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The Nine Plays That Explain Joe Burrow’s Rise From QB Afterthought to Heisman Legend

Before this season, Burrow was a run-of-the-mill LSU quarterback. Now, he’s the clear choice for the Heisman and having the greatest passing season in college football history. His career arc—much like his game—is a miracle.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

There’s a part of my brain that still doesn’t believe in Joe Burrow.

I understand that this is wrong. Burrow has just put together the greatest passing season in college football history. He completed 77.9 percent of his attempts, smashing the all-time mark (76.7 percent) set by Texas’s Colt McCoy in 2008. He has thrown 48 touchdown passes and has a chance to break the power-conference record after competing in the College Football Playoff. He led LSU to a 13-0 campaign, taking down five teams that were ranked in the top 10 of the AP poll when he played them. And he delivered some of his biggest performances against the best competition in the sport. The Tigers hung 46 points on a previously undefeated Alabama team in November; they dropped 37 in a rout of a previously one-loss Georgia squad in the SEC championship game. Burrow’s season has been pure, unmitigated greatness. He will certainly win the Heisman Trophy on Saturday night and will likely be the no. 1 pick in the 2020 NFL draft.

It all seems impossible. For starters, there are the throws. A completion percentage just shy of 80 should be possible for only a risk-averse QB who would rather take a checkdown than a touchdown. Burrow is not that. He often throws deep to receivers in tight coverage. Yet all of his risks pay off. He is college football’s needle-threader extraordinaire. If he were a gambler, he’d put the damn casino out of business.

Even more improbable is Burrow’s journey to this point. He was once a quarterback afterthought at Ohio State, a modestly recruited coach’s son overshadowed by college football legends. He then made the decision to transfer to LSU—a program that has rarely produced top-tier QB talent. In his first season in Baton Rouge, Burrow fit right in with that legacy.

And then, somehow, he reinvented himself as a Louisiana legend. If you don’t believe me, here is Louisiana legend Tyrann Mathieu narrating a hype video set to the music of Louisiana legend Boosie Badazz, in which Burrow puts on a jersey that says BURREAUX across the back.

You don’t have time to watch every incredible throw he’s made. Burrow has attempted 439 passes this season and, as previously noted, completed them at a record rate. So here are nine plays that define the bewilderingly successful career of Joe Burrow, the quarterback who turns 50-50 balls into 100-0 balls.

1. Joe Burrow to Binjimen Victor (November 12, 2016)

Joe Burrow played only in the fourth quarters of blowouts during his tenure at Ohio State. Over three years with the Buckeyes, he combined to throw two touchdowns. And frankly, his status as a garbage-time quarterback made sense. In the season before Burrow arrived on campus, Ohio State won the inaugural College Football Playoff because third-stringer Cardale Jones—a mountain with a bazooka attached to it—thrived after stepping in for injured QBs Braxton Miller and J.T. Barrett. All three players returned to Columbus in 2015, making Burrow the rando in the most interesting quarterback room in recent college football memory.

At the bottom of the depth chart, Burrow was subjected to the most brutal negging campaign ever inflicted upon a future Heisman winner. His Ohio State teammates called him “John,” “Jimmy,” or “Jimmy Johns” instead of learning his actual name. “I wonder what name he puts on his paper in class?” Barrett asked reporters in 2016. Jones remembered how teammates would tell Burrow “shut the fuck up” if he ever dared to speak in a meeting. Former Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer told Burrow that he threw like a girl.

Burrow got playing time only when the Buckeyes were up by 50 or so points, and the team was rarely inclined to throw in those situations. When they did, though, Burrow showed flashes of the player he’d become. This pass, the final score in a 62-3 rout of Maryland in Burrow’s freshman year, looks an awful lot like the touchdowns he’d later throw in purple and gold.

It’s funny: As a freshman, Burrow played only in the fourth quarter. This season, Burrow has barely played in the fourth quarter at all.

2. Joe Burrow to Stephen Sullivan (September 8, 2018)

Burrow graduated from Ohio State in three years and then transferred to LSU. His first touchdown pass for the Tigers was a Hail Mary. With LSU leading Southeastern Louisiana 17-0 early in 2018 and the seconds ticking away in the second quarter, Burrow let one loose, stunning the Lions just before the half.

