The scream reverberated in the fan-less stadium as players circled around Joe Burrow, the Cincinnati Bengals’ star rookie quarterback, who writhed in pain as trainers rushed to his side. A cart soon followed, and within minutes the benches cleared as players from both teams offered encouragement before he was taken back to the locker room.
The sight has sadly become a familiar one at FedEx Field in November. Another quarterback’s season lost to a gruesome injury. Another game decided by a staggering shift as players, still shaken by the incident, continued onward.
On Sunday, the Washington Football Team turned a close game into a lopsided affair after Burrow’s exit to defeat the Bengals, 20-9. The win was Washington’s first at home against Cincinnati since 1985 and improved the team’s record to 3-7 — just a half-game out of first place in the NFC East.
The victory was ugly and especially eerie after Burrow’s left knee was mangled by a high-low hit from Washington linemen Montez Sweat and Jonathan Allen early in the third quarter, when the Bengals, then leading 9-7, were pushed back deep in their own territory after Tress Way dropped a punt on their 2-yard line.
Just as Burrow unleashed a pass to wide receiver Tyler Boyd on a third and two, Allen appeared to be pushed into Burrow’s left knee by a Bengals lineman and Sweat whipped around the left edge of the line to tackle the rookie.
Players stopped in a trance, most seeming to know immediately the severity of the injury. And when they all dapped up Burrow and wished him well, the clock started on an entirely different game.
Players from both teams came over to pat Joe Burrow in the head before he was carted off. pic.twitter.com/Dz5w5Wwjwh— Nicki Jhabvala (@NickiJhabvala) November 22, 2020
“It did,” Washington Coach Ron Rivera said. “Joe, he’s a very talented player. He understands the game — he understands it better than most people. You bring in the backup who doesn’t get the snaps and doesn’t know what to anticipate and stuff like that, the defense can take advantage. That’s what our defense did. … It was really good to see them play and to be able to cut it loose.”
The momentum shift began with Washington’s offense, which quickly embarked on the first of three consecutive scoring drives to reclaim and pad the lead. A pair of big runs from rookie running back Antonio Gibson sandwiched around a 14-yard catch by Terry McLaurin set up a three-yard touchdown pass from Alex Smith to Steven Sims Jr. to put Washington ahead. The touchdown pass was the second this season for Smith, who earned his first win since his own gruesome injury at FedEx Field in November two years ago.
“It felt really, really good,” he said with a grin afterward. “Another step, another thing I never thought I’d be doing again.”
In the same week before Thanksgiving in 2018 and wearing the same throwback uniform no less, Smith left the field in an ambulance, not knowing whether he would return to any field, let alone this one. Since he came back, Smith has witnessed numerous reminders of his own experience and the sport’s brutality. His first game back was followed by a devastating injury to Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott that Smith witnessed on TV. Smith’s first start a month later came by way of injury to then-starter Kyle Allen. And now his first win included a potentially serious injury to Burrow, the No. 1 overall pick in this year’s draft.
“Tough to see,” Smith said. “It was obviously tough a few weeks ago to see Kyle carted off, and then see it come out again today with Joe is tough as well. Obviously wishing him the best and a speedy recovery.”
In recent weeks, Washington’s first halves have been riddled with mistakes and “missed opportunities,” as Rivera has said, forcing the team to use the second half to make up for lost time. Against the New York Giants and the Detroit Lions, Washington came close to overcoming its faults but couldn’t eke out a win.
Against the Bengals on Sunday, Washington’s early mistakes were again problematic. Its first possession was stalled by a sack that extended its scoring drought on opening possessions to 11 games. And its coverage on defense was so poor that the Bengals got off 42 plays, earned 16 first downs, racked up 247 yards and had possession for 19:11 in the first half. Washington, meanwhile, could muster only 125 yards of offense — 42 of which came from one play, a deep pass to McLaurin — and seven first downs.
But this time, the miscues were surmountable. A forced fumble of Burrow by rookie defensive end Chase Young shut down one Cincinnati scoring attempt, in the second quarter, and the costly misses of Cincinnati’s kicker, Randy Bullock, spared other scores.
Bullock had two field goal attempts — one for 34 yards and another for 58 — that hit the right upright and an extra-point attempt that sailed wide right. He did, however, nail a 53-yard field goal to cap a nine-play drive and give the Bengals the lead at 9-7 in the second quarter.
That lead held up for the remainder of the first half, but the game quickly turned about three minutes into the second, when Burrow, who indicated in a tweet shortly before the game ended that he would miss the rest of the season, went down.
“We definitely took over after that,” Young said. “The sacks started coming, and everything just started falling into place. I just felt like even at the start of the game, we went out there with more emotion. I just felt like we had a lot more fun out there playing ball just together as a group. I felt like we trusted each other a lot more out there today.”
Young, whose late-game penalty contributed to Washington’s loss at Detroit a week earlier, appeared to be fired up more than usual Sunday. He was the team’s hype man in the huddle after warmups, a role typically assumed by veterans, and the most vocal player on the sideline and between plays.
“I said, 'These 16 days out of the year, why can’t you be a dog?’ ” Young recalled of his speech to teammates. “… I told them that with passion. I felt like that energy before the game helped lead us into the game with energy and momentum.”
The play of the defense in the second half was on another level. Washington held the Bengals to only 25 yards, including seven passing yards, and zero scoring drives and forced a turnover — an interception by cornerback Fabian Moreau.
All the while, Washington’s offense picked up 200 yards, including 114 on the ground, 13 first downs and three scoring drives.
Hopkins had a chance to expand Washington’s lead even further late in the fourth, but he missed a 38-yard kick — his fourth miss in five games and his sixth on the season.
“We’ve been in a lot of games this year [where] we haven’t quite finished,” McLaurin said. “We had a strong second half, we came back stronger, but I feel like we did a little better job of getting off to a faster start, and that has to be continued to get better. Just to get a win is a good feeling, especially when you’ve taken some tough losses in our locker room.”