Joe Burrow is the most dangerous man in football
No quarterback is hotter right now. This combination of grit and brains — with a touch of swagger — could lift the Cincinnati Bengals to their first Super Bowl appearance since 1988. Here's why.
The collision was both legal and vicious, the sort of knockout blow that’s never delivered to quarterbacks today.
Against the Green Bay Packers, on third and 12, pressure flushed Joe Burrow left and, as his running back carried a linebacker on a route up the sideline, a lane cracked open for him. So, he took it. The Cincinnati Bengals quarterback didn’t think twice. He tucked the ball, sprinted full steam ahead and was helicoptered airborne with the ‘ol high-low. Safety Darnell Savage chopped him low, unconsciously hurling all of his 198 pounds into Burrow’s legs. And when that blow sent Burrow rotating horizontally, in came that linebacker. De’Vondre Campbell peeled off his coverage in time to whack him high and the head-to-head contact shoved Burrow’s chinstrap up into his face.
For good measure, on his descent, Burrow’s head bounced off the turf.
He was stopped 2 ½ yards shy of the first-down marker and — as Savage flexed his biceps — Burrow turned onto his back in visible pain. He appeared finished for the day and, probably, longer.
Sure enough, Burrow didn’t miss a snap. Instead, on his second play, Burrow rolled left, then right, then delivered a 70-yard touchdown strike to J’Marr Chase. The ball traveled 51 yards through the air — on a rope — directly at Savage, too. As the Packers safety barrel-rolled into the sideline, Chase held a No. 1 into the sky and Burrow nonchalantly trotted on down to the end zone to celebrate with his former college teammate.
Bengals quarterbacks coach Dan Pitcher would much prefer the face of this franchise slide, and yet…
“He views himself as a football player,” Pitcher says. “He’s not in the mold of, ‘I’m a quarterback and I’m different.’ He is different, and don’t get me wrong, that’s how we treat him. But he doesn’t think of himself that way. He thinks of himself as a football player and, with that, comes the toughness that’s required to play this game. He has as much or more of it than anyone I’ve ever been around. So, it’s really impressive.”
Impressive, yes. Surprising, no. Back at Athens (Ohio) High School, Burrow needed to get hit. It got the juices flowing. As early as Burrow’s sophomore year, offensive coordinator Nathan White and the QB both realized he was at his best if he got smacked early in the game. Like a doctor slapping a newborn on the behind at birth, this got his football blood circulating. Every single game — all three years — White says he tried “to get him hits” on the first series. A quarterback sweep. A speed option to the edge. Even if Burrow pitched it on the option, someone would smack him.
“Get somebody to get a pop on him,” White says, “and get him in the game. It flipped a switch for him. The shot he took, he was like, ‘I’m in the game now. Let’s go play.’ That’s something I really tried to do every single game. Get him hit in the first series and then it was smooth sailing.
“That was in our offensive gameplan between Joe and I every game. I’m not talking about trying to get him smoked but tackle him to the ground and he’s ready to roll.”
Go Long is a newsletter dedicated to enterprising pro football journalism. Free and paid subscriptions are both available. You can support this publication best by subscribing here:
Maybe the Las Vegas Raiders should sit back in prevent defense for a quarter or two this Wild Card Weekend, eh? Because the single most dangerous man in the NFL Playoffs is this quarterback with the “Saved by the Bell” hair, and a cigar in his mouth, shooting pistols to “Get the Gat” in the locker room after Cincinnati’s first division title in six years. The 2020 first overall pick is a vast amalgamation of gifts. No player in the NFL was better the final month of the season. Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady are justifiably 1 and 1A in the MVP discussion but, down the stretch, Burrow was objectively superior.
His final four games, Burrow went 107 of 141 (76 percent) for 1,476 yards with 11 touchdowns and no picks.
Toughness. Intelligence. Arm strength. He’s been the entire package all while getting pinyata’d around for an NFL-high 51 sacks.
