Coming into Week 11, the Bengals were already well outside the playoff conversation—but at least they had one reason for fans to tune in every week: Joe Burrow. The no. 1 overall pick in this year’s draft has quietly put together a promising rookie season, despite playing on one of the most talent-deficient rosters in the league. On Sunday, Burrow left the game after taking a gruesome hit to his knee while being sacked in the third quarter.
Here’s the only replay of the injury I’m willing to embed. No one needs to see this in slow motion:
Burrow was sandwiched between two Washington defenders, and his left knee appeared to bend in the wrong direction. As Burrow was carted off the field, players from both teams wished him well:
All love for Joe Burrow as he goes off the field. Including from Chase Young, Haskins, McLaurin pic.twitter.com/t42duvQWIQ— JP Finlay (@JPFinlayNBCS) November 22, 2020
The Bengals quickly ruled Burrow out for the remainder of the game. On Monday, ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported that Burrow tore his ACL, MCL, and “suffered other structural issues” to the knee. It will end Burrow’s rookie season, as the quarterback indicated on Twitter, and is just about the worst possible diagnosis possible after the hit.
While no one could have foreseen a severe injury, Bengals fans have worried about Burrow’s health thanks to a combination of poor offensive line play and one of the most pass-heavy offenses in football. Despite being a rookie, Burrow dropped back more than any other quarterback in the NFL, averaging an absurd 41.1 pass attempts per game, the most in the league. He was on pace to set the record for pass attempts by a rookie by more than 30 attempts (currently held by former Colts QB Andrew Luck). Yet he was getting sacked on 8.0 percent of his dropbacks, the seventh-highest number in the league. Coming into Week 11, Pro Football Focus graded the Bengals 26th in pass blocking, and ESPN ranked them 28th in pass-block win rate. Per ESPN, the Bengals have been able to hold off opposing pass rushers for at least 2.5 seconds (what they call a “win” as a pass-blocking unit) on just 50 percent of the team’s snaps. Coming into the game, Burrow had taken 72 hits—a historically high number:
#Bengals QB Joe Burrow came into the game having taken 72 hits. That was tied with Daniel Jones for the most by a rookie QB in his first nine games since 2000.— Joe Reedy (@joereedy) November 22, 2020
Despite the poor protection, Burrow’s play has been promising. He had the chance to set the record for passing yards by a rookie quarterback. Through nine games, he’d averaged 276.1 passing yards per game, third all-time behind Nick Mullens (who played just eight games as a rookie) and fellow rookie Justin Herbert. So far this season, Burrow had shown all the traits that made him the no. 1 overall pick. Despite below-average arm strength, Burrow had shown elite accuracy and awareness. The Bengals came into this week at 2-6-1, but Burrow has looked like a player worth building around.
PFF gave Burrow the 17th-best offensive grade among quarterbacks, better than peers like Ben Roethlisberger, Jared Goff, Philip Rivers, and Herbert. His QBR ranking of 23rd is a bit less impressive, but he ranks eighth in completion percentage over expectation per Next Gen Stats, indicating a high level of accuracy this season.
Cincinnati never expected to compete this season. Instead, it was a year to evaluate what they had in Burrow and see if their new quarterback could be the franchise player worth going all-in with. Burrow had shown enough promise to justify his selection, even if Herbert has been more flashy and Tua Tagovailoa has the Dolphins in playoff contention. The Bengals are in this for the long haul. They aren’t in contention this season and if Burrow can fully recover from his injury, the future in Cincinnati should be bright. But watching the first-year franchise quarterback suffer such a serious-looking injury is any team’s worst nightmare. For now, the Bengals—and everyone else—are just left wishing Burrow a speedy recovery.
This piece has been updated to reflect additional information about Burrow’s injury.