The last time Joe Burrow missed extended time for the Cincinnati Bengals, the team deferred to backups Ryan Finley and Brandon Allen in a 2-5 finish to the 2020 season. They’re now in a similar spot after a wrist injury ended Burrow’s Week 11 start against the Baltimore Ravens and the rest of his 2023 regular season
Burrow departed in the second quarter, nursing a wrist injury after a touchdown pass to Joe Mixon. The Pro Bowl quarterback disappeared into the bowels of M&T Bank Stadium for further analysis after being left unable to throw the ball on the sideline. On Friday, he was ruled out for the remainder of the year due to what’s head coach Zac Taylor told the press is a torn ligament.
No good for Joe Burrow pic.twitter.com/gmSUQuDVs1
— Will Brinson (@WillBrinson) November 17, 2023
That’s a problem. The Bengals have little room for error in the shark tank that is the 2023 AFC North. Cincinnati started off the season 1-3 thanks in part to an ailing Burrow limping through the first month with the calf injury that left him immobile in the pocket and unable to step into tough throws downfield. This team can be competitive without its MVP-adjacent quarterback, but a trip back to a third-straight conference championship game depends on Joe Sheisty’s return.
The Bengals have few options to replace even 70 percent of Burrow’s output. So what’s on the table?
The backups on the roster: Jake Browning, AJ McCarron
Browning got the call when Burrow went down, clearing the way for the first meaningful NFL action of his career. That could be promising if he were a rookie, but Browning graduated from the University of Washington in 2019. He didn’t record a single stat in his first four years as a pro. His only action this fall was an incomplete pass and a kneel down in a Week 1 loss to the Cleveland Browns.
On Thursday night, he was mostly forgettable in a 20-34 loss to the Ravens. He recorded a positive expected points added (EPA) total, but much of that value came late in a game Cincinnati trailed by three possessions. He finished his night with 68 passing yards on 14 attempts and a two-yard touchdown pass to Ja’Marr Chase — the All-Pro wideout’s second reception of the game.
There’s a very minor capacity for Browning to succeed, but the most likely outcome is that the player who was waived four times in his first four years as a pro fails to provide anything more than replacement level play. Browning is not the answer, but if he can hold things together and not turn the ball over twice per game he’d be useful.
Behind him on the practice squad is McCarron, who is 33 years old and most recently played with the XFL’s St. Louis Battlehawks. He’s thrown a single NFL pass since 2019. He is also not a viable answer.
Other teams' practice squad signees: A bunch of XFL-caliber quarterback
If Burrow is headed for injured reserve, Cincinnati will have room to add a player to its active roster. This would give the Bengals the leverage to pluck a quarterback from a rival’s practice squad. The names here are, as you’d expect, uninspiring:
- Shane Buechele, Buffalo Bills
- Trevor Siemian, New York Jets
- Kellen Mond, Indianapolis Colts
- Nathan Rourke, Jacksonville Jaguars
- Ben DiNucci, Denver Broncos
- Max Duggan, Los Angeles Chargers
- Jacob Eason, New York Giants
- Jake Fromm, Washington Commanders
- David Blough, Detroit Lions
- Sean Mannion, Minnesota Vikings
- Trace McSorley, Chicago Bears
- Brett Rypien, Seattle Seahawks
- Jeff Driskel, Arizona Cardinals
Hmmm. Bad! The most likely outcome here would be Siemian, who spent the 2023 offseason with Cincinnati while battling with Browning for the team’s QB2 role.
Available free agents: Colt McCoy, Joe Flacco, Nick Foles ... Matt Ryan?
An already thin group of quarterbacks you wouldn’t trust got even thinner when Carson Wentz signed with the Los Angeles Rams to serve as Matthew Stafford’s backup. There are a few players with starting experience who might be lured from stasis (or, in Ryan’s case, from the broadcast booth). None would be a definite upgrade over Browning.
McCoy was deemed replaceable by the Cardinals, which seemed like an honest attempt to tank the season away by jettisoning a useful quarterback. He’s gone unsigned in the three months since, which suggests he may not have as much to offer as previously thought (this, admittedly, wasn’t much to begin with). Flacco turns 39 in January and is 3-14 as a starter since 2019. Foles has proven repeatedly his powers only work as a Philadelphia Eagle.
Ryan was awful as an Indianapolis Colt and seems content to remain in the broadcast booth. Cam Newton went 0-5 in a decidedly less-than-triumphant return to the Carolina Panthers in 2022. Tom Brady would have to divest from the Las Vegas Raiders to return to the field, but my god how funny would that be.
Anyway, if you’ve gotten this far you already know the answer to the question. The Bengals are in rough, rough shape without Burrow, particularly after the trade deadline.
Cincinnati might as well run with Browning, since he knows the playbook. Give him a chance to surprise — and give defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo’s defense a chance to thrive. If Burrow is out for an extended period, the only thing to do is hope for the best and look toward 2024.