A good 90 minutes after gathering around the cart and paying Joe Burrow the respect a great warrior deserves leaving the field, the Bengals were still having trouble finding the words following the 20-9 loss at Washington's FedEx Field.
After all, Burrow had been everything and more as their rookie franchise quarterback. In a very strange year and a bizarre season, he had been a comforting constant. Now ten-and-a-half games into such a promising career, Bengaldom finds itself assuming it's a torn ACL in that left knee and crossing its fingers it's nothing more.
Cut and paste vents on 2020 here.
"My thoughts right now are with Joe," said a downcast Ryan Finley, the man who came off the bench to replace him early in the third quarter. "I hope he's going to be OK and have a speedy recovery. That was tough to see. We've grown close. That was hard to see."
It was tough enough to see that CBS made sure not to show the replay of what appeared to be Washington defensive tackle Johnathan Allen getting tangled up and falling into the outside of Burrow's knee as he was stepping up to throw a deep ball down the right sideline to slot receiver Tyler Boyd.
It was unclear if the network censored it for the sickening image of Allen's 300 pounds falling on Burrow's knee or because of his anguished cries as he grabbed it.
But it was a good and decent call and there hasn't been a lot of that in 2020.
"It's not fun. He's making improvements every week and we were getting the offense headed in a direction that we thought was exciting," said head coach Zac Taylor. "And I really felt like in that first half, we missed some opportunities for points, it was unbelievable. We felt like we were doing a great job moving the ball, and only came up with nine points somehow.
"And we felt really good coming out of the second half and then to lose your quarterback is tough, but that's the way it goes and next man up is [Ryan] Finley. Finley came up and we got to help him, I have to put him in some better situations there to give him some confidence going early, and we just didn't get it done all the way around."
When Burrow got hurt, the Bengals had rolled up 255 yards and 16 first downs and had somehow scored just nine points. That would seem like a bonanza. They got 17, two and none the rest of way in a daze.
Bengals defensive end Carl Lawson, who set the tone until Burrow went down when he ended the game's first series with a sack of Alex Smith, felt the air go out and tried to put it back in.
"Anybody's morale is bad, especially for a guy like Joe," Lawson said. "A leader for a rookie, he's the heart and soul of this team. The morale was bad, but it's not really an excuse. Especially when you're in the heat of battle, if you're wounded your partner does not care. My mentality was to go out there and fight and play as hard as I could."
The way the game changed so dramatically for both sides of the ball, it shows you what Burrow means to them beyond the game. Taylor knew it and tried to get out in front of it when he spoke to his team during the break in the action.
"I just told them that we needed to come out with some emotion," Taylor said. "That's an injury to a team leader that can take the wind out of your sails and we wanted to try to recapture some energy that we had going into halftime. Unfortunately, they went down and scored a touchdown and we had a three and out, so we didn't get that done"
It even impacted a guy like seven-time Pro Bowler A.J. Green.
"It was tough, but that's no excuse," Green said. "We are all NFL players so we have to rally behind Ryan, but it was tough you see a guy like Joe and you see the energy he brings to our team, to our offense."
GREEN TD: It was turning out to be such a good day.
You had a feeling it was going to get even better when the good guy Green, who has gone through his own injury issues, scored his first touchdown in more than two years. It was on a five-yard fling from Burrow for their first score, ending a skein of unbelievable frustration.
It was their third possession of the game and the third time they drove inside the Washington 15 and it was their first points of the day. But how about Green's frustration? It was his first score since Oct. 28, 2018 and if that seems like it was 22 years ago, it might as well have been.
And what turned out to be the last touchdown pass (unlucky 13th as it were) of what should have been a record-breaking rookie year showed just how good Burrow is. Blitzing safety Kamren Curl was hanging on to his leg as Burrow flicked it home to Green getting leverage breaking to the front pylon across the goal line.
"Just a return. They play a lot of heavy on the side and got to run a lot of slants," Green said. "Joe gave me a perfect ball, just had to make the play."
