Last weekend, Ryan Finley marked his first NFL start for Cincinnati with a fumble, a pick-six and one touchdown in a 49-13 torching by the Baltimore Ravens. But most Bengals fans probably weren’t that interested in events at Paul Brown Stadium. More likely, their attention was focused on Louisiana State University’s visit to Alabama, and the battle between their much-touted quarterbacks Tua Tagovailoa and Joe Burrow.
At 0-9, Cincinnati are firmly in the driving seat to pick first in the 2020 NFL Draft. With Andy Dalton benched and Finley already proving why he was only a fourth-round draft pick in 2019, Cincy are widely expected to take a signal caller from either LSU and ‘Bama. So this weekend’s SEC West contest between them – a 46-41 humdinger in favour of LSU that featured seven TD throws – was the perfect opportunity to watch the top college QBs go head to head.
Is it time for Tua?
In some respects, it wasn’t a fair fight. Tua was short of practice time, having just returned from surgery after a high ankle sprain. We know (through AJ Green’s bitter experience) that these things don’t heal overnight but impressively, Tagovailoa was out for less than three weeks. Last year, he had the same op on his other ankle, came back after a fortnight and immediately threw four touchdowns!
Not surprisingly, Tua struggled initially and ‘Bama spent the game playing catch-up. He wasn’t composed under pressure, he gave away an inexplicable fumble and he was also intercepted. That said, his accuracy – especially when going deep – was impressive, as illustrated by several bombs to wideout DeVonta Smith, including 64-yard and 85-yard TDs. He also threw a peach to WR Jerry Jeudy but alas, he couldn’t hold on to it.
As well as his strength and accuracy, Tagovailoa displayed his leadership qualities and determination. Hell, if a limping, game-rusty Tua can throw for 418 yards from just 21 completed passes, deliver four touchdowns and steer his team to 41 points against LSU’s sturdy defense, just think what he can do when in-form and healthy.
But Saturday’s game at a packed Bryant-Denny Stadium proved that Tua isn’t the only viable QB on offer.
Beg, steal or borrow for Burrow?
For the most part, Joe Burrow looked more assured than Tua, as he notched his seventh 300-yard game of the season. He completed 31-of-39 for 393 yards and threw three touchdown passes for Louisiana State, all under the watchful gaze of dozens of NFL scouts and coaches, including representatives from Cincinnati.
Burrow (who’s been compared to Aaron Rodgers, Matt Ryan and Tom Brady in recent days) looked calm in the pocket and threw with anticipation to six different pairs of hands. In the first half in particular, the new Heisman trophy front-runner excelled. He completed his first 13 passes, including TD lobs to Ja’Marr Chase and Terrace Marshall, and just before the break, he led two trips to the end zone to give the Tigers a commanding 33-13 lead.
Even when the Crimson Tide fought back to 33-27 by the start of the fourth quarter, Joe B simply responded by orchestrating a couple more touchdown drives for the Tigers. He also scrambled effectively (for 64 yards) when needed.
So what should the Bengals do?
With the Jets, Falcons and Dolphins all carelessly winning this weekend, the Bengals are currently locked on for picking first in 2020. Only the 1-8 Redskins look capable of nipping in ahead of us at the moment but even if that happened, at least one of these young QBs should still be available to the Bengals. I’d happily take either and I’m assuming (hoping?) the Cincinnati front office feels the same.
Obviously, such a fundamental decision as picking a new quarterback – especially one who could change the fortunes of the franchise for years to come – won’t be based on a single game in November. There’ll be plenty more twists and turns before the Bengals are finally on the clock in Las Vegas in April.
But if this game did one thing, it confirmed to me that at the moment, Tua isn’t the only option. In fact, given his recent ankle problems (coupled with the Bengals’ injury voodoo on first-round picks, as I mentioned last week), he might not even be the best option. On the day, Burrow showed greater poise, presence and mobility so if I were a betting man, should Cincinnati have the choice between him and Tua, I’d wager the first name called will be Joe Burrow’s.
Would Joe moving from the Tigers to the Bengals be the right call? Only time will tell…
Featured Picture – Credit: Butch Dill, USA TODAY Sports