CINCINNATI – The best quarterbacks do their best work late.
Joe Burrow has displayed this trait several times this season. He did it in overtime against the Vikings on fourth down to C.J. Uzomah.
He was clutch against the Jaguars twice, once to tie it at 24-24, and once to win it on a last-second field goal.
He was up to the task against Green Bay when the Bengals were down eight, throwing a perfect pass to Tee Higgins for the two-point conversion to tie the game, 22-22. He drove the Bengals into position to win the game, only to have Evan McPherson miss on a pair of potential game-winning field goals.
And last week, against San Francisco, even in a gut-wrenching overtime loss, Burrow arguably had his most clutch game as a pro. Backed up against his own goal line, the Bengals quarterback drove the team down the field for the game-tying touchdown when he lobbed a perfect pass to Ja’Marr Chase.
Watch on CBS pic.twitter.com/rPxhN58UnC
— Cincinnati Bengals (@Bengals) December 12, 2021
Earlier in the fourth, with the Bengals essentially down to their final snap of hope on fourth-and-5, Burrow scrambled, and threw to a spot he figured Chase would find in the back of the end zone. The rookie receiver did, and the Bengals had new life, down just seven points. In overtime, he threw passes over the middle to Tee Higgins and one out in the flat to Uzomah to put the Bengals in business at the San Francisco 26.
“Later in the game I know what to expect from the defense more,” Burrow told me. “We’ve accumulated reps of seeing what they’re trying to do to us. You bank those looks, look at the pictures on the sideline and go out and can only do so much in a game. You’ll see new stuff. You can’t put in 100 new plays each week.
“You know what kind of game plan it’s going to be after the first two or three series so you can bank those looks understand what you’re looking at in the fourth quarter and usually as the game goes on you play better because you know what to expect from the defense.”
— Cincinnati Bengals (@Bengals) December 13, 2021
In finishing 25-of-34 for 348 yards and two touchdowns, Burrow showed the kind of efficiency and field recognition that most quarterbacks don’t show in his second season.
His progressions are very advanced and it’s not just his teammates and coaches singing his praises.
“I don’t see a second-year quarterback,” Broncos head coach and defensive guru Vic Fangio said this week in advance of their showdown with the Bengals. “I see someone very comfortable running their offense… Good touch. He’s a guy that can keep plays alive in the pocket.”
One of Burrow’s characteristics that is most impressive to his own offensive coordinator is how he allows his eyes to naturally take him to the open receiver, or as Burrow himself puts it, throw it where the defense dictates. The chicken-or-egg part of this is whether Burrow throws more to a receiver designed to get the ball or which receiver is left most available.
“It’s a combination. There are definitely plays that are designed to go to Ja’Marr as the primary (receiver),” Callahan noted. “There are plays where Tee is designed as the primary and there’s plays where TB and CJ are designed as primaries. So, we try to get the ball to certain guys at certain times but depending on matchups and where they’re at in the coverage structure. But the beauty of our system and how the quarterback, Joe, plays is that progressions are a part of who he is. So, when one’s not there, he finds the next one, and he finds (No.) three, and he finds (No.) four and he’ll check the ball down.”
— Mike Petraglia (@Trags) December 15, 2021
“So, part of that is he acts as a distributor,” Callahan continued. “He finds the open guy based on what he sees. That’s not to say every play is schemed for the guy who gets the ball. A lot of times, he’s moving to two and three in the progression, and then the guy we thought we were going to get was either covered or moved on or he moved in the pocket and took his eyes off it. A lot of those things happen over the course of a game, but I think Joe’s done an excellent job of finding completions. I think you notice by his completion percentage. But he finds completions.”
On Sunday in the loss to San Francisco, Burrow targeted Higgins, Chase, Uzomah and Boyd equally in the second half. They wound up with 26 of the 34 targets on the day.
“He doesn’t really particularly force the ball to anybody. We’ve got four receivers in the skill group and running backs that we feel great about in the pass game and he does a great of trusting those guys to be disciplined and be where they’re supposed to be, and he finds completions that way.”
Like every other young quarterback in this generation, Burrow grew up watching the golden age of quarterback play in Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Drew Brees. He’s been fortunate enough to connect with some of them.
What Burrow has taken from them is not really applying their styles to his but rather what they do off the field, in between games and in the offseason to improve.
“I would say I like to watch quarterbacks operate,” Burrow said. “I wouldn’t say I implement a lot into my own game. Every quarterback works on their game in the offseason and likes to improve what they can do. At the end of the day, they’ll play the way they play. You can take concepts and eyes and footwork, but you play how you play. I’ve got to keep improving my skills.”
Burrow took notes on Manning’s games in particular in the past and the two have had conversations about doing all the little things that help a young, promising quarterback reach that next level. Manning spoke with Burrow before his was drafted first overall in the 2020 draft. Manning is uniquely qualified to relate as Manning was a first overall pick of the Colts in 1998.
“I haven’t checked them this year, we stay in contact though,” Burrow said. “He texted me on Thanksgiving and all that good stuff. He has been good to me.
“When you watch guys like him and Drew Brees and Tom, they get into the right plays and do all that good stuff. I think that’s part of being a quarterback, sometimes you’ve got to check from a pass to a run if they’re playing Cover 2. Hoping it gashes that way instead of attacking through the air. Some of those guys have done a good job for a long time.”