It's Time for Bengals to Rest Joe Burrow
CalfWatch 2023 continues, as Joe Burrow and the Cincinnati Bengals watch the season slowly drain away.
Sunday's 27-3 loss to a Titans team that can best be described as "uninspiring" isn't quite the nadir of Cincinnati's season – their -56.8% DVOA in Week 4 was ever-so-slightly higher than their -59.1% mark in Week 1 – but it was another crushing blow to a fan base that had Super Bowl aspirations before the season started. The Bengals were supposed to be part of the Big Three with the Chiefs and Bills as favorites in the AFC. Instead, they've joined the Bears as the only teams with multiple games below -50% DVOA this season.
Our preseason projections were harsher on the Bengals than the general public. We were concerned about the losses of Jessie Bates, Von Bell and Eli Apple and had them projected 25th in defensive DVOA after finishing 11th in 2022. The defense has, in fact, regressed, though it's been the ground game that's really hurt them. They're allowing 5.1 yards per carry, ranking 30th with a rush DVOA of 8.9%, and have been getting gashed on a regular basis. In a normal year, that's what the headline would be; the "what's wrong with the Bengals?" stories focusing on their inability to get off the field causing them to sit at, say, .500 after a month.
This has not been a normal year.
Joe Burrow simply is not right. The calf injury he suffered in early August has sapped him of his mobility and caused the entire offense to have to be rethought from the ground up, and it's not working. While he is technically healthy enough to play football, he's clearly not healthy enough to play football well, and the Bengals offense has floundered as a result. A team with Ja'Marr Chase and Tee Higgins should not rank 28th in passing DVOA at -12.4%, behind offenses led by the likes of Sam Howell, Zach Wilson and a struggling rookie Bryce Young.
The bread-and-butter of the Cincinnati offense is going empty in the backfield, sending their top-five receiving corps downfield, and having Burrow carve defenses up. In 2022, Burrow led the league with 115 pass attempts out of an empty backfield, and Cincinnati's 68.3% offensive DVOA on those passes was second behind the Bills. That's what made them great. They had the third-highest dropoff in passing DVOA between empty sets and formations with anyone in the backfield, falling to 16.9%. That's still above average, but operating out of the spread? The Bengals passing attack was great last season, and that's what sparked the entire offense. That's what it was built around.
And they just can't run it right now. Burrow cannot step up and drive the ball. He can't plant and throw. He can barely move in the pocket. And because he can't get himself out of the way of danger, Zac Taylor has had to revamp the game plan – more time with Joe Mixon and Drew Sample blocking, and shorter routes to get the ball out before pressure gets there. Much shorter routes. Disastrously shorter routes.
Burrow has seen his average depth of target drop nearly a full yard, from 7.2 to 6.3. His average depth of completion is even worse – down to just 3.3 yards from 5.6. Burrow doesn't trust himself to throw downfield at the moment and, well, he's right. While his numbers have dropped across the board, his short passing DVOA has only fallen from 22.9% to 3.1%. His deep pass DVOA, however, has fallen from 82.0% to -61.7%. Joe Burrow has been the worst deep passer in football through four weeks, which just feels wrong to even type.
Add all that together, and you get historically terrible numbers. Burrow is the first quarterback in NFL history to attempt at least 150 passes in his first four games and yet average fewer than five yards per attempt, taking the crown from 1993 Drew Bledsoe and 2003 Joey Harrington. He has a failed completion percentage of 31%, up from 24% in 2022, as the Cincinnati offense has degenerated into dink-and-dunk nonsense.
He is, in short, a liability at the moment. He's still good enough to not throw a ton of interceptions and to get the ball out when he's about to be sacked, so his overall passing DVOA is higher than a Daniel Jones or a Sam Howell or a Justin Fields; he's too good of a player to hurt his team like that. But on run-of-the-mill plays where a quarterback throws the ball to a receiver, Burrow's 1.4% passing DVOA is dead last among qualified players.
Burrow isn't 100% of the problem, of course. The offensive line hasn't covered itself in glory, ranking 31st in ESPN's pass block win rate and 27th in run block win rate. Tee Higgins has had some trouble with drops and is playing through a broken rib. And the coaching staff hasn't really adjusted to Burrow's limited ability at the moment; they don't seem to have a Plan B in place for a woozy Burrow. But it's hard to shake the feeling that everything will look a lot brighter when Burrow is finally healthy.