It doesn’t seem like Burrow does anything special here. He just chucks it, and somehow it lands in the hands of Sullivan, a 6-foot-7 tight end in a sea of three defenders. In the moment, this seemed like luck. But this wouldn’t be the last time Burrow threw to a desert island in a sea of opposing jerseys and came away with a touchdown.

3. Joe Burrow 10-Yard Touchdown Run (November 24, 2018)

Burrow’s first season at LSU was not exactly Heisman material. In his Tigers debut, he went 11-of-24 passing in a 33-17 win over a Miami team that finished 7-6 and lost the Pinstripe Bowl. Burrow went all of October 2018 without recording a touchdown pass. He didn’t throw a touchdown in his first game of November, either.

But Burrow became LSU’s hero on November 24, in a 74-72 epic against Texas A&M—the highest-scoring game in FBS history. It went into seven overtimes, with Burrow passing for three touchdowns and rushing for three more. The Tigers lost, but Burrow was magnificent.

After the game, Burrow needed an IV drip to deal with horrific cramping. But he still had enough left in the tank to spin his way into the end zone in septuple (septuple!) overtime.

The heart he showed against the Aggies was unmistakable, as he kept on churning out critical plays, time and again, for five hours. This was the start of his turnaround: In LSU’s final four games of the 2018 season, Burrow threw 10 touchdowns against one interception. His legend was beginning.

4. Joe Burrow to UCF’s Brandon Moore (January 1, 2019)

Once upon a time, Burrow threw a pick-six.

When this happened, I believed that UCF was a lock to win the Fiesta Bowl. With LSU trailing 7-3, Burrow threw a pass to a receiver who had slipped, and a Knights cornerback snagged it. A UCF defender then blasted Burrow halfway to hell with a blindside block. As Moore galloped to the end zone for a 93-yard touchdown, Burrow was down and out on the turf.

Here lay Joe Burrow, the mediocre quarterback from Ohio who thought he could play at LSU. May he rest in peace.

But some Louisiana magic summoned Burrow from the dead. Suddenly reincarnated, he became Heisman Joe. He threw for 394 yards with four touchdowns in LSU’s come-from-behind 40-32 victory, snapping UCF’s 25-game winning streak in the process.

The calendar had flipped to 2019. This was Joe Burrow’s year.

5. Joe Burrow to Justin Jefferson (September 7, 2019)

In Week 2 of this season, Burrow and LSU traveled to Texas for a game that was supposed to be important—as is the custom every September, people around college football expected the Longhorns to be good. In the second quarter, Burrow uncorked a throw that may be my favorite he’s ever made.

Thanks to the magic of skycam, we can see how open Jefferson was when Burrow released this pass.

From this camera angle, you might think that Burrow was throwing to the significantly more open receiver on the left side of the screen—nope. He was throwing to the little patch of yellow pixels peeking out from behind the Texas defender, between the “O” and “N” in the end zone painting of “LONGHORNS.” Although Jefferson wasn’t open in the slightest, Burrow felt that his guy could go up and make a catch if he just fired a dart over the defender’s head. So that’s precisely what he did.

In the past few years, I’ve praised quarterbacks Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray for shredding defenses by throwing to wide-open receivers. Those players have great arms, knew their offenses inside and out, and deserved to win the Heisman Trophy and become no. 1 picks in the NFL draft.

But what Burrow does is different. Receivers don’t have to be open for him to complete passes that defenders can’t touch.

6. Joe Burrow to Justin Jefferson (September 7, 2019)

A lot of clips in this post feature deep balls, because Burrow’s ability to throw deep is incredible. But much of the uptick in LSU’s offense this season has to do with its switch to the spread under new passing game coordinator Joe Brady, who just won the Broyles Award given to the nation’s best assistant coach.

And that spread consistently gets players open on short and intermediate routes, where Burrow demolishes defenses with his accuracy. Here is LSU’s game-winning play against Texas, on which Burrow displayed his superb ability to maneuver in the pocket before unleashing an accurate midrange pass to Jefferson speeding across the field.

