Why Cincinnati Bengals shouldn’t panic amid ‘ugly’ Joe Burrow training camp

The latest buzz out of Cincinnati Bengals training camp has been that quarterback Joe Burrow doesn’t exactly look sharp coming thus far as he works his way back from a major knee injury.

Is that really surprising, though? Whereas the New York Giants should absolutely be concerned about some early red flags in camp, a team like Cincinnati shouldn’t be alarmed about Burrow’s sluggish start leading the offense.

Paul Dehner Jr. and Jay Morrison of The Athletic provided the grisly details of Burrow struggling to complete passes under rather favorable conditions:

Throws that felt like layups last year are dropping harmlessly away from receivers or easily broken up by multiple defenders. There might be a multitude of reasons for the struggles, but this has been ugly. At one point, pressure pushed into his face and Burrow lifted his leg into the air almost to avoid any accident with the close pocket. It makes you wonder if the knee is still in his head, but that’s strictly guesswork. The bottom line is there’s no way to say his play looks comfortable at this point and this isn’t at all what you have seen from Burrow even in the early camp moments of last season.

Man that doesn’t sound good.

To reiterate, though, Burrow tore multiple ligaments in his knee, and can you blame him for being even a little skittish not only as he builds more trust on his injured limb, but also gets accustomed to his new-look offensive line?

The reason Burrow went down in the first place as a rookie was because Cincinnati’s o-line was flat-out pathetic for much of the 2020 campaign. Ultimately, the Bengals failed to protect their No. 1 overall pick.

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Joe Burrow has a history of dealing with adversity well

To go from getting beat out by Dwayne Haskins at Ohio State, transferring to LSU and having one decent season, to instant legendary status in his final year of college, Burrow had to weather all kinds of doubts and uncertainties about his future.

That’s why Burrow has been so confident he’ll be ready to roll entering Week 1. The reality is, he might not be 100% there physically and mentally. Not to say he’s delusional. It’s just the hard truth about how severe his injury was.

That Burrow is where he is now is a testament to his extraordinary fortitude. Based on how well he played as a rookie under the toughest of circumstances — minimal weapons, no pass protection, rushing attack or defense to support him, etc. — don’t expect him to be down for long.

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Defenses are generally ahead of the offense early in training camp

Why Cincinnati Bengals shouldn't panic amid 'ugly' Joe Burrow training camp
Jul 29, 2021; Cincinnati, OH, United States; Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow (9) throws a pass during training camp at Paul Brown Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Katie Stratman-USA TODAY Sports

Because defensive playbooks are less dense and not as complex as the nuances of an offensive scheme, it’s an uphill battles for offenses to thrive in training camp practices, particularly in the early going.

Now, this excuse can’t be used in every team’s case. Sometimes the players just aren’t executing well enough. Even if the defense often knows what to expect, there’s still room to at least show some glimpses of promise.

At least to this point, Burrow and Co. are not meeting expectations as a collective passing attack. The quarterback obviously gets the largest share of the blame for that, but Burrow isn’t going to skimp on putting extra work in to make things right.

Narratives can flip with one strong practice from an offensive unit. We’ve just wrapped the first day in pads. By the time the light goes on for the Bengals, they should be ready and eager to play in the preseason against a new opponent.

The inexperience of Joe Burrow’s supporting cast also contributes to Bengals’ struggles

The inexperience of Joe Burrow's supporting cast also contributes to Bengals' struggles
Cincinnati Bengals cornerback Chidobe Awuzie (22) breaks up a pass intended for wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase (1) during training camp practice at the Paul Brown Stadium practice facility in downtown Cincinnati on Thursday, July 29, 2021. Cincinnati Bengals Training Camp

It also doesn’t help that two of Burrow’s top three targets, Tee Higgins and Ja’Marr Chase, are second- and first-year players respectively. Higgins is still learning the nuances of running a fuller route tree, and Chase has had a full season away from the gridiron after opting out of his final season at LSU.

The Athletic‘s report was critical of Chase, Higgins and even Tyler Boyd, too, reading in part, “It’s tough to single out any one of the receivers when everyone was failing to get separation and not making plays.”

Regardless of how well-conditioned Chase is, “football shape” is an entirely different beast to tackle, especially when making the leap from college to the NFL. Even though he was college teammates with Burrow, their shared success was in a totally different context.

As Higgins continues to put the work in to polish up his skill set, and Chase reignites his spark with Burrow, the chemistry between all involved should be special — provided the line can buy enough time for Burrow to throw.

Joe Burrow might be in win-now mode, but the Bengals aren’t

Joe Burrow might be in win-now mode, but the Bengals aren't
Cincinnati Bengals head coach Zac Taylor and quarterback Joe Burrow (9) discuss a play during a timeout in the fourth quarter of the NFL Week 7 game between the Cincinnati Bengals and the Cleveland Browns at Paul Brown Stadium in downtown Cincinnati on Sunday, Oct. 25, 2020. The Bengals and Browns exchanged late touchdowns, finishing in a 37-34 win for the Browns. Credit: Sam Greene via Imagn Content Services, LLC.

Maybe head coach Zac Taylor’s seat is a little hot entering the 2021 campaign, but if he gets the full backing of Burrow, which he has to date, he doesn’t have to worry. If Cincinnati loses too often and Taylor gets canned, Burrow’s presence alone would make the Bengals an attractive coaching vacancy.

Burrow wanted to go to the playoffs right away when he entered the NFL, and there’s nothing to suggest he’s adjusting those expectations entering his sophomore year.

It’s just that the team around him isn’t built to win now.

While the Bengals did make some decent additions in free agency, they’ve still not addressed the offensive line or the front seven well enough to hold up against elite competition. Even Burrow’s best efforts won’t be enough for Cincinnati to post anything better than a record that hovers around .500.

The thing is, Cincinnati is historically super conservative. Its recent free-agent spending on players like Trey Hendrickson suggest that could be changing, but it seems only a slow and steady process at this point.

Rather than sprinting ahead and going all-in with Burrow, it’s this half-baked effort that won’t make much of a bottom-line difference in the standings.

Here’s all that really matters in 2021: Burrow playing well. If strong precedent holds, he will rally from his injury setback. The offense will pick itself up from a rough training camp start in pads thanks in no small part to Burrow’s leadership. Cincinnati’s youngsters will grow alongside Burrow and evolve into star players.

The Bengals are taking a more deliberate approach to building a legit contender around Burrow, but as long as he builds on a relatively promising rookie season, they’ll be right on track for the playoffs in 2022.

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