Young quarterbacks have tantalized this time of year before. We’ve taken the bait hook, line and sinker. The last decade alone — as November flipped to December — we’ve crowned Colin Kaepernick (2012), Andrew Luck (2014), Derek Carr (2016) and Carson Wentz (2017) as quarterbacks destined to challenge the league’s quarterback patriarch. Kaepernick was a stick of dynamite, torching the Packers for 444 total yards and four touchdowns at Candlestick Park… and defenses gradually dulled his explosive game. Luck threw for 40 touchdowns and beat his legendary predecessor (Peyton Manning) in the playoffs in Year 3… before abruptly retiring after Year 6. Carr channeled his own “Mamba Mentality” as the MVP frontrunner on a 12-3 team with seven of those wins fourth-quarter comebacks… and he broke his leg. The next year, Wentz worked the same magic in Philadelphia. He, too, was the MVP frontrunner before tearing his left ACL.
None were the same again for a hodgepodge of reasons.
Burrow has the best shot to force his way into that Brady-Mahomes-Rodgers stratosphere for good. He’s talented enough to lead these Bengals to Super Bowl LVI in Los Angeles this season and flip perennial losers into winners for good. It’s always about timing in the NFL and, right now, we’re seeing the emergence of a true star who’ll last.
Says Pitcher: “I wouldn’t trade him for anybody.”
Start with the brain, with how Burrow sees the game.
When Hall-of-Fame quarterback Kurt Warner dissects the position, it can seem like he’s being too critical when, truthfully, he’s watching the position through a much different lens than other ex-players. He’s watching it as someone who won the MVP award twice with a surgical mind. Thus, he doesn’t allow himself to get too hyped over Lamar Jackson’s speed or Kyler Murray’s improvisation or even Josh Allen’s cartoonish arm. When we first chatted one year ago, Warner even noted that Aaron Rodgers and Russell Wilson were two quarterbacks who’ve freelanced outside the confines of the X’s and O’s most of their career, thus, it’s no coincidence they only have one ring apiece.
To win a Super Bowl, he believes a quarterback must hit his layups with numbing efficiency for one… two… three… four games in a row.
That’s extremely difficult to pull off and that’s why Brady is running out of fingers for his rings.
So, when pressed then who he actually likes other than Brady, Warner didn’t hesitate. It was Burrow. And that was back when Burrow went 2-7-1 as a rookie. Warner saw a quarterback processing a fast game at an even faster speed.
Last week, Warner assured he has only grown fonder of Burrow since.
“If you’re an athletic guy, it doesn’t mean you can’t play,” Warner says. “You’ll play a different way. But I just know most guys aren’t Lamar Jackson. So, you can be athletic to a degree but you’re not athletic enough to survive that way. That’s the way it is for most people, so know what you’re looking at. Know how to get through your reads and how to get it to the right guy at the right time. That’s what Joe does. That’s what I always thought separated him. 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.
“That’s what separates him, even back to LSU, from other guys. He’s got that confidence and understanding that’s just rare.”
The industrial draft complex has made us all think a quarterback’s true “ceiling” is related to the physical — to a 40-yard dash time, to showstopping creativity, to the ability to chuck a football 70 yards. Wrap up the physical, nurture it with the right coaching and, look out, a star is born. This thinking is why the Bills are thinking Super Bowl themselves and why we’re so high on Trey Lance.
Yet Warner views “ceiling” as mental. He admits he couldn’t care less about physical ability.
“You’ve got to be able to throw it far enough,” Warner says. “You don’t have to be able to throw it far. You just have to throw it far enough. … Lamar. He’s been great in the regular season and he struggles in the playoffs because he doesn’t know how to play the position in the pocket at the level he needs to against good teams every week. Kyler Murray. Another guy. So, they’ve had success because athletically they’re gifted. But it always comes back to ‘Can you play the position? Can you see things? Can you understand what you’re doing and play your route concept to the defense that you’re seeing and then make the throws that go with it?’ That’s how I’ve always watched the game because I’ve always believed that transcends everything else. So, watching the game that way, you can see it very quickly with Joe. Watch his eyes. Are they going to one spot and then moving to another? Or are their eyes kind of bouncing around? That usually tells you they don’t know what they’re looking at, that they’re just trying to find a guy open.
