Deja Vu: How Joe Burrow can return to his Super Bowl moment
There's a unique drive to the Bengals star. Expect the game to slow down (again) and Burrow to get hot (again). We talk to the man who can help get him there: QB coach Dan Pitcher.
Reality five-finger slaps quarterbacks across the face. Those precious moments after a Super Bowl defeat are the worst. As the confetti falls, as you’re surfing through a mob of players and coaches and cameras and mayhem to find the Super Bowl-winning quarterback, you’re simultaneously confronted with the sobering truth that this may be as close as you ever get to the sport’s pinnacle.
All that film. All those hits.
The sacrifice. The hours… upon hours… upon hours poured into this profession.
For what? For this torture? It’s in that precise moment that the numbing finality of losing on sports’ greatest stage blindsides the losing quarterback. Processing such pain is hard enough — every single one looks like they just saw a ghost — but now imagine you’re Joe Burrow. Imagine you’re the Cincinnati Bengals’ swashbuckler losing in this fashion. After an unforgivable defensive pass interference resuscitated the Los Angeles Rams’ go-ahead touchdown drive, the Bengals quarterback took over.
Down 23-20, with 1:25 to go, Burrow swiftly moved Cincinnati to midfield and audibled into what should’ve been gone down as one of the greatest plays in Super Bowl history. On fourth and 1, with 43 ticks left, Burrow set up in shotgun. He first glanced right, then right again as if he couldn’t believe his eyes. Cornerback Jalen Ramsey was in human Snuggie position, 1 on 1, against Ja’Marr Chase. He changed the play. He sent Chase on a go route. And… Bengals fans remember the rest. Burrow was spun around by Aaron Donald before he had a chance to unload a sure touchdown to Chase.
Chase, of course, was wide open. Ramsey fell down.
If the Bengals’ line holds up, Burrow is immortalized. The brass balls to go for the kill in that moment? On fourth down? In the Super Bowl? Burrow would’ve been a legend for life. Instead, there he was at midfield engaging in a forced embrace with the team’s other quarterback, a guy who waited nearly 200 games over 13 seasons for this joy. “You’re a hell of a player,” Matthew Stafford told Burrow. “You just keep being you, buddy.”
All Burrow managed was a quick “Appreciate ya” and “great job” and — as this reality walloped him across the face — he barely flinched.
Dan Pitcher, the team’s quarterbacks coach who’s around Burrow daily, remembers the aftermath.
“Joe has incredible confidence,” Pitcher says. “He’s the most confident person I’ve ever been around. So when you exist in that space, I think it’s easier to process negative, learn from it and move on. Because all of us have self-doubt, right? But with Joe it exists in such a small degree that he doesn’t get caught up in it. He doesn’t get lost in, ‘Oh what could I have done? Was I good enough to make it?’ He is such a confident guy, and rightly so. That’s why we love him. That’s why he’s so good in those spots. He doesn’t get rattled. He doesn’t let the circumstances dictate his play or his thought process.”
This 2022 NFL season has been confounding, parity-ridden, watered down and I suppose that’s what the owners prefer because most all families around the country can sit around their Thanksgiving Day dinner tables with a shred of hope. “In The Hunt” graphics will take up your entire screen but figuring out which teams actually have a shot of winning it all? These coming weeks, the frauds will have their masks ripped off and all 32 teams will finally be divided into contenders and pretenders.
Then, do not be shocked if the 25-year-old Burrow does exactly what he did at age 24.
Because this quality deep inside Burrow — the nonchalant guts to make this play with everything on the line — is unbelievably rare. Tom Brady has possessed such cool in front of an audience of 100 million, and Brady’s ability to process championship losses is unprecedented in all of sports. The more you listen to Pitcher, the more it appears Burrow has the same wiring, the same resolute drive to claw back to that fourth-and-1 moment. As if he’s addicted to such moments.
Granted, it has not been easy. Burrow had his appendix removed. That shelved him for nearly three weeks of training camp and substantially dropped his weight. He threw four interceptions in a season-opening loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers. Right when he was rekindling old magic with receiver Ja’Marr Chase, his LSU teammate suffered a hip injury. Three of the team’s four losses have been by a field goal or loss. Cincy lost No. 1 cornerback Chidobe Awuzie — profiled here at Go Long — for the season with a torn ACL.