Can you name the other four Bengals that have thrown Green his 64 career TDs, two shy of Chad Johnson's all-time receiving record? Of course, Andy Dalton, Bruce Gradkowski, AJ McCarron and wide receiver Mohamed Sanu. The last time they played at FedEx, Green caught a 73-yard touchdown pass from Sanu out of the Wild Cat on the first play of the game.
NO EXCUSES: Finley was a stand-up guy. If there's a rustier backup quarterback in the league this side of the guy in Tampa Bay, it has to be him. No spring. No pre-season games. Hardly any reps in a truncated training camp. But after he was three of 10 for 30 yards to go with an interception, he just looked ahead to next week's game against the Giants. Plus, he was sacked four times with Washington grabbing the lead and the line adjusting to a guy that doesn't get it out as quickly as Burrow.
No doubt Brandon Allen gets elevated from the practice squad to back up Finley and the search is on for a practice squad backup.
"I mean, I think guys were a little shook, to be honest," Finley said. "But, you know we have to roll. We've got the Giants next week and we got a lot of games left in the season. Many that we feel like we can win. So it's time to move on and it's time to prepare harder than we have, and even more than we have, and try to keep getting some wins."
Finley had three starts as a rookie last year, so he's been there before and he says that puts him a step ahead.
"I think any game, any week of preparation where you are the starter is very helpful so, just kind of navigating a week of practice, being the starter and kind of what's expected of you preparation wise," Finley said. "That was something that I've learned and learned in those three games where I played last year, and I'll lean on that now. But, you know, not much will change, as far as preparation goes for this week because Joe did a really good job with that. So kind of same old same old just get back to work and get our get our guys ready."
BATES MOTEL: Safety Jessie Bates III continues to scare quarterbacks. In the tenth game of his third season he tied his career-high with his third interception. This was a big one, coming in the final minute of the first half when Margus Hunt, the 6-8 defensive end, leaped and Alex Smith's pass went off his helmet.
Bates grabbed the rebound at about midfield and it gave Randy Bullock a 58-yard try at the gun for the franchise record, but it hit the right upright.
One more interception and Bates ties Barney Bussey with 10 picks by a Bengals safety. Daryl Williams and Dick Jaron are next with 11 and current Bengal Shawn Williams looms at 12. Marvin Cobb (13), Robert Jackson (15), Tommy Casanova (17) and Reggie Nelson (23) are on the way to David Fulcher's club safety record of 31.
LINE SWITCH: The Bengals gave rookie Hakeem Adeniji his first NFL start at right tackle after his first two starts at left tackle went well the last two games and Jonah Williams returned to the left side. Taylor went back to starter Bobby Hart at right tackle after Adeniji gave up a sack when Finley came in and the ball wasn't coming out as quickly.
"Just a decision we made there late in the game," Taylor said. "Bobby was coming off an injury the last couple weeks. We felt like Hakeem had done a good job and just decided to put him out there at right tackle today, but again Bobby's done everything you can to get yourself back in shape to play football for us."
D PLAY: The defense played well enough to win, considering they were on the field for 20 of the second half's 30 minutes. They held an offense that had 464 yards the previous week to 325. But, they didn't make the stand they needed against the run, allowing 4.8 yards per 34 carries.
"They weren't going to try to lose the game a lot of times, especially in the second half," Lawson said. "It definitely started happening on the rare pass plays that they had. They weren't taking chances. They were going to throw a screen, quick pass or something like that and just run the ball and try to get the clock down."
UPRIGHT CITY: Bengals kicker Randy Bullock hit more posts Sunday than a landscaper on a day that came out of nowhere. He came into the game 19 of 21, but his 34-yard attempt hit the right upright. So did his 58-yarder at the end of the half that would have been a franchise record, a terrific effort. He also missed his first extra point of the year. But his 53-yarder was huge and gave them a 9-7 lead.