One thing they say they will not do is take the advice of one Ja'Marr Anthony Chase, M.D., and give their star quarterback time to rest. Zac Taylor has made it clear that Burrow is going to keep playing, despite the lack of lack of success Cincinnati has had. Taylor says they just need to keep doing better on things they can control, and continue to gameplan around Burrow's injury, saying that it's on him as a playcaller to find ways to get Cincinnati into the end zone. It's unclear just what changes Taylor is planning on making that will suddenly restore Burrow's mobility and ability to plant his foot, but we haven't seen enough out of them to this point.
Complicating matters further is the fact that Cincinnati doesn't have an experienced backup. Jake Browning has just four snaps in the regular season, all at the end of Week 1's blowout against Cleveland, and has never exactly lit things up in preseason. Without an experienced backup, Cincinnati might rightfully believe that even Burrow at 50% gives them a better chance of winning than Browning. And surely, there's no time to rest Burrow.
Since the playoffs expanded to 12 teams in 1990, just 14.5% of 1-3 teams have gone on to make the playoffs. Our DVOA playoff odds have them with a 13.2% chance of making it at the moment. And, if you believe that Browning gives them no chance to win, the odds only get worse from there. 1-4 teams qualify for the postseason just 6.9% of the time; 1-5 teams just 2.6%. If they don't pick up another win before their Week 7 bye, they can basically write the season off, so keep Burrow out there and cross your fingers, right?
Well, maybe not. While those stats are accurate, they're also misleading. Most teams that start 1-3 are, in fact, not good football teams. The average team that starts 1-3 finishes with a .393 winning percentage, or six or seven wins; they're below-average teams with below-average finishes. But a Bengals team led by a healthy Burrow is probably not below average; even our pessimistic projection had them as a wildcard team. And quality teams survive 1-3 stretches to make the postseason on a semi-regular basis; eight of the 14 playoff teams from a year ago had at least one 1-3 stretch at some point in 2022. The Dolphins slipped into the playoffs despite a 1-5 finish and quarterback injury woes of their own; the Jaguars won the AFC East despite struggling through a five-game losing streak before the end of October. Quality teams overcome bad stretches.
The goal for the Bengals, in the short term, should be to get Burrow back to 100% as quickly as possible. That should take priority over winning their next two games, both out-of-conference matchups anyway. I am not a doctor. Nor is Ja'Marr Chase, or Zac Taylor or Joe Burrow. But if giving Burrow three weeks to rest and bringing him back after the bye gives the best chance for him to be fully healthy going forward, that is worth doing. Even if you give the Bengals zero chance of pulling off a victory under Browning, a ridiculously pessimistic projection, the Bengals would still be in better position to make a playoff run with a healthy Burrow than with a banged-up one gutting his way through the next month.
Cincinnati needs eight more wins to have a realistic shot at the postseason—seven would give them an outside chance, nine would make it likely that they make it, but getting over .500 at least gives them a puncher's chance. If they went into the bye at 1-5 behind a couple Browning-led losses, that would mean they would need to finish the season 8-3 to feel like they had a shot. That's a tall order with San Francisco, Buffalo, Baltimore and Kansas City still on the schedule – four of the top eight teams in DVOA, a big part of the reason they have the hardest remaining schedule in the league with an average opponent sitting at 12.4%.
The 49ers and Bills are their first two opponents after the week off, and they'll need their offense to be what we've all seen it can be if they want to compete with either of the top two teams in the league. That's not going to happen unless Burrow turns back into his old self, and that seems unlikely while he's still pushing himself week-in and week-out. He risks re-aggravating his calf if he keeps getting hit five times a game. At 100%, however? The offense we saw from the Bengals last season would have a puncher's chance. And, if they can take even one of those two games, it's not hard to find a path to nine wins and the playoffs. And that's even thinking Browning can't put together something and beat the Cardinals or Rams, who have been surprising and gutsy but still with negative DVOAs on the year.
The Bengals do not need to keep throwing Burrow to the wolves. Letting him rest for a week or three is not throwing the towel in on the season. In fact, it may be the best move they have in their quiver to stay competitive the rest of the way.