CINCINNATI — During the last half or so of the fourth quarter of Sunday’s game at Paycor Stadium, the Cincinnati Bengals crowd listened to the account of one injury and watched the effects of another play out right in front of them.
Both scenarios came with a heart-tugging sense of loss involving two of the Queen City’s most beloved performers.
With 7:40 left in the game — and time called on the field with the Baltimore Ravens leading the Bengals, 27-17 — the PA system suddenly filled the stadium with the late Jimmy Buffett’s voice singing about Margaritaville:
“I blew out my flip-flop
“Stepped on a pop top
“Cut my heel, had to cruise back home.”
Four minutes later, Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow reaggravated the injury to his right calf that had sidelined him the entire training camp and preseason this year.
Later, he would say it happened on a play where he launched an off-target throw to Ja’Marr Chase, his favorite target, in the endzone.
Showing the grit that has characterized him through other medical situations in his previous three years as a pro, Burrow promptly regrouped and, on the next play, completed a 4-yard touchdown pass to Tee Higgins in nearly the same spot Chase had been. With the point after, Cincinnati trailed 27-24.
But after his TD toss, Burrow returned the Bengals sideline with a noticeable hitch in his step. He sat down on the bench, was looked at by a trainer and then given a massage gun, which looks something like a hair dryer, and began to work on his calf.
As that was going on, backup quarterback Jake Browning began loosening up on the sideline.
Later, Burrow said he had planned to go back into the game to try to orchestrate a last-second victory — and head coach Zac Taylor said the plan was to play Burrow — but the situation never developed.
Out on the field, Lamar Jackson, the Ravens masterful quarterback, was putting the finishing touches on a game that would bear his signature. He ran and passed and kept the ball away from Cincinnati in what would end up a 27-24 Baltimore victory.
The loss dropped Cincinnati — which had come into the season as everyone’s favorite to win the AFC North — to 0-2, both losses coming in divisional play.
Burrow eventually limped onto the field for the postgame scrum of handshakes, but several people out there reported him letting loose with a four-letter profanity that summed up his thoughts, either on losing the game or “tweaking,” as he put it later, his calf muscle again.
During their postgame sessions with the media, both Taylor and Burrow tried to stress they were not worried, that they had started last season 0-2 and had had a wonderful year.
But last season, the 0-2 Bengals didn’t have a quarterback who’s reaggravated calf muscle suddenly seemed like a harbinger of more problems to come.
While Burrow tried to portray a sense of calmness, saying “we’ll just have to wait and see” and that he wasn’t sure “how it will feel in the next couple of days,” it was evident he was more concerned, more down, that he was willing to say in public.
He did admit his calf was “sore” and later, after the press had moved on to talk to other players, you saw him alone at his locker. He winced as he reached for a towel, and he then walked slowly and with a slight limp to the showers.
Over the summer an ESPN report on calf injuries among athletes found 19 to 31 percent of those injured suffer reinjuries.
Burrow seems to have limped into that category.
Although he has an extra day to rest, since the Bengals don’t play again until next Monday night here, when they do take the field it’s against the Los Angeles Rams and their celebrated quarterback destroyer Aaron Donald.
Just 19 days ago, August 30 , everything seemed grand for the Bengals. Burrow had begun practicing again and soon would sign a 5-year, $275 million contract — the richest deal in the NFL — and a third consecutive run to the AFC title game and a second shot at a Super Bowl crown in three years sounded like a real possibility.
Now the one Bengals player with the ability to lift the entire team on his back is limping and sore and unsure what tomorrow may bring.
And that has Bengals fans everywhere on edge.
It’s been a tough month for Cincinnati heroes.
Buffett was nearly as beloved as Burrow in this town.
He played 54 concerts here in 35 years. He loved doing shows in Cincinnati and coined the term “Parrotheads” for his followers after seeing the crowd here with parrot hats. He wrote lyrics that drew on Cincinnati fans and their experiences. In 1993, he played here five nights in a row and drew 92,000 people.
On Sept. 1, two days after Burrow returned to practice, the 76-year-old Buffett died after a secret battle with a rare form of skin cancer.
If the Bengals were going to salve any of that sense of loss for Buffett’s Cincinnati fans, it hasn’t happened.
The Cleveland Browns roughed them up in the season opener and the Ravens were the sharper team Sunday.
Burrow may have rushed his return. He hasn’t seemed fully able to push off his back leg and, in Cleveland, he had his worst game as a pro.
Sunday, he had a tough first half, but showed flashes of his old self in the second half and ended up completing 27 of 41 passes for 221 yards, two touchdowns, both to Higgins. But he also threw an interception at the Ravens goal line.
He has looked rusty and limited so far this season and now he says he’ll have to wait and see how he feels in the next few days.
In Margaritaville, Jimmy Buffett went off, “searching for my lost shaker of salt.”
In Cincinnati, the Bengals and Joe Burrow are in search of the promise of a season now “tweaked” and 0-2.