There were blown calls, missed calls and a replayed third down that is one of the most unacceptable calls in NFL history.
Yet the Bengals still had a chance to win with Joe Burrow.
Re-watching and breaking down all those judgment calls isn’t going to help now. It won’t hide the obvious call on linebacker Joseph Ossai that set up Kansas City’s game-winning field goal against Cincinnati in a 23-20 AFC championship victory. The Bengals missed a second Super Bowl shot with Burrow, but he believes there is more to come.
“I feel great about the direction we’re headed, that’s the great thing about the NFL: it’s not college where you only have four years — you have as many years as you want to,” Burrow said. “This one hurts, but we’ll come back strong.”
You only have four years on a rookie contract, though. Three of the four teams playing on conference championship weekend had QBs on rookie deals, and that places even more pressure on the Bengals to break through in 2023. That’s the final season of Burrow’s four-year, $36 million deal.
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For Cincinnati, there are five areas to address in 2023, and that starts with that contract.
What will Joe Burrow’s next contract look like?
There has been a lot of talk about a “team-friendly deal” for Burrow, but that can lead to some dangerous fantasies about the numbers. Burrow, 26 is going to make at least $40 million per year when you look at the top 10 quarterback contracts by year in the NFL right now.
|Aaron Rodgers, Packers||40||$50.2 million||2027|
|Russell Wilson, Broncos||35||$49 million||2029|
|Kyler Murray, Cardinals||26||$46.1 million||2029|
|Deshaun Watson, Browns||28||$46.1 million||2027|
|Patrick Mahomes, Chiefs||28||$45 million||2032|
|Josh Allen, Bills||27||$43 million||2029|
|Derek Carr, Raiders||32||$40.4 million||2026|
|Matthew Stafford, Rams||35||$40 million||2027|
|Dak Prescott, Cowboys||30||$40 million||2025|
|Kirk Cousins, Vikings||35||$35 million||2024|
Expect Burrow to be right in that range with Kyler Murray, Deshaun Watson, Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen – who have hit that second contract. In-state rival Cleveland and the absurd contract for Deshaun Watson also is a factor here. Should Watson be making more money than Burrow given the Bengals look like the team to beat in the AFC North for the next decade?
It would be best to get that extension worked on during the regular season so the Bengals can get a sense of who else they can pay in the future. There will be a lot of comparisons to Tom Brady and how he restructured deals to keep key players in New England during those Super Bowl runs.
Can the Bengals do the same thing?
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Make tough free-agent decisions
Burrow isn’t the only offensive star playing on a rookie contract. Tee Higgins – who has back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons with almost identical production as the Bengals’ No. 2 receiver – also has one year left on his deal. Can the Bengals afford to pay Higgins now and Ja’Marr Chase after his rookie deal expires? That’s the first tough decision, and Burrow likely will push for this because it gives him one of the best receiver tandems in the league – if not the best.
Receiver Tyler Boyd, linebacker Logan Wilson and defensive tackle D.J. Reader also have one year left on their deals. Reader, a dominant run-stuffer, has to be a priority among that group.
Who goes? The answer could be the secondary. ESPN’s Adam Schefter listed the key unrestricted free agents the Bengals could lose this offseason, and that includes several key players could be out.
Bengals’ key unrestricted free agents this off-season: S Jessie Bates, S Vonn Bell, TE Hayden Hurst, CB Eli Apple, LB Germaine Pratt, RB Samaje Perine, TE Drew Sample, CB Tre Flowers.
Bengals projected to be $44 million under salary cap, but also budgeting for Joe Burrow deal.
— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) January 30, 2023
Bates played on a franchise tag this season, and Bell and Apple have been solid role-players in the secondary. Cincinnati drafted safety Dax Hill and cornerback Cam Taylor-Britt as their replacements. Taylor-Britt can fill that role, but Hill still will have a lot to prove in his second season. At least Bengals owner Mike Brown and player personnel director Duke Tobin have planned for that.
MORE: How controversial calls and non-calls played a role in the ending to Bengals vs. Chiefs
Fix the offensive line (again)
The Bengals did address their offensive line last offseason, so this becomes another tricky question. Injuries depleted the unit in the playoffs, with three starters missing. During Cincinnati’s eight-game win streak, Burrow was never sacked more than twice.
Still, Burrow was sacked five times against the Chiefs, including four in the first half. He’s taken 27 sacks in seven career postseason games, including seven in last year’s Super Bowl 56 loss to Los Angeles. With Jonah Williams and Hakeem Adeniji having one year left on their respective deals, maybe this is the year to draft two or three offensive linemen.
Will Lou Anarumo stay?
Lou Anarumo, who has been the defensive coordinator the last four seasons, had a fantastic season. The Bengals ranked sixth in the NFL in scoring defense, and Anarumo became renowned for second-half adjustments.
Cincinnati allowed an average of just 8.4 points in the second half and 3.7 points in the fourth quarter this season. Anarumo, 56, has been with head coach Zac Taylor from the start in Cincinnati.
He has not previously interviewed for any head coaching positions, but the Cardinals reportedly plan to talk with him about their opening.
Don’t be a villain
There is a narrative out there that the Bengals are poised to be the NFL’s next-great villain – and Ossai’s unsportsmanlike conduct penalty was the classic “Bungles” moment that led to schadenfreude for Kansas City fans.
After all, this was a week where the term “Burrowhead” seemingly was echoing from every corner on both sides, including Cincinnati Mayor Aftab Pureval. Did all that pregame chatter amount to anything in the game? No, other than maybe motivating Kansas City defensive lineman Chris Jones.
MORE: Patrick Mahomes, Travis Kelce clap back at ‘Burrowhead’ comments after beating Bengals
Does it impact the perception of the Bengals with Burrow? Absolutely. Last year, Cincinnati was the feel-good story with Burrow – the lovable quarterback whose Heisman Trophy speech at LSU in 2019 is still must-watch material.
Now, the Bengals are being cast as the reboot of “That ’70s Show.” In this case, we’re talking about the Raiders. Oakland reached seven AFC championship games in that decade, but they went 1-6 in those appearances. That’s not a trend the Bengals want to follow, especially with Burrow at quarterback, if they want to win the franchise’s first Super Bowl.
Like Burrow said, that window will be open for his entire career. But the window will have a different shape after 2023 – which is their best shot to break through. All those blown calls, missed calls – and even the replayed third down – are things fans of the 1970s Raiders can relate to. See: “Immaculate Reception.”
Despite all that nonsense, Cincinnati still had the ball with 2:30 remaining from its own 6-yard line with a chance to win. They had chances, too. Burrow hit a 23-yard pass to Hayden Hurst on a third-and-16 (after a questionable intentional grounding call). Then the drive stalled on a Jones’ sack.
The Bengals punted, and Mahomes did the rest. How much help Mahomes had is questionable, but there is no debate who advanced to play the Eagles in Super Bowl 57.
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The Bengals missed a shot with Burrow. Embracing the villain role will not change those calls.
With Burrow, there still is plenty of time to be a hero.