going through,” center and captain Ted Karras said. “I think it puts a lot of onus on the offensive line to play close to perfect. If his mobility is lacking, we don’t want him to have to escape and move around too much.
“I thought we limited pressures (and) I thought the offensive line played a solid game — obviously not good enough to win — but we’re coming back. Joe’s our leader, Joe’s going to get it done for us and my whole goal is to just be my very best to not ever let him down.”
"We don't need to dip our toe in the water. We need to dive right in." Ted Karras on Bengals slow offensive starts. pic.twitter.com/KkmNQAAsM6
— Mike Petraglia (@Trags) September 17, 2023
Take the hit now and hope you can get back to .500 and allow Burrow to nurse himself back to full strength. It’s not ideal and it probably means kissing goodbye to the No. 1 seed.
“Stay patient with us,” Zac Taylor pleaded with frustrated fans. “I know that’s hard to say and listen to. They want wins, there’s a lot of excitement going into this season. We have a lot of excitement, and we still do. It’s Sept. 17, and we plan on this being a long season. We’ll be excited to make corrections, put this one behind us, and have an electric Monday Night Football crowd as we’ve had here.”
There’s a lot to be determined between now and the Sept. 25 game vs. Rams at Paycor.
A full strength and fully mobile Burrow will give you a fighter’s chance if the defense can keep you in games.
Sunday, Burrow completed 8-of-12 passes but only for 35 yards in the first half. The Bengals were outgained 225 to 63 yards but managed to keep it close at 13-10.
“I know the stats in the first half are what everybody looks at and they weren’t great,” Burrow said. “But like I said, the first two possessions we had that holding call, I have to watch the film and see if I think it’s holding, I don’t know.
Joe Burrow tries to remain calm after another 0-2 start "We've done it before" pic.twitter.com/3GxLckOT0p
— Mike Petraglia (@Trags) September 17, 2023
“Then we had the third down that we didn’t convert and then we moved the ball really well on the third possession, so I think we did some good things in that first half too, obviously stats weren’t great, but second half, I thought we were rolling. Like I said, you can’t have a red zone turnover against that team. That was on me.”
Does this 0-2 feel different to Burrow because of the injury?
“No, we just didn’t play well enough to win either of these games,” Burrow told me. “We’ve got to find ways to make those plays down the stretch to win these kinds of games. Every time you play an AFC North team, it’s going to look like that. You’re going to have seven possessions, so you’re going to have to make the most of them.”
Like last year, Burrow didn’t play in the preseason and missed camp. And like last year, the Bengals have not enjoyed a lead through two games.
“Well, when your quarterback misses camp, it’s tough to start fast. So, it’s not an ideal situation,” Burrow said.
This is what happens when your franchise quarterback misses camp.
The Bengals are holding their breath with Joe Burrow.
With all of this going on, the Bengals appear to be a mess. Zac Taylor is keenly aware of what this looks like from the outside.
“The beauty of this team is we know it’s a 17-game season. There’s no overreaction on our end. We have to be prepared for stuff outside our locker room, which is natural. We’re in a very difficult division. We would have loved to come out 2-0; 1-1 would have been fine too. This is exactly where we were last year, and this team is only going to get better with every game that passes.
“When you stumble early, you have to learn from it. So many years in the past, we’ve learned from early-season losses that have propelled us in November and December. This will be no different. I’m very confident in that.”
Taylor believes in his team. That’s his job. But that team will feel different without Burrow, who may or may not have to sit for an extended period to get his calf back closer to the point where he can last an entire game.
“I feel like we’re in great shape,” Taylor said. “We got some good performances from guys. There are some things we can correct and adjust, then continue to move forward.
“It’s not what we want. There are a lot of really positive things that happened today against a really good football team. We’ve lost to two teams now that will be there down the stretch, but we get them again, just like last year. It is important to turn the page, because it’s always a new team and a new year. But there’s a lot we can take from last year that will help us going forward.”