CINCINNATI — Welcome to the uncertain world of the NFL when your quarterback’s availability is one big question mark.
That’s where the Bengals find themselves heading into the Week 3 Monday night showdown with the Los Angeles Rams.
While this game won’t decide the NFL champion like it did the last time these two met, it will go a long way in determining the viability of Cincinnati’s championship hopes for 2023.
A team that had “Super Bowl or Bust” dreams for Las Vegas in February is again on the brink heading into Week 3 without a win.
Joe Burrow played it cautiously optimistic Thursday when asked about the most analyzed calf in pro sports.
“Good. Feeling good,” Burrow said. “Just feeling better. Not as sore. You know, time heals. So we’ll see. We’ll see.
As for practice?
“I was out there. We’ll see,” said Burrow, who had a somewhat animated at times conversation with Bengals offensive coordinator Brian Callahan.”(Playing) may not be my decision to make. My job is to go out and play, that’s what I’m preparing to do.
“We just take it week by week. I think that’s why we’ve been so good and if you are looking too far into the future, too far into the past, you aren’t going to be able to focus on the present. I think that’s what we’ve done well. That’s what we’re going to continue to do. We’ve just got to be 1-0 this week.”
Burrow said there’s been no discussions yet among the trainers and coaches and himself as to whether they should shut him down and let him get much closer to 100 percent, something he clearly wasn’t when he re-aggravated the calf last Sunday.
“I’m preparing like I’m going to go out and play a Monday Night Football game,” Burrow added. “Whether that happens, I don’t know but I’m going to be prepared to.
“I’m pretty good at compartmentalizing what’s important and I think when you’re out there, I’m not really thinking about it. You think about it throughout the week. You think about how you can get better but once you are out there, you’re not really thinking about it.”
Burrow wants to be on the field as the team’s leader as they try to avoid an 0-3 start for the first time since Zac Taylor’s first season in 2019.
“It’s in my head, for sure. I’m thinking about it,” Burrow said. “It’s obviously tough whenever you have an injury. Whenever you start 0-2 it’s obviously not ideal. That’s the adversity of the season. That’s the ups and downs of the year. The teams that come out on top at the end of it are the teams that handle that adversity the best. You can’t let that snowball on you.
“That’s what we’ve done in past. If you go back and look year to year to teams that are still in it at the end everybody has adversity at some point of the year. Everybody stinks at some point according to the media. We’re just going to sit here and continue to get better. We’re going to have good practices. We’re going to take it week-by-week and that’s all you can do.”
"That's the adversity of the season" Joe Burrow taking 0-2 and his calf injury in stride pic.twitter.com/CZFPGJBSvO
— Mike Petraglia (@Trags) September 21, 2023
If he has to turn the reins over to Jake Browning, Burrow is confident the fifth-year quarterback out of the University of Washington can get the job done.
“Jake’s prepared. He’s as prepared as I’ve ever seen him. He practices really hard. He prepares in the film room really hard. I have all the confidence in the world in him if I’m not ready to go.”
A big part of getting the job done is simply not turning the ball over and putting the defense in harm’s way. The defense – for its part – needs to pick up its play from the first two games when they were gashed for an average of 195 yards on the ground.
Browning will have weapons at his disposal that he didn’t have in the preseason, namely Ja’Marr Chase, Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd, as well as tight end Irv Smith Jr. Yes, he threw to them in camp practice. But game conditions figure to be much different.
Burrow, if he doesn’t practice this week, will be in Browning’s ear, offering advice on schemes and reads.
“You stay engaged, making sure that I’m communicating with the guys as I would be if I was out there practicing,” Burrow said. “I think we have veteran guys that understand what it’s going to take if I am out there not having a ton of practice. Fortunately we don’t have a ton of new guys and we have a lot of reps under our belt in that way.”
Jake Browning admitted Thursday he was on the brink of heading into coaching when the Bengals came calling in 2021 and added him to the practice squad just before the Super Bowl season began.
Jake Browning will be ready Monday night if needed. And he says it doesn't hurt have Ja'Marr Chase, Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd. "I would've liked throwing to those guys in the preseason." pic.twitter.com/gCRSaT3PL7
— Mike Petraglia (@Trags) September 21, 2023
If Browning starts, it will be the first snaps for him in an NFL game. He has spent the last four years as a practice squad quarterback, waiting his turn.
In the preseason, he beat out Trevor Siemian with a pair of solid performances in Atlanta and Washington. He showed off wheels, proven he can scramble and make plays. He was 32-of-45 in the preseason for 277 yards, with a touchdown pass to Andrei Iosivas and two interceptions.
Burrow is hoping that Browning will have to postpone his NFL debut indefinitely. But given the status of Burrow’s calf, it’s time to start thinking about what a Browning-led offense would look like.
- There could be a lot more designed runs, as along as they’re reasonably safe.
The Bengals don’t want to get into a position where they need to rely on Joe Mixon as the emergency quarterback as he displayed several times in practice before Weeks 1 and 2.
- There could be more screens
Mixon, Chase or Boyd get the ball in space and try to make plays.
- The Bengals could grind out the game more
Try to do to other teams what the Ravens do so well, limit the possessions and make it more of a rock fight.
In his sophomore year at Washington, Browning guided the Huskies to a 12–2 record, and their first Pac-12 conference championship since 2000. He was named Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year and first-team all-Pac-12. Browning came in sixth in the 2016 Heisman Trophy voting, narrowly missing an invitation to attend the award ceremony in New York City.
Browning underwent shoulder surgery on his throwing arm a couple of weeks after facing Alabama in the College Football Playoff.
In his junior season, Browning started all 13 games of the 2017 season, was named to the Academic All-Pac-12 second-team, was an honorable mention All-Pac-12, and broke the UW career touchdown passes record this year. Browning completed 230 of his attempted 336 throws, which was his highest throwing percentage. He threw for 19 touchdowns and had only five interceptions throughout the season. He threw for 2,719 yards as well.
As a senior, Browning became the school’s all-time passing leader in the team’s game against BYU. With the Pac-12 North Division title on the line, Browning led Washington against in-state rival and seventh-ranked Washington State on the road in the Apple Cup. The Huskies won their second Pac-12 title in three years by defeating Utah in the 2018 Pac-12 Football Championship Game. Browning lost to Ohio State in the Rose Bowl but finished the season 3,192 passing yards and a 16 touchdown passes.
Browning has the pedigree of a winner and the Bengals believe he can get the job done. To quote Joe Burrow, we’ll see if he’ll need to prove it Monday night.
This and that:
Joseph Ossai is on track to return to action this Monday night after missing the first two games with a sprained right ankle, suffered in the preseason finale against Washington. He fully participated in practice on Thursday. … Safety Nick Scott was limited in his return to practice Thursday after entering concussion protocol Sunday against Baltimore. He had his helmet with him Thursday as he went out to practice and if there are no setbacks, it’s likely he could start against his former team Monday night. … Dax Hill has a brace on his right hand from a hand injury sustained in the Cleveland game. He fully participated in practice on Thursday and was not listed on the injury report.