NFL fans tuned into Thursday night’s Bengals-Ravens game anticipating one of the most exciting matchups of the season, featuring two elite quarterbacks and two AFC contenders.
Instead, the game was a dud, with the Ravens running away with a 34-20 win. And it exemplified everything that has gone wrong in 2023 — a season that has had a few moments of excitement overshadowed by a host of massive disappointments.
First and foremost, Thursday’s game was yet another premier matchup ruined by a quarterback injury. Joe Burrow was forced to leave in the second quarter with a wrist injury, and backup Jake Browning was unable to muster much of a fight. The news took a devastating turn Friday when the Bengals announced that Burrow tore a ligament in his wrist and is done for the season.
Add Burrow and the Bengals to the list of teams and games that have been wrecked by quarterback injuries. It’s a lengthy one.
The Jets’ season, and several premier TV matchups, were ruined when Aaron Rodgers tore his Achilles’ in the first quarter of the first game. The Vikings are winning for now, but are probably going to struggle on offense now that Kirk Cousins is also done for the season with a torn Achilles’.
The excitement was sapped out of Indianapolis when electric rookie Anthony Richardson suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in October. The Browns have a Super Bowl-caliber defense that may go to waste now that Deshaun Watson is out for the year with a broken bone in his shoulder. And the Giants’ season is completely unwatchable now that Daniel Jones has a torn ACL and undrafted rookie Tommy DeVito has to take over.
Then there are the significant QB injuries that weren’t season-ending — Justin Fields missing four games with a dislocated thumb; Watson missing three other games with a different shoulder injury; Burrow struggling through a calf injury for the first month; Jones missing three games with a neck injury; Kyler Murray missing nine games while recovering from a torn ACL; Tyrod Taylor being out indefinitely with a rib injury; and Justin Herbert playing with a broken finger on his left hand that has affected him since Week 4.
Oh, and Lamar Jackson had to go into the injury tent on Thursday night after twisting his ankle and taking a couple of awkward slips, but he said afterward he’s “feeling good.”
These QB injuries appear to be a trend, not a string of bad luck. Last year saw an NFL-record 69 quarterbacks start a game. This year has already seen 48, and it will be 49 when Browning likely starts next week. A record 10 rookies have started this season, which is barely half over.
For all the complaints that the NFL is turning into flag football and defenders can’t hit quarterbacks anymore, the league probably isn’t doing enough to protect QBs. When they get injured, the game falls apart quickly.
Burrow wasn’t the only major figure to go down Thursday night. Mark Andrews, one of the best tight ends in football and Jackson’s favorite target with 544 yards and six touchdowns this year, was also likely lost for the season when he suffered an ankle injury in the first quarter.
Andrews was the victim of the “hip-drop” tackle, which has become one of the hottest debate points between the NFL and Players Association. The hip-drop tackle is when a defender wrangles down a ball carrier from behind and often falls on top of the carrier’s leg, often resulting in injury.
“It remains, from our analysis, a technique that results in about a 25 times rate of injury as a typical tackle,” NFL senior vice president Jeff Miller said in October. “So it is an unforgiving behavior, and one that we need to try to define and get out of the game.”
The NFL wanted to ban the technique last March, but decided against it after receiving pushback from the NFLPA, which said that “any prohibition . . . is unfair to players and unrealistic to implement.”
But the NFL will likely revisit the issue this offseason.
“You’re always going to have the defender come back and say, ‘You’re making it harder on us.’ And the answer to that is, ‘Yes, we are,’ ” Rich McKay, chairman of the NFL’s competition committee, said in October. “Because when there is a tactic or a technique that’s creating an unreasonable risk of injury to a player, it’s our job to try to find a way to regulate that.”
Thursday night’s game also highlighted a third area in which the NFL has serious issues — shenanigans with the injury report. Burrow was not included on the injury report, even though a video posted by the Bengals (and subsequently deleted) showed him wearing a soft cast on his wrist while getting off the team bus.
The NFL said Friday it would investigate the matter. The Bengals did their best to paint Burrow’s torn wrist ligament as a new injury suffered Thursday night, unrelated to the soft cast he wore on the team bus, but the explanation is a little too convenient to accept at face value.