“When I played, I don’t know if I could throw it farther than 55 yards or so. But I can give you 45 yards at almost the same power and trajectory as I can throw a 15-yard pass. So, when you think about the game, how many times do you throw it over 55 yards in a game? Not very many. You have to make those other throws — those under-45 throws — and that’s what Joe has. He has the ability to give you enough arm, to give you touch, to have the timing, to make all of those throws that you need to make. And then he has plenty of arm to make the deep throws that come up a handful of times in a game. A lot of people would get hung up on the physical things that maybe he didn’t have or didn’t wow you with that. But I get more wowed by the 25-yard throw that a quarterback can get up and down over a linebacker. Or the timing to get it out and get it on his receiver fast enough that it doesn’t really matter how strong your arm is.
“Can you get it from A to B in a fashion that allows your guy to make a play? Joe’s got all of that in his repertoire.”
What’s rare is that Burrow had this very, very early, too.
In the high school days, White was able to call full-field passing concepts. Most of the time, White notes, young QBs starting off at this level make one read and throw the ball. The fact that Burrow was the son of a coach surely helped. His father, Jim Burrow, coached for four decades. Joe has been watching game film since was five years old. And most of his upbringing, 2005 through 2018, Dad was the defensive coordinator at Ohio University. So, he was learning defenses. Constantly. And by the time he took over as the starting quarterback in high school, his football brain was advanced.
White could throw complicated passing concepts at Burrow with no hesitation.
“It gives you such a calmness calling plays,” says White, “to not feel like you need to call the perfect play to one or two of these guys where the quarterback is looking. You can call a big-picture concept and trust that your quarterback is going to make you right.”
As a senior in high school, all Burrow did was throw 63 touchdowns and two interceptions. In all three years, he had 157 and 17.
One play in Athens he loved was called “Brees,” after Saints QB Drew Brees. The outside receiver runs a hitch and the No. 2 man on that play side runs a vertical with an outside release. On the backside of the play, however, the inside receiver runs a seam with the outside man running a dig. Most high school quarterbacks are locked into the play side, but not Burrow. He’d sell like he’s going to throw to that half of the field before knifing a throw to the backside, to that receiver taking his seam vertical vs. a one-high safety or more of a “bender” vs. two-high.
White estimates he completed 30 to 40 balls to that receiver on that play through high school.
“Normally in high school,” he says, “it’s ‘I’m calling this because I like the post against this. That’s the first read and we’re going to throw it.’ With Joe, you could call the big-picture stuff and know we’re whipping the backside bender and it’s a guaranteed completion. He was pretty dang special.”
Of course, he then did the exact same thing vs. SEC defenses. It took a windy road, of course. He spent two years backing up J.T. Barrett at nearby Ohio State and when he saw the team was going to name Dwayne Haskins the No. 1, he transferred to LSU. His 2019 Heisman Trophy-winning season is one of the best we’ll ever see in college football, too. He threw for 5,671 yards, 60 touchdowns and only six picks as LSU went a perfect 15-0, smoking both Oklahoma (63-28) and Clemson (42-25) in the College Football Playoff.
When the Bengals studied Burrow during the predraft process — fresh off a 2-14 season — Pitcher says what stood out was exactly what White detailed: “An in-depth understanding of the big picture and what all 22 guys on the field are doing at any given time, which is not usual.”
Pitcher could tell this was the son of a coach and “everything you look for in a player that can lead your team for a decade-plus.”