Opposing defenses have also gone out of their way to eliminate that deadly Burrow long ball.
Up next for the 5-4 Bengals is a rematch with those Steelers before then facing the AFC South-leading Titans (7-3) and AFC West-leading Chiefs (7-2).
Their season is about to accelerate 100 miles an hour one direction or the other.
In a league full of mystery, this soul-snatching quarterback is as close to a guarantee as you’ll find.
He’s craving another Super Bowl moment, too. Everyone is.
Says Pitcher: “It eats at you a little bit. Not a little bit. A lot. Like anything, that moment is gone. You take all the positives you can. You take the learning experiences, the things you would’ve done differently and you try to channel that moving forward. I think that’s what we’ve done so far. … We’ve battled through the first half of the season and everybody knows where we’re trying to get to and how hard it was to get there. But we have the confidence that we can do it. That’s what helps you weather the storm through some tough, last-second losses.
“Just knowing in the grand scheme of things we’ve got the guys who can do it. We have the fortitude.”
Starting with the QB.
All three of his first three training camps as a pro have been hijacked by something out of his control. In 2020, the pandemic wiped out all exhibition games. In 2021, he played all of one exhibition series returning from a torn ACL. In 2022, he had the appendectomy. Nor was this a routine appendectomy. Burrow later hinted at how hairy this situation was at a press conference on Aug. 17. What initially felt like discomfort became a cause for serious concern. Burrow said his appendix actually ruptured. He was hospitalized for several days and couldn’t eat normal food.
The Bengals strength staff and dietician helped. But given how crucial overall torque is to throwing a football — every ounce of strength matters when you’re gunning a spiral on a deep out — returning to 100 percent was more of a slog than he anticipated.
When Burrow stepped up to the line, he was greeted with a schematic counterpunch.
Explosive plays are down across the league, and the No. 1 reason why is that defenses are A-OK slouching back in Cover 2 or quarters or a quirky blend of the two. Pitcher calls this a “wholesale trend.” Two-safety zones are the latest fad, as they most certainly should be against Burrow’s Bengals. His 15 pass plays of 40+ yards in 2021 ranked second in the NFL. His 60 pass plays of 20+ yards ranked fourth. Even on the early downs, defenses are now begging the Bengals to run the football.
They’ve basically laid a row of 100 mousetraps a good 20 yards off the ball, perfectly content with anything that happens in front of it.
Considering Cincy’s vertical threats, Pitcher gets it.
He also knows a defense cannot do this for 70 of 70 plays on a Sunday afternoon. There are still opportunities.
If you’re smart. If you’re decisive.
“It’s a matter of identifying it when it pops up and taking advantage,” he says. “You just might have fewer bites at the apple. Whereas last year we had more bites at the apple as people were figuring out, ‘Holy shit. These guys are fast and they can make plays down the field.’ People have figured that out now. Now, it’s just on us — and I think we’ve done a good job really — of molding what we do and, again, it falls in Joe’s lap to identify the looks he’s getting in the moment and distribute the ball accordingly.
“It might mean fewer opportunities to push it down the field. But when they’re there, you better take them and you better hit them. That’s the world we’re living in right now.”
It takes a unique blend of patience and risk-taking.
Patience to piece together 12-, 13-, 14-play drives down the field. That’s not easy. The best of the best quarterbacks become the faces of this league because they possess special arms so, naturally, they’d like to use that arm. This urge is what has gotten Josh Allen into trouble with his NFL-high 10 interceptions. Vet Patrick Peterson admitted the Minnesota Vikings knew Allen relied on his arm too much in the red zone.
Last week, the Bengals were content pummeling the Carolina Panthers on the ground. Joe Mixon rushed 22 times for 153 yards (7.0 avg.) with four touchdowns in a 42-21 win that could force future defensive coordinators to rethink their vanilla plans.
In all, the Bengals rushed for 241 yards on 39 attempts.