The purpose of the injury report is to provide transparency and reduce the threat of inside information affecting gambling outcomes. Adherence to injury-report rules is even more important today given the prevalence of legal sports gambling and the partnerships between the league and sports books.
Everyone betting on the game deserved to know that Burrow was entering the night with a wrist injury, and it is unacceptable that the injury was hidden. The Steelers were fined $75,000 and Mike Tomlin $25,000 in 2019 for similar nondisclosure violations, but the NFL needs to come down harder on the Bengals.
Jerseys could be
Leaguewide scoring and passing numbers are down for the second straight year, and it might not just be because of injuries to key quarterbacks. It could be that teams are struggling to adapt to offseason practice limitations; or it could just be that the NFL doesn’t have many great quarterbacks.
Patrick Mahomes brought up another interesting culprit — the jersey number rules the NFL adopted in 2021. The NFL allowed defensive backs to wear any number from 1 to 49 and linebackers from 1 to 59 because teams were running out of jersey numbers at certain positions.
Tom Brady immediately complained, saying it would be more difficult for quarterbacks to identify linebackers, cornerbacks, and safeties.
“The number rule is crazy,” he said then. “It would be like saying, ‘What if I let the offensive linemen wear 82 and No. 9?’ They wouldn’t know who was eligible. Well, that’s not fair. You’ll get your tail kicked. At least identify who the D-line, the linebackers, and the safeties are. You’re going to have a lot of matchups where guys are blocking the wrong guys. I don’t know why that should be.”
In 2020, the year before the rule change, the leaguewide passer rating was a record 93.6. In 2021, it dropped to 90.8, then to 89.1 in 2022 and 88.8 this season. Several other stats have taken a similar downward trajectory, including completion percentage, interceptions, and yards per attempt. Mahomes thinks the jersey numbers are to blame.
“It’s even crazier now because everybody can wear the single digits,” Mahomes said this past week. “We actually go in every week and we really emphasize the numbers because when you’ve got a number like No. 7 playing middle linebacker, that can really mess with your tells for the O-linemen. It looks cool, I’ll give everybody that, but it makes it a little difficult for the QB.”
turn things around
When the calendar flipped to October, the Week 11 Vikings-Broncos matchup seemed like a decent bet to be flexed out of the “Sunday Night Football” slot. Both teams were 0-3, and the Broncos were coming off a historic 70-20 loss to the Dolphins.
Instead, Sunday night’s game features two of the hottest teams. The Vikings are 6-4 and riding the NFL’s longest current win streak at five games, while the Broncos are 4-5 and have won three in a row, including consecutive wins over the Chiefs and Bills.
The Vikings have kept winning despite Kirk Cousins tearing his Achilles’ three weeks ago. The five-game win streak has also come with Justin Jefferson being out with a hamstring injury.
Quarterback Josh Dobbs was acquired in a trade two weeks ago and pulled off wins against the Falcons and Saints despite barely knowing the playbook. Coach Kevin O’Connell has been describing the plays to Dobbs via headset.
“It’s pretty remarkable,” Broncos coach Sean Payton said. “I don’t think that happens often, or if it has ever happened. You may occasionally say, ‘Hey, heads up for [this],’ or, ‘Look for this.’ It’s a credit to [Dobbs] and the coaches there. It’s impressive.”
As for the Broncos, they have made significant improvement in two important areas. One is on defense, where they are still 32nd in points allowed (27.6 per game) thanks largely to that 70-point effort from Miami. But since Week 6, the Broncos are No. 3 in points allowed (16.8) and have allowed just six touchdowns in four games. They also have forced nine takeaways in their last two games.
And Russell Wilson, who turns 35 on Nov. 29, is experiencing a renaissance after looking washed up last year. Wilson has 18 touchdowns passes and four interceptions for a 104.0 rating, fourth best in the NFL. Broncos receiver Courtland Sutton posted a “Russell Wilson apology form” on social media to needle media and fans who counted out Wilson.
The key has been limiting Wilson to short, safe throws — his completion percentage has improved remarkably from 60.5 last year to 67.9 this year, but his 6.9 air yards per attempt rank seventh fewest out of 37 quarterbacks.