“I think Joe’s readiness was off the charts when he came in,” adds Pitcher, a former quarterback himself at SUNY Cortland, who’s been an assistant in Cincinnati since 2016. “And it’s only gotten better. He learns very quickly from mistakes. He has excellent recall of information and being able to put himself in situations he’s been through already — ‘OK, this is what happened last time. This is where this defender was. I was able to get the ball in. I wasn’t able to get the ball in. And this is what I have to do differently this time.’ He feels that stuff. It’s so natural to him. It’s something you really can’t teach.”
It’s one thing to know where all 22 players on the field will be at all times and quite another to evade 275-pound edge rushers and gun that impossible throw at that impossible angle. That’s why so many backup quarterbacks made excellent coaches and TV analysts. They’re consuming information all the time. They know exactly where the ball should go and how to schematically decimate a defense. The Kellen Moores and Dan Orlovskys and Frank Reichs and Doug Pedersons weren’t physically gifted enough to dominate as 12-year starters in the pros. They all had half of the equation.
And here’s Burrow. He can already do both with such ease, such devastating precision.
One surreal throw that pops into Pitcher’s mind in this chat is his 17-yard touchdown to Ja’Marr Chase against the 49ers. It was fourth and 5. Cincy was down, 20-6, with nine minutes left. The game was on the line. Burrow spun out of the instant traffic (a theme), scrambled right as Samson Ebukam barreled down and then hit Chase in the back corner of the end zone. The TV copy doesn’t do the play justice because, as Pitcher points out, Chase was still sprinting in the opposite direction when Burrow threw the ball. The LSU teammates both needed to know he’d hit the brakes, change directions and straddle the end line for the touchdown.
“And you’ll see 15 examples any Sunday,” Pitcher adds.
The apex in the regular season was Cincinnati’s 34-31 win over the Chiefs with Burrow and Chase making a mockery of a defense that had been shutting offenses down for two months.
Burrow is 25 years old. Chase is 21. We better get used to this sight.
Arm arrogance can be a team-killer without the right thought process behind it. Jameis Winston has spent the last two years rewiring his quarterback brain with head coach Sean Payton in New Orleans and, before tearing his ACL, seemed to be on the right track. And other NFL teams go ga-ga over a prospect’s physical ability (hello, JaMarcus Russell, Johnny Manziel, etc.) only to later discover that the prospect really didn’t know where he was chucking those missiles.
Burrow possesses that required arrogance, that confidence but with a purpose.
Adds Warner: “That’s where it starts with Joe. He just believes. He believes he can make every play. He believes he can make every throw.”
Then, there’s the toughness. That’s seeping into the fabric of the entire organization as much as anything. Remember, this was the worst team in the NFL just two years ago. The Bengals, like the Jets, have been more of verb synonmous with ineptitude. Something beyond raw talent had to galvanize them to get to this point — to real Super Bowl hopes — and, chances are, it’s been Burrow’s stunning pain threshold. After that Green Bay game, he headed to the hospital. Not for the wincing Savage/Campbell sandwich. At another point during the game he suffered a throat contusion.
The effects lingered. For two weeks, Burrow was on a “voice rest."
There was the grisly dislocated pinky to his throwing hand in a loss to the Chargers, too. It was pointing the wrong direction. In the huddle, midgame, Burrow was actually holding his pinky straight in a desperate attempt in minimize the pain. (“That’s what football is,” he said afterward. “You’ve got to play through some injuries sometimes. … It’s just something I’m going to have to deal with. I’m not going to miss any games because of it.”)
And in the waning seconds of that Chiefs win — his nameplate already ripped off — Burrow was hit by safety Tyrann Mathieu and suffered a right knee injury. He limped around on the sideline in obvious pain and, again, downplayed it all. He’s the last person who’ll play up any injury for a juicy narrative. He said afterward it was “nothing serious” and that he could’ve re-entered the game if Cincy needed him.
Teammates notice this stuff. Always.
His star is rising through legitimate injuries that sideline other quarterbacks.
Pitcher says his quarterback simply compartmentalizes the pain and refuses to let it affect his game.