“That’s really going to punish a defense if they choose to stay in those two-high shells,” Pitcher says, “and devote resources to eliminating your opportunity to push the ball down the field. Well, nothing’s free. To do that, you’re going to leave yourself shorthanded to stop the run.”
Still, no quarterback this side of the 2000 Ravens has specialized in handing the ball off and won anything of consequence. That’s why Pitcher is correct. The rare occasions a defense does go one-high, the Bengals must strike. If a team dares to stick a corner 1-on-1 on Chase or Tee Higgins, it’s on both quarterback and wide receiver to recognize the coverage, adjust, attack. That’s not easy. Defenses are coy in masking coverages presnap with DBs showing man before playing zone and vice versa.
The NFL is cyclical. When the Legion of Boom was at its headhunting peak a decade ago, more teams hunted for lanky, aggressive cornerbacks. The Seattle Seahawks’ defense dominated with 6-foot-3 Richard Sherman and 6-foot-4 Brandon Browner smothering receivers along the boundary. Meanwhile, one vicious safety (Kam Chancellor) roamed in the box as more of a pseudo-linebacker while the other (Earl Thomas) lined up deep.
Thirty-two coaching staffs pore over “countless hours of film” all offseason and all regular season long. Everyone is always copying everyone else’s best stuff. From there, Pitcher notes, you decide whether to make a wholesale change that direction or perhaps move a certain direction “a little more gently.”
When it comes to this two-shell look, yes, it’s the Current Thing in the NFL.
“When you’re looking at some of the quarterback play in this league that has exploded at the high end,” Pitcher says, “it only makes sense that defensive coordinators are sitting there trying to figure out, ‘How do we combat that? How do we eliminate the explosiveness on the offensive side of the ball?’”
What we’re also seeing is teams in possession of a truly special talent essentially telling those defensive coordinators to stick it where the sun doesn’t shine.
The Vikings force-feed the ball to Justin Jefferson. He’s already up to 100 targets.
Expect Burrow to take his shots.
“All the scheme in the world, if it’s not focused on ‘Who are my best players?’ and ‘How do I get them the football?’ you’re making a mistake,” Pitcher adds. “It all starts with people. It all starts with the player. It all starts with the old adage: In crunch time, think of people, not plays. So our job is to make sure that the plays are focused on the people. And Ja’Marr is one of the best in the league. That’s what we do. We spend a lot of time trying to figure out, ‘How do we get our talented people the ball with an opportunity to change the game.’ Sometimes, you’re right. Sometimes that means, ‘Alright, it’s not the most ideal look but you know what? We’ve got to get it to him.’”
Burrow is ultra-confident. Cocky even. Every quarterback needs a healthy amount of ego and the man in the perfectly coiffed hair rocking a black turtleneck, Joe Namath-style gray jacket and a diamond “JB9” chain ahead of the AFC Championship Game meets the mandatory requirement. (Yes, the diamonds were real. Burrow assured after the win that he makes too much money to wear fake diamonds.) Yet, this is also as healthy of a partnership as you’ll see in this high-stakes league. There aren’t midgame death stares and temper tantrums. Burrow has even stated publicly how crucial it’s been to generate a run game given the defense’s counterpunch.
Respect runs all directions. This is this a coaching staff that can match Burrow’s intelligence and, honestly, that’s what the elite of the elite thinkers at the position crave more than anything — smart coaching that can keep up. In Cincy, the combination of head coach Zac Taylor, offensive coordinator Brian Callahan and Pitcher delivers.
More than arm strength or mobility, what’s always popped from this young quarterback’s game is his mind. His anticipation. It was jarring to Hall-of-Famer Kurt Warner even as Burrow went 2-7-1 as a rookie. Said Warner: “The confidence to believe you can make every play and then the knowledge to know exactly how to do that and to do it quickly and to get your eyes in the right spot as opposed to guessing is 3/4ths of the battle of playing in the National Football League.”
And that’s why it’s now Burrow’s time to shine.
