CINCINNATI -- The Cincinnati Bengals' hope for the future was stretched across a medical cart as he came off the field for the final time this season.
With one hit against the Washington Football Team in Sunday's 20-9 loss, quarterback Joe Burrow injured multiple ligaments in his left knee, sources told ESPN. Instantly, Cincinnati's worst-case scenario for Burrow's rookie year occurred and fans began to wonder who was more at fault -- second-year coach Zac Taylor or the front office.
Since the end of last season, the Bengals prepared themselves to draft Burrow with the first overall pick. That meant a series of uncharacteristic moves for a traditionally conservative franchise.
Burrow's injury indirectly stemmed from the Bengals' desire to find the best way to continue to keep building around him. And if anything, the Bengals have proved in 2020 that they will do whatever it takes to put him in position to succeed.
"For those of you that were at [preseason] practice that felt the energy of the team when he was our quarterback moving the ball, you felt like we could have a lot of success," Taylor said after Sunday's loss. "And he's given us a chance."
For the 10 games Burrow played this season, the former LSU standout and Heisman Trophy winner more than gave Cincinnati a chance to improve on last year's 2-14 season. He represented the best way forward for the Bengals to reach the playoffs for the first time since 2015 and their first postseason victory since January 1991.
Coming into Burrow's rookie season, there were questions about an offensive line that ranked next-to-last in 2019 in pass block win rate, an ESPN metric powered by NFL Next Gen Stats.
The line the Bengals (2-7-1) used against Washington (3-7) was one with an eye toward protecting Burrow in 2021. Recent free-agent acquisition Quinton Spain started at right guard over Alex Redmond, and rookie Hakeem Adeniji got the nod at right tackle after a strong performance against Pittsburgh in Week 10.
But on the third-and-2 play in which Burrow got hurt, Washington's Montez Sweat went around Adeniji and was one of two players who hit Burrow a split-second after he delivered an incomplete pass to Bengals receiver Tyler Boyd.
Taylor was asked to defend an offensive line that was deemed a question mark since last season.
"The hit as I saw it wasn't when he had the ball in his hand," Taylor said. "And people keep talking about the offensive line without seemingly watching the film from the last four weeks."
Burrow suffered an unhealthy amount of punishment early in the season. In the first five weeks of 2020, the Bengals were ranked 27th in pass block win rate and Burrow was sacked more than any quarterback in the league.
But from Weeks 6-10, Cincinnati was 22nd in that category and Burrow was 13th out of 25 qualifying quarterbacks in contacts, according to ESPN Stats & Information. During that span, Burrow's pressure rate was 27.2%, which was only slightly higher than the league average of 25.1%, per NFL Next Gen.
The numbers explain why Taylor was defiant in his defense of Burrow's protection.
"Joe's done a good job moving us down the field, and we felt like we're making a lot of progress over the last five weeks, and we're not going to apologize for any of that," Taylor said.
While that may be true, the Bengals now must continue to see if there's more room for improvement across that offensive line throughout the offseason.
With Sunday's loss, the Bengals are trending toward the No. 3 pick in the 2021 draft, according to ESPN's Football Power Index. Cincinnati has a 57.4% chance of selecting in the top five, which gives the Bengals a great chance at Oregon offensive tackle Penei Sewell, the No. 3 player in Mel Kiper Jr.'s most recent prospect ranking.
When it became clear the Bengals were going to draft Burrow in 2020, the franchise started to cater all of its moves toward helping Burrow be successful. A front office hesitant to give big deals to external free agents shelled out a combined $95 million on deals to defensive tackle D.J. Reader and cornerback Trae Waynes. That mindset extended to the field as Cincinnati catered its offensive scheme to help him acclimate to the NFL as quickly as possible. That meant using more empty formations and bunch sets with wide receivers to help him quickly read defenses.
Before the injury, Burrow was on pace to break the record for most passing yards by a rookie in a single season that was set by Andrew Luck in 2012. Instead, the Bengals suffered the one thing that was going to hinder their rebuilding project in 2020: a season-ending injury to their franchise quarterback.
The Bengals' mission, however, remains the same as it was at the beginning of 2020. Even with Burrow sidelined, they will continue to find the best way to build around Burrow until he returns.
"Joe, he's going to be fine," said Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green. "He's a fighter. He's a competitor. He's going to come back even better."