“Which doesn’t sound like something you should be able to do,” Pitcher says. “But the really tough guys can do it. Especially when you play a position like quarterback when you have to be so sharp mentally. When you’re physically hurting, it’s very easy to waste mental energy thinking about how you physically are hurting. But Joe, it’s like he can just put that aside, like, ‘Yeah, something doesn’t feel good right now but that’s not going to affect how I’m playing. That’s a mental toughness. That’s a physical toughness. It’s just toughness. And he has it.”
This has roots, too. White remembers Burrow, at age 15, leading a team of 17- and 18-year-olds.
Not easy to do. Burrow genuinely did not want anyone — coaches or players — viewing him as just a quarterback. When he was a senior at Athens H.S., Burrow had no business playing in a Week 9 game but it was Senior Night so he wanted to be play with his friends. He started, he threw 300 yards in the first half and, only then, did he bow out with the bad ankle.
“I have no doubt that if he wasn’t a quarterback,” White says, “Joe thinks he’d be in the NFL playing safety. He always had that toughness, that ‘Hey, I’m just one of the guys. I’m not just a quarterback.’ Joe was the focus of every defensive gameplan we saw in high school. He took a lot for sure. He took a lot of big hits, and never missed any time. He played 41 games, started in 41 games, in his three years. It’s no doubt his toughness is recognized by his teammates back to high school.
“He just wanted to be one of the dudes.”
Every so often, Burrow gives everyone a look into this mentality. After Ravens defensive coordinator Don Martindale said that Rodgers is a Hall of Famer quarterback “and I don’t think we’re ready to buy a gold jacket for Joe,” Burrow proceeded to light his defense up for 525 yards and four scores on 37-of-46 passing. Asked about Martindale’s comment, he said afterward that he “didn’t think it was a necessary comment.” As he closed in on the Bengals’ single-season passing record in the fourth quarter, was he thinking about Martindale?
Thus, the Bengals have become a resilient team in Burrow’s image. Pitcher points all the way back to Week 1 in Minnesota when the Bengals won “in an improbable situation” at the end of OT. The Vikings fumbled. The Bengals converted a fourth and 1. He looks back to Week 2 when they lost to the Bears but nearly erased a 20-3 deficit with four minutes left. That 49ers game? Cincy lost but that might’ve been Burrow’s best performance to date. He willed them to overtime.
Into the postseason, the Bengals are bound to get punched in the jaw, but they’re capable of punching back.
“We’ve got guys that just keep playing,” Pitcher says. “That’s how you want your team to develop and how you want guys’ confidence to develop. So it doesn’t have to be clear skies and easy weather. You can get by when times are tough and still have a chance.”
Adds White: “Nothing will surprise me. The Heisman and the National Championship and everything he did at LSU, I feel like we all watched it before in 2014 when he was here. I’ll be shocked if big things don’t happen. I don’t want to put out any bad karma or jinx it but I’ll be shocked if big things don’t happen in the next few years.”
“From an Athens perspective, that’s what it feels like: This is what he’s always done.”
There’s an incredibly interesting anecdote toward the end of the epic “America’s Game” by Michael Maccambridge. Bengals owner Mike Brown has been ridiculed as frugal for years but there’s also no denying that he’s a purist to the core. In the book, Brown says the NFL remains “sport-hyphen-business” to him. Not all “business.”
“Just making the most money possible is not the ultimate goal,” Brown said. “The ultimate goal is to have a good team, to have success on the field. To have the thrill when you have a championship team and the hometown gets involved in it.”
Such thinking seems antiquated today. Burrow is essentially the quarterback he has always coveted. A throwback that his father, Paul Brown, would’ve loved on his Browns teams in the 50s and 60s.
Now, he has a chance to make a little history of his own and put the Cincinnati Bengals on the map.
Don’t expect him to slide.
Miss our profile Tyler Boyd? Here’s how the Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver serves two missions at once:
I really love these deep dives into guys I don't really follow much. And the feedback from Warner is awesome. Hopefully Bob adds him to his rolodex for draft analysis.