On a third-and-17, Burrow scrambled forward to avoid some oncoming defenders before realizing that he was heading directly toward some other defenders. So he made the truly absurd decision to attempt a jump pass to a wideout sprinting horizontally, across the field, some 20 or so yards away.

It worked. Jefferson caught Burrow’s pass and ran to the end zone for a 61-yard score. The broadcast cut to a disappointed Matthew McConaughey. Later, it showed Burrow waving goodbye to all of the sad Texas fans.

7. Joe Burrow to Ja’Marr Chase (September 29, 2018)

Joe Burrow to Ja’Marr Chase (October 5, 2019)

Joe Burrow to Ja’Marr Chase (November 9, 2019)

OK, so these are technically three plays. Watch them consecutively, though, and, well, they’re all the same. Same quarterback, same pass, same receiver, same end zone. The only difference is the uniforms that LSU is wearing.

The second clip in this grouping shows Chase catching a touchdown pass over no. 7 on Utah State, a player named DJ Williams, who 247Sports ranked as the 186th-best cornerback in his high school class. The third video in this grouping shows Chase catching a touchdown pass over no. 7 on Alabama, a player named Trevon Diggs—brother of Stefon—who 247 ranked as the fourth-best “athlete” in his high school class. Their differing talent levels and recruiting reputations do not matter. Both realize that Burrow has thrown the ball only when the player they’re tasked with guarding is catching it. Both fall to the ground in shame.

Burrow’s ability to do this on command is unheard of. College quarterbacks commonly post outrageous single-season statistics, but those are generally composed of 500-yard, six-touchdown outings against West Fartstown Tech and pedestrian 170-yard, one-score showings against Alabama.

In 2019, Burrow has torched defenses of all stripes. His low-yardage mark came during a 278-yard game against Georgia Southern, a contest that he was pulled from midway through the third quarter after he had already thrown five touchdowns. He passed for 393 yards with three touchdowns and no picks against Alabama; he went for 349 yards with four scores and no interceptions against Georgia. His worst game of the year was probably a 32-of-42, 321-yard, one-touchdown, one-interception performance against Auburn. It’s the best worst game that anybody has ever had.

8. Joe Burrow to Justin Jefferson (December 7, 2019)

Sorry for including this one—it’s clearly a Patrick Mahomes highlight, and this is a Joe Burrow post. Embarrassing error on my end.

This clip is telling: Burrow is now in the rare class of quarterbacks who can make pass rushers miss, sprint toward the sideline, and then throw a ball that travels 40 yards in the air with perfect precision and accuracy. The list of players who can do that, in college or the pros, isn’t long.

9. Joe Burrow to Ja’Marr Chase (December 7, 2019)

The SEC title game doubled as Burrow’s final conference coronation. And the scoring got started with a throw that encapsulates why this Louisiana legend is about to hoist the Heisman.

On this throw, Burrow hangs around in the pocket for a millennium before whipping a ball that miraculously slides into his receiver’s stomach while a defender flails roughly 6 inches away. It’s a perfect pass: Any higher or lower and it would’ve been a tough catch for Chase; any more in front of or behind his receiver and it’d have fallen incomplete or been intercepted.

And yet it simply whisks pass the hand of a defender who could’ve broken it up, but didn’t. Burrow keeps throwing passes where the potential for failure is high. He also keeps not failing.

Which brings me back to the part of my brain that keeps screaming that this is unsustainable, that Burrow is more lucky than good. DIDN’T YOU SEE HIM LAST YEAR? this part of my brain shouts. Shouldn’t Burrow’s 50-50 balls sometimes land with defenders instead of his receivers? How can anyone be this perfect—let alone THIS GUY, who looked like a B-minus quarterback merely 13 months ago?

It is absurd that Burrow rose from Ohio State afterthought to forgettable LSU junior to a superstar having the best passing season in college football history. It is stunning that he’s going to be the runaway Heisman winner and presumably the top pick in April’s NFL draft. And I’m glad that a part of my brain still doesn’t believe in Joe Burrow, because what he