NFL Analysis


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Joe Burrow Is Latest Victim in NFL Season Defined by QB Injuries

Joe Burrow looks downcast on the sideline next to the team tent without his helmet on
Nov 16, 2023; Baltimore, Maryland, USA; Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow (9) on the sideline during the second quarter against the Baltimore Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Editor's note: After publish it was announced that Joe Burrow will mess the rest of the NFL season because of a torn ligament in his wrist.

The quarterback landscape took another hit Thursday night. 

With about six minutes to go in the first half, Cincinnati Bengals QB Joe Burrow took a shot to his throwing wrist. He was clearly in pain, but it didn't immediately look to be anything serious. Then, Burrow tried throwing a football on the sideline. 

Before his arm could come all the way forward, his grip went limp, and the ball slipped right out of his hand. Burrow, clearly frustrated, tried throwing again, only to suffer the same fate. He was promptly taken back to the Bengals’ locker room, ruled out for the game and replaced by backup Jake Browning. The Bengals would go on to lose to the Baltimore Ravens, 34-20.

For now, we don't know how severe Burrow's injury really is. He never came out with a cast or a wrap or anything, but he also didn't use his right hand to dap up Lamar Jackson after the game. After the game, Cincinnati coach Zac Taylor said the team believes Burrow sprained his wrist. That sounds rather mild, but that also shouldn’t be taken so lightly that we can assume he will be fine by next week. 

Regardless, Burrow's injury goes beyond the Bengals and his own timeline. It's a reminder of the state of the league as a whole. 

The entire quarterback landscape is in flux because of injuries all up and down the spectrum, ranging from anything between a pesky broken finger and a season-ending torn Achilles. Some guys are done for the year and have been replaced by subpar talents, while others are on and off the field or playing below their level thanks to a nagging injury. 

Six quarterbacks have already missed or will miss at least half the season. Kyler Murray missed the first nine weeks of the season recovering from last year's ACL tear. Aaron Rodgers tore his Achilles four snaps into his debut as the New York Jets’ quarterback. Kirk Cousins suffered the same injury the week of the trade deadline. 

Rookie Anthony Richardson went out for the season with an AC joint injury to his throwing shoulder in Week 5. Daniel Jones tore his ACL two weeks ago, leaving the New York Giants with Tommy DeVito at the helm. And just this week, the Cleveland Browns announced Deshaun Watson was done for the season with a shoulder issue.

It's not just the guys missing extended time, either. A handful of other quarterbacks have been on and off the field — or are set to return from some less serious injuries. Matthew Stafford missed a game with a thumb injury, giving way to a Brett Rypien start. Justin Fields is about to return from a thumb injury that cost him a month of playing time. You might remember that Ryan Tannehill's benching also started because of a high-ankle sprain a few weeks ago. 

And that doesn't even get to the tough guys who are just playing through it. While Burrow and his calf injury is the one that sticks out, Justin Herbert has also been pushing through and playing with a broken finger on his left hand for about a month now. Burrow was severely limited for the first month of the season and Herbert played arguably the worst three-game stretch of his career with these injuries mucking everything up. 

All that attrition would be bad in any year. The sport just isn't built to sustain quarterback injuries, especially in the modern passing era. It's why the roughing-the-passer rules are as obnoxious as they are. 

There might not have ever been a worse year for quarterback injuries than 2023, though. 

According to Mike Sando of The Athletic, 2023 is the youngest that Week 1 NFL starting quarterbacks have been since 1957, well before the AFL-NFL merger. It's no mystery how we got here, either. A golden era of quarterbacks finally aged out and was replaced by younger talent. Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Phillip Rivers, Ben Roethlisberger and Matt Ryan were all staple NFL starters just a few years ago, and now none of them are in the league. 

Remember that before any young backups played or took over the starting job. It does not include Zach Wilson stepping in for Rodgers or Tyson Bagent filling in for Fields. It does not include Clayton Tune starting a game for the Arizona Cardinals or Dorian-Thompson Robinson playing for spurts in place of Watson. Will Levis overtaking Tannehill and Aidan O'Connell being subbed in for Jimmy Garoppolo weren't part of the math, either. And DeVito playing real snaps for the Giants certainly wasn't in the equation.

The combination of a young Week 1 group, injuries to established starters and the insertion of even more youth as the season has worn on has been the main catalyst for 2023 feeling like a "down" year for quarterback play. There aren't as many veterans you can set your clock to anymore, and about half of the reliable guys who are left have been banged up to one degree or another. 

It doesn't just feel like a down year for quarterback play: Your feelings are fleshed out in the numbers. Production is down in a serious way this season. 

Stacked chart showing EPA per dropback

According to TruMedia, the average EPA per dropback across the league this season is -0.01. TruMedia data only goes back to 2000, but that's the lowest figure over that span and the only time the average has been below zero. The second-worst mark was last season at 0.01, which helps highlight how young the league was already trending before the final batch of early-to-mid 2000s quarterbacks finally bowed out. 

It's not just the age and injuries, of course. There are some other factors at play. 

Offensive coaching feels a little stale right now thanks to the same two coaching staffs getting pilfered over and over for the last six years. Defensive coaching, by contrast, is as creative and free-flowing as it's been in over a decade, finally free from the shackles of the Legion of Boom copycat era. 

The pass-rusher to pass-protector ratio is a factor, as well. There are also just way, way more good pass-rushers than there are pass-protectors in this league, making it harder for quarterbacks of all experience levels to play with comfort. 

Still, it's clear how much a youth movement and injuries across the board are muddying the quarterback landscape. There have only been a handful of quarterbacks in the middle of the "trusted, high-level quarterback" and "clean bill of health" Venn diagram to this point in the season. 

The league is just never going to feel the same as it used to when that's the case. 

Tags: Joe Burrow