Joe Burrow injury gives Bengals a sobering look at holes on roster, staff

CINCINNATI -- Great players are able to mask a team's flaws and produce winning moments.

That's why even during a truncated rookie year, Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow proved he's already a transcendent quarterback. As the 2020 top overall draft pick turning into one of the NFL's top rookies, he helped transform Cincinnati into a franchise that was trending upward in its rebuild.

That was before the sobering moment he went down last Sunday against Washington with a season-ending knee injury. The 20-9 loss highlighted a few of the issues that had previously been overlooked because of the optimism surrounding Burrow.

Over the final six games of 2020, the Bengals have no choice but to face their flaws. That process has already started with the preparation for Sunday's home game against the New York Giants (1 p.m. ET, FOX).

Cincinnati (2-7-1) is expected to start Brandon Allen at quarterback, a decision that indicates their previous backup, second-year QB Ryan Finley, isn't the best option for winning games. It's a firm evaluation that will likely be a trend as the Bengals try to salvage the 2020 season with a few wins.

"Ultimately, winning is what it comes down to," coach Zac Taylor said. "We have to find ways to finish off games and get a complete game in all three phases from our team because we got to go win."

A postseason appearance in 2020 was always unlikely. But if the Bengals showed some promise, a playoff push in 2021 could be more than realistic.

With Burrow out for an undetermined amount of time, Cincinnati is forced to evaluate the shaky parts of the roster. That apparently included its No. 2 quarterback.

Finley, a fourth-round pick in 2019, was the primary backup since the beginning of last season and held that role throughout training camp. However, after last Sunday's outing in which he went 3-of-10 passing for 30 yards after Burrow's injury, the Bengals opted for Allen against the Giants (3-7). By going with the sparsely-used veteran, it was an admission that Cincinnati's depth chart wasn't as strong as it previously believed.

The quarterback spot doesn't appear to be the only position that received a hard look after Burrow's devastating injury. Based off Wednesday's practice, recent signee Quinton Spain could replace Michael Jordan, another 2019 fourth-round pick, at left guard. Jordan struggled against Washington and was beaten on the play when Burrow suffered his knee injury in the third quarter.

The coaching staff won't be the only ones evaluating the roster the rest of the way.

Bengals safety Jessie Bates, who has three interceptions and has been among the NFL's top safeties, noted that it will be easy for players to become disengaged at practices as the temperature dips and the work feels even more tedious. Bates said it will be up to the team leaders to set an example to those who want to remain in Cincinnati after 2020.

"If you're not playing to that standard or not doing everything to that standard, then I think it should make it clear what is going to happen next year, who is going to be here in this locker room and stuff like that," Bates said.

If Burrow can make a full recovery as anticipated and return to the field around next September, the Bengals will have a realistic opportunity to end a five-year playoff drought. The Bengals will get another opportunity to address their weaknesses, fortify the roster and coaching staff and give Burrow and the team a chance to truly be successful.

Bengals safety Vonn Bell, one of last offseason's big additions, views the remainder of 2020 as a time for self-reflection and to find ways to improve and push forward.

"That's when you dig deep," Bell said. "And that's when you find out who you truly are."