Joe Burrow clutched his right knee after a Von Miller sack with 11:44 remaining in Super Bowl 56, and in that instant the Bengals’ future looked uncertain.
We’re not talking about the game either. Cincinnati was holding on to a four-point lead against the Rams, a lead the Bengals would give up in heart-breaking fashion in a 23-20 loss that resembled Super Bowl 16 and Super Bowl 23 losses to the 49ers.
Burrow finished the game, but it’s on Cincinnati to ensure that uncertainty does not resurface with an offseason that beefs up Burrow’s protection.
What else could you say after watching Burrow take a Super Bowl-record seven sacks? That ties the record set by Pittsburgh and the “Steel Curtain” when they harassed Hall of Fame quarterback Roger Staubach during their 21-17 victory in Super Bowl 10.
If the Bengals want Burrow to have that same Hall of Fame career, then that issue needs to be priority A, B and C this offseason. That pass-protection was a well-documented fail coming into Super Bowl 56. Burrow took nine sacks in the AFC divisional playoff run against Tennessee, and the Bengals won 19-16.
Yet, those same issues are why the Bengals could not put the Rams away. Burrow took just one sack in the first half, and the Bengals took a 17-13 lead on the first play of the second half when Burrow hit Tee Higgins for a 75-yard TD pass.
Then the Rams’ pass rush took over. Burrow took two Aaron Donald sacks on the next drive, including one in the red zone that forced a field goal. Burrow was sacked four times on the next three drives, including two from Miller. That prevented Cincinnati from building on a TD lead that could have put the game away.
On the game’s final drive, Donald pressured Burrow on fourth-and-1 into a rushed throw that fell to the turf. Thus begins the narrative, and it comes with a damning conclusion via stat from ESPN’s Ed Werder.
From @ESPNStatsInfo and @doug_clawson: #Bengals QB Joe Burrow has been sacked 70 times this season (through 7 sacks tonight), including playoffs. FROM ELIAS: The most times any QB has been sacked in a season they won the Super Bowl is 54 (2008 Ben Roethlisberger).
— Ed Werder (@WerderEdESPN) February 14, 2022
Knowing Burrow was sacked 70 times, it’s a miracle of sorts that the Bengals were able to overcome it to reach Super Bowl 56. Compare that to Miami’s Dan Marino, who took the Dolphins to the Super Bowl 19 in 1984 with a then-record 48 TDs. Marino took just 13 sacks in the regular season, but the 49ers sacked him four times in a 38-16 blowout.
Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers took 55 sacks (including playoffs) in his second season as a starter before he led the Packers to a Super Bowl championship the following season when that number dropped to 39.
Marino never reached the Super Bowl again. Rodgers has yet to get back with the Packers, and he was dropped five times in the NFC divisional round against the 49ers this season.
If the Bengals and Burrow want to get back, then that pass-protection needs to change. It was a topic of conversation last offseason when the Bengals passed on tackle Penei Sewell for Ja’Marr Chase, Burrow’s former teammate at LSU. There is no way to argue Chase was the wrong pick given he had 81 catches for 1,455 yards and 13 TDs in one of the greatest rookie seasons since Randy Moss with Minnesota in 1998.
But Cincinnati cannot make that argument again. It can come via free agency, where the Bengals have more than $60 million in cap space, or the NFL Draft, where Cincinnati has drafted four offensive linemen in the first round since 2009. But it has to be a response to what transpired over the last month.
A franchise quarterback simply cannot take that many hits, no matter how escapable they are. Staubach could not get away from the Steel Curtain. Burrow simply could not get away from the Rams’ pass rush in the second half.
The fact Burrow is being mentioned with those legendary quarterbacks is a testament to his potential in Cincinnati, a reputation that flows from his high school career in Athens, Ohio to the 2019 national championship season with LSU. Burrow got that first try on the Super Bowl stage, but the image of Burrow clutching his right knee was dangerously close to when he clutched his left knee against Washington on Nov. 20, 2022.
That’s when he suffered ACL and MCL damage to his left knee. If the Bengals do not do everything they can to keep Burrow upright on both knees in the future, then the future won’t be uncertain.
It would be an irresponsible disaster waiting to happen.