As the quarterback pointed out this week, teams have mostly settled into who they are. What you see on film, he said, is what you’re going to get. “So,” he added, “you’re able to play a little faster.” Expect a similar trajectory to what we witnessed last season when the Bengals were also 5-4 at the bye. Burrow heated up by playoff time, taking a match to both Baltimore (525 yards, four touchdowns, zero picks) and Kansas City (446 yards, four touchdowns, zero picks) before winning three playoff games in a row. Ahead of that Ravens game, of course, DC Wink Martindale infamously deadpanned, “I don’t think we're ready to buy a gold jacket for Joe.” A quote Burrow admitted supplied motivation.
Burrow is heating up. In his last four games, he has completed 109 of 142 passes for a completion percentage of 77 percent.
“That’s where I should be,” Burrow said. “I should be top 1 or 2 every year in the league at that as accurate as I am. I should be 72, 73 just about every year.”
The 0-2 start didn’t force him to change the way he plays. Rather, it reminded Burrow to treat each game individually, to not have a cookie-cutter “stock” performance each week. If the offense needs a spark, he explained, improvising outside the pocket is a good thing. If the run game’s cooking, that’s not needed.
He’s still sharpening this balance. He’s still trying to decode the talents of all 11 players on the other side of the ball.
Take this week’s rematch with the man we declared the best player in the sport: Pittsburgh’s T.J. Watt. Spitting the ball out quickly is always paramount. But against Watt? Even that’s not enough. Burrow has learned that Watt’s a pro at reading his dropback in real time and springing vertical at the perfect split-second to get his hands on the ball. Chipping with tight ends and running backs can help. But often there’s not much you can do.
Adds Burrow: “You’re never going to shut him down. You’re never going to take that away. He’s too good of a player.”
He only has two picks in the eight games since that Week 1 defeat.
He’s confident Cincy can repeat it 2021 run.
“We’ve been in this spot before,” the QB says, “and we’ve come out on top.”
Every rising superstar at the position needs coaching that both accentuates their best qualities and drives them to improve. A tricky balance. Brett Favre had Mike Holmgren sniping “No more rocket balls.” Peyton Manning had Tom Moore’s bellowing voice. In so many ways, Pitcher is the ideal quarterbacks coach for a QB who’s been watching game film since he was five years old. Most of his upbringing, ‘05 to ‘18, Burrow’s father was the defensive coordinator at Ohio University. Pitcher’s own circuitous path to Burrow was full of lessons that make him the right coach at the right time.
The Cortland, N.Y. native was a star quarterback at Division-III Cortland, where he threw for 31 touchdowns and only five interceptions in 2011.
Before that, however, he fell in love with coaching. After transferring in from Colgate — where he couldn’t get on the field in ‘05 and ‘06 — shoulder surgery sidelined Pitcher his first year at Cortland. To stay in the game, he volunteered as a coach with his varsity high school team. Called plays, too. Pitcher turned what could’ve been a depressing existence, a horror movie in real life — Fall without football! — into an opportunity.
“It was so much fun,” Pitcher says. “It was absolute confirmation for me that ‘This is what I want to do. This is awesome. I’m not playing right now but I love the game and I love the strategy and the preparation and the teaching and all that went into it.’”
Soon, he lost the sport again. In Game No. 2 as the starter at Cortland, in ‘09, he tore his Achilles tendon and used the injury as another opportunity. Pitcher helped coaches with the weekly gameplan and sat up in the booth during games with a headset on.
That last year at Cortland was the cherry on top. All Pitcher had left to do in the classroom was a capstone project for his Masters program, so he crafted his fall semester in a way that essentially made himself a quality control coach in the mornings. He’d break down film, draw up practice cards, sit in on coaches’ meetings and then — by the time the afternoon rolled around — it was back to being a player. That fall, in ‘11, Pitcher was one of the 10 finalists for the Gagliardi Trophy, given to the D-III player of the year. He read the field, play to play, like a coach.
The X’s and O’s on a whiteboard may run a 4.6 instead of a 4.3 at this level but the nitty-gritty schematics? Pitcher was training his football mind at an elite level.
On to the NFL, Pitcher worked in the Indianapolis Colts’ personnel department for four years before joining the Bengals’ coaching staff in 2016.
One bad season netted the Bengals a first overall pick and, voila, Joe Burrow arrived.
Dan Pitcher was ready.