Payton took a lot of flak early in the season for his arrogant comments about Jets offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett and for his team’s poor start. But Payton has the Broncos moving in the right direction.
Good plan gone awry
Lost in the hubbub of the Patriots’ embarrassing loss to the Colts last Sunday, and Mac Jones’s future with the team, and Bill Belichick’s future with the team, was a solid explanation by Matthew Slater of what went wrong on the Patriots’ ill-fated punt block.
A refresher of the scenario: The Colts were leading, 7-3, early in the second quarter, punting from their 13-yard line. The Patriots called a punt block and didn’t have anyone back deep, so when Rigoberto Sanchez was able to get the kick off, it rolled all the way to the Patriots’ 18-yard line for a 69-yard punt.
Slater said the Patriots were surprised that the Colts used only eight blockers against nine rushers. They expected one of the outside gunners to come into the formation to make it nine-on-nine.
“They didn’t recall the gunner. They zoned the protection,” Slater said. “A lot of coordinators like to be safe and play to the protection first. I give them a lot of credit for trusting that they can zone it off and pick it up with a man short on protection, and they did just that.”
With the Colts keeping both gunners on the outside, it forced punt returner Demario Douglas to come up to the line of scrimmage to defend against the fake, along with Cody Davis on the other side, leaving no one back deep.
Considering how poorly the Patriots’ offense has played, calling for the punt block and trying to create a big play wasn’t wrong. But as with everything else this year, it blew up in the Patriots’ faces.
“We liked the plan going in, and sometimes things don’t turn out the way you’d like them to,” Slater said. “Kudos to them for the way they picked that up and the way they adjusted to it.”
Coming off a Monday night game in Buffalo, Payton devised a unique way to deal with a short week of preparation. Instead of flying back to Denver immediately after the game and landing in the wee hours, as teams almost always do, Payton kept his team in Buffalo for the night and flew back on Tuesday.
The Broncos then had a light Wednesday practice, and heavier practices on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday.
“Back when we didn’t know any better, we just came home,” Payton said. “The recovery when you are up until 5 a.m. is 3½ or four days. Those are workdays, so you stay on your clock, so to speak. That means pushing the week back a day. That recovery period I think is important.”
While Scapegoat Season has come to Buffalo, Desperation Season has come to Carolina, with the Panthers a league-worst 1-8 in their first season under coach Frank Reich. The first act of desperation came during their bye four weeks ago, when Reich decided to give play-calling duties to offensive coordinator Thomas Brown. Three games and 41 points later (13.7 per game), Reich has decided to resume calling plays for Sunday’s game against the Cowboys. If Reich doesn’t start racking up wins and getting improvement out of rookie Bryce Young, it is looking increasingly likely that he will be one-and-done . . . The Chiefs-Eagles matchup on Monday night is just the ninth rematch of the previous season’s Super Bowl. The last such matchup was the Patriots’ Week 7 win over the Falcons in 2017. The Super Bowl winner is 6-2 in the rematches and has won four straight . . . Andy Reid is the career leader for the Eagles with 130 regular-season wins and is tied with Hank Stram for most wins in Chiefs history (124) . . . Josh McDaniels was going to bring the Raiders to Orlando this past week to acclimate his team to the Eastern time zone and Florida heat in advance of Sunday’s 1 p.m. game at Miami. But interim coach Antonio Pierce canceled the trip to instead practice in Las Vegas, but three hours earlier each day. The Raiders traveled Friday . . . Pierce has a chance to be the first interim coach to start 3-0 since Detroit’s Gary Moeller in 2000 . . . The Lions, who host the Bears on Sunday, have won six straight NFC North games for the first time since 1995. The Lions haven’t won seven straight division games since 1970 . . . Courtland Sutton’s 7-yard touchdown catch against the Bills on Monday had a completion probability of 3.2 percent, making it the most improbable catch of the Next Gen Stats era, which began in 2016. Sutton’s shoulder pads were 0.7 yards over the sideline when he made the catch.
Ben Volin can be reached at email@example.com.