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Joe Burrow's Bengals Remain A Favorite Of NFL Pundits: 'Right Back In The Mix'

QB Joe Burrow walks onto the field before kickoff of the Bengals-Steelers game on Saturday, December 23, 2023 at Acrisure Stadium in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
QB Joe Burrow walks onto the field before kickoff of the Bengals-Steelers game on Saturday, December 23, 2023 at Acrisure Stadium in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

LAS VEGAS _ Boomer Esiason of CBS, as breezy as his open-collar shirt, offered a "What's up, kids?" to the reporters at his table before declaring the Bengals "the best team in the division when they're all healthy."

Chris Simms, as a make-up person dabbed at his face before an appearance for NBC, painted it with a broad brush when he observed, "I'd be shocked with what's been created there and the quarterback and the toughness of the Bengals, I think they'll be right back in the mix."

After leafing through his handwritten notes from last month's Pro Football Hall of Fame selection process, media industrialist and father of FMIA Peter King looked up and decided, "The fact these guys figured out a way to get Jake Browning like 88 percent of Joe Burrow is, I think, incredible. I'm very bullish on this coaching staff … I think they're going to be good."

During Tuesday's drive-by sampling of the national media on Radio Row and in press conferences as it gathered for Sunday's Super Bowl, the Bengals remain a favorite of the punditry class before the NFL barrels into the offseason. They cite infrastructure, coaching, and Joseph Lee Burrow.

"To me, Zac Taylor and Duke Tobin have built an impressive program and culture," said Ben Volin, The Boston Globe's NFL writer, of the Bengals head coach and director of player personnel, respectively.  "I thought they were going to fall out after they went to the Super Bowl, but they have really come back just as strong. For them to even get back into the playoff hunt, it's a real sign of toughness. If Burrow is healthy, they're at the top."

The pundits are no different than Bengaldom. Everyone is wondering what they do with free-agent Tee Higgins, a two-time 1,000-yard receiver who had 100 yards in this game two years ago. Esiasion says they have to re-sign him and Volin agrees with the conventional wisdom that they'll at least give Higgins the franchise tag later this month.    

And, everything is predicated on Burrow's health.

Charles Davis, the analyst on CBS' No. 2 crew that was seemingly a fixture at Paycor Stadium this past season, asked, "And please, for all of us, fans or not, can the quarterback be healthy in the preseason? He doesn't have to play in a game. He just has to be able to practice. That's all we're looking for."

But in the same breath he also said, "The rest of it, Duke Tobin and crew make the right moves. They've built up good depth along the way … I don't worry about the Bengals at all."

After leading the Bengals to a 4-3 finish with backup Jake Browning playing for Burrow and taking them to the doorstep of a third straight playoff appearance, Taylor's stock has risen nationally and organically. With the departures of Bill Belichick in New England and Mike Vrabel in Tennessee, Taylor has the fifth most playoff appearances in the AFC, trailing only Kansas City's Andy Reid, Pittsburgh's Mike Tomlin, Baltimore's John Harbaugh, and Buffalo's Sean McDermott.

With Pete Carroll gone in Seattle, Taylor has coached the seventh most games in the NFL. And, at 5-2, Taylor has the second-best winning percentage among coaches with at least seven playoff games. Only the 49ers Kyle Shanahan (8-3) is better.

"Coming so close not having Joe Burrow and finishing with a winning season is a testament to their character," said Solomon Wilcots, the Bengals' Super Bowl XXIII safety, after he finished anchoring the NFL channel's "Opening Drive," on Sirius Radio. "It's something to be encouraged about, but they're not letting off balloons."

That's because Wilcots and another former Bengal in the media, Amazon's Andrew Whitworth, see a critical offseason ahead. Wilcots points to their 1-5 record in the AFC North and the dip in defensive production while Whitworth eyes the need to replenish through the draft in the face of Burrow's record contract.

"If you look at the history of the Bengals in the last 20 years, their runs have been dictated by great drafts," said Whitworth, a member of that 2006 franchise-building class that included Johnathan Joseph and Domata Peko. "Not just good players who could start, but great ones.

"Look at what we did from 2011-15 (when they went to the playoffs every year) with guys like A.J. Green, Geno Atkins, and Carlos Dunlap. And then when Joe came,  there were those great drafts and now they're at the end of that trying to keep as many of them as possible. They've got to kill the last draft and this one."

Wilcots says they have to address several major issues in the offseason, starting with the division record and the slow starts to seasons, as well as fixing a defense that suddenly became prone to allowing big plays.

But the belief in Taylor around the circuit extends to his defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo.

"I still think you've got one of the best defensive coordinators in the game," Simms said. "You've got some young guys who contributed this year and played who are going to be better."

Davis: "They had some young guys in there who had to learn Lou. Does (edge rusher) Joseph Ossai get healthy and contribute like a few years ago? Can (rookie edge) Myles Murphy take that next step?

"They're still one of the better teams out there. They got hit with the injury bug in so many different ways … I don't  worry about them. They'll get a lot of guys healthy. The organization is the healthiest it's been. They've got the right people in the right places."

Pro Football Hall of Fame head coach Bill Cowher, Esiason's teammate in the CBS studio, agreed while holding a cigar as the network news conference broke up.

"If they're healthy, they're one of the teams to beat in the AFC," Cowher said. "I think Lou Anarumo is one of the best defensive coordinators in the game. I think he's proven that. Ask Kansas City. They're the team to beat in the AFC and I think Lou's got a little answer to that.

"Keeping people in free agency, keep building on that offensive line. Even on the defensive line will be a key. But there are a lot of things in place."

Simms calls it, "A really impressive roster in a lot of ways."

"I like the young talent in the secondary. We know the D-Line is good. They could add some depth to it. Offensively, damn, it's close. Let's see what they do with these receivers. Ja'Marr Chase is kept for sure and they keep one of the other two and maybe they have to go to the draft. Receivers are growing on trees right now in the NFL Draft, so you can snag one."

Esiason, the Bengals Ring of Honor member, saw Taylor's staff get broken up for the first time in five years last month when offensive coordinator Brian Callahan replaced Vrabel and it gave him enough pause Tuesday to reflect how the play of Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts dipped this year when his OC, Shane Steichen, became the head coach for the Colts.

But he doesn't see that happening to Burrow when they elevated quarterbacks coach Dan Pitcher.

"I don't know Dan Pitcher, but I'm glad they gave him the job," Esiason said. "That keeps it going."

Pundits or the populace, it always comes back to Burrow, right? Whitworth's Rams beat him and the Bengals in this game two years ago. He thinks it's challenging, but he says they may return.

"I think any time you live in a world with Joe Burrow as your quarterback, you have a chance to get back," Whitworth said.

Which is where Esiason breezed out.

"Most of us who played the game or the position think Joe is one of the top three quarterbacks in the league when he's at his finest," Esiason said. "The future is obviously bright."