It’s always difficult to tell just how much any coach is helping a top-end quarterback talent. Mike McCarthy pushed for Ben McAdoo to get positive press in Wisconsin, and McAdoo had an intriguing background himself. In retrospect, it’s fairly obvious there wasn’t too much a coach like this was able to give a quarterback like that. McAdoo struggled as the New York Giants head coach and his Carolina Panthers’ offense currently ranks 30th in total yards.
Nathaniel Hackett parlayed a stint with Rodgers into a head-coaching gig. The experiment with Russell Wilson has been a disaster.
Several assistants who coached Tom Brady flamed out.
Gosh, a conversation with Pitcher sure feels different. He sees his relationship with Burrow as a true “partnership.”
“I view my role as Joe’s greatest resource in his preparation,” Pitcher says. “I view it as my responsibility to make sure he steps out on the field every Sunday as prepared as he could possibly be. I’ve had coaches who’ve done it a million different ways. No. 1, you have to be authentic with your approach. You have to be yourself. And you have to be consistent. I think I’ve done a good job of that with Joe, so he knows what to expect from me every single day and I know what to expect from him. It’s an open relationship. There’s really good communication. There’s a freedom to disagree. There’s the freedom to push back, and it’s always done respectfully. And I think that’s important when you have a guy who is as intelligent as he is, as competitive as he is and who can process information like he can process it. I think to approach it any other way, in my opinion, would be a mistake. And I think you want to foster all of those things within him because that’s what makes the great ones great. He has that. He has it in him. And he has so much room to grow and improve. But he’s already one of the best.”
It’s impossible to prepare for everything, but Pitcher tries to load as much intel into Burrow’s operating system as he possibly can. Offseason to training camp to mid-November of an NFL season.
From there, Burrow is prepared to react to that rare look he’s never seen.
That’s what makes this quarterback unique. You won’t trick him.
“To see him be able to answer things in the moment when the playclock’s at 7… 6… 5… 4… and get to something that maybe we didn’t even talk about that week but it’s appropriate and it works, that’s high-level stuff,” Pitcher says. “Three seasons as a starter, you start to see stuff like that, that makes you say, ‘Alright, if he continues on this trajectory, you’re talking about a guy who it’s going to be really hard for defenses to fool.’ … He’s got tremendous recall and processing in the moment. Yeah, you could see it in the film room before a game and you could understand it. You could look at it after the game and you could understand it but the guys who can see one thing from one defender and it paints the picture for the rest of the other 10 guys and what they’re going to do and where they’re going to be — those guys who can process that are pretty special. Joe has it.”
He's willing to pull the trigger any down, any game. A fourth down in Week 11 is treated no differently than a fourth down in the Super Bowl and the quarterback has autonomy at the line of scrimmage. As crazy as it sounds, that’s how Burrow and Pitcher each approached that fateful final play at SoFi Stadium in L.A. Pitcher examined the Rams’ defense and wondered if Burrow saw the same thing he did.
“He made a great decision,” Pitcher says. “There was obviously a matchup there that we liked. It just didn’t turn out our way. You learn from it. You move forward.”
Told that he’s making something so painful seem so painless, Pitcher jumps in. Don’t get it twisted. The outcome, he assures, was “gut-wrenching.”
“It’s in the pit of your stomach every single morning that you wake up.”
The good news for Pitcher was that he woke up to a newborn six days later.
What a winter it was inside the Pitcher household. His wife, Marissa, was pregnant with their son through the entire run. A stressful time. But stress he’ll accept 100 out of 100 times. Oliver is eight months old now. His arrival supplied perspective at an optimal time. There’s no need to wallow in self-pity when you’re squeezing your firstborn. Professionally? “It absolutely eats at you,” Pitcher adds, “and it always will.”
“You add that to the motivating factors and the drive to get back and,” Pitcher says, “once you do get back, to take advantage.”
The game’s richest corner didn’t scare his quarterback. So, maybe it’s Darius Slay. Possibly Cameron Dantzler. Hello, Charvarius Ward.
Whoever’s lined up on an island at cornerback should be forewarned that Burrow will notice.
Burrow will take his shot.
And maybe this time, he’s given that extra millisecond needed to airmail a life-defining touchdown.
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