On Thursday Night Football in Week 11, the Cincinnati Bengals saw QB Joe Burrow exit the game due to a wrist injury. At first glance, things didn’t look good given Burrow’s reaction on the sideline as he tried to throw a football. After the game, it appeared Burrow may miss some time but wasn’t lost for the 2023 season.
On Friday, the Bengals got worse news. Burrow is expected to undergo surgery on his right wrist to repair a torn ligament and will miss the rest of the 2023 season, per The Athletic. This is a situation Cincy has been through before with Burrow, who, during his rookie season, suffered a season-ending torn ACL and MCL in his left knee. Burrow also began the 2023 season recovering from a calf injury. It held him out all of preseason and hampered him in the early going of the season.
Now, the Bengals will have to proceed the rest of the season with QB Jake Browning unless someone else is brought in. At 5-5, the playoffs aren’t entirely out of reach but it will be an uphill battle with Browning. With Burrow not expected back, you can throw out any Super Bowl aspirations. So what does all this mean for the Bengals and Burrow moving forward? Let’s examine.
Joe Burrow injury: Future impact on Bengals
Can Joe Burrow rebound and remain a Pro Bowl QB?
Sure. We saw him come back from the torn ACL and MCL to win Comeback Player of the Year in 2021. He threw for 4,611 yards with 34 TDs and 14 INTs, leading the NFL in completion percentage (70.4%) despite also leading the League in sacks taken (51) in 2021. That season he helped Cincy reach the Super Bowl, coming within four points of a championship. Last season, Burrow helped the Bengals reach the AFC Championship game again in 2022, losing to the eventual champion Kansas City Chiefs. It’s hard to question Burrow’s resolve and how much he’s accomplished in four season in the NFL.
The idea of Burrow shaking off this latest setback and returning healthy and ready to go in 2024 is very realistic. There shouldn’t be many concerns over his lower body at this point and we don’t see wrist surgeries derail the career of a QB. So until we see Burrow in action in 2024, we can safely assume he’ll maintain an above-average level of QB play. But if we see Burrow regress at all or struggle next season, then the Bengals may need to start looking into contingency plans.
Going over Joe Burrow’s contract
Prior to the 2023 NFL season, the Bengals signed Burrow to a five-year, $275 million contract extension, which kicks in next season. The contract was $219 million guaranteed with a $40 million signing bonus. The contract’s cap hit gets increasingly worse each season, going up to $29 million in 2024 and $46M, $48M, and $52M in each year after. There is a potential out in the contract for 2028, when Burrow will be 32 years old. Establish the Run’s Adam Levitan broke down the cap hit and how it could impact the Bengals’ window to compete for a title:
Super Bowl window for #Bengals will remain open as long as Joe Burrow is in prime. But going to get way tighter/harder with rookie contract over. Burrow cap hit by year, per Spotrac:— Adam Levitan (@adamlevitan) November 17, 2023
Tee Higgins a pending FA.
As you can see, the window was going to be the next two seasons. The Bengals could have competed in 2023 and 2024 before Burrow’s cap hit skyrockets. Also, WR Tee Higgins is set to hit free agency but the team likely opts for the franchise tag in 2024. That would keep the Bengals offense in tact for next season to try and make a run. Higgins could also receive the tag, which would be around $19 million, before Cincy opts to trade him. Even if Higgins is let go, the Bengals have good depth at WR with Ja’Marr Chase, Tyler Boyd and Trenton Irwin. So there’s a good chance Higgins isn’t on the team next season.
With a lot of this in mind, it’ll be interesting to see what path the Bengals take depending on Burrow’s recovery. Cincinnati will have to draft very well in 2024 and hope recent draft picks can step up to keep contender status. Otherwise, Burrow’s cap hit in 2025 could cripple the franchise’s ability to build a contender.
What does this mean for Burrow/Bengals’ future?
In the short-term, it means the team isn’t competing for a championship this season. You’d also be in a waiting pattern on Burrow until the Bengals can see how he does in 2024. If there are concerns by then, the team may need to think on how to retool or go forward with a rebuild. If Burrow is fine and bounces back, the Bengals will have the offense to compete again in 2024.
What the front office can do is be better prepared for another Burrow injury. Browning being the backup QB for this season wasn’t a wise decision. He’s a 27-year-old undrafted free agent who provides little upside and doesn’t help the team stay competitive. Cincinnati should look into drafting a QB in 2024 who could someday provide a stable backup to Burrow (or even take over for him if he can’t come back from another surgery). The Bengals could also look into a quality veteran backup QB behind Burrow, at least for one season while his cap hit is lower.
It’s a tough situation when the team needs to make a decision on Chase and his next contract. The Bengals could simply franchise tag Chase and play that game, since he’d be worth whatever the tag is for a one-year deal. But that could rub Chase the wrong way and he could hold out for a trade or new deal. That is, unless Burrow is healthy and can continue being a franchise QB. If that’s the case, Cincy likely proceeds with locking in Chase to keep the duo together. But the offense was never going to be the problem for the Bengals. The offensive line and defense will be key in any title run.
The Bengals need to wait and see on Burrow before doing anything hasty. While it’s upsetting to throw away the 2023 season. You don’t have much of a choice. Remain patient, wait for Burrow to come back and go from there. If he’s fine, you keep title hopes alive for at least one season and reassess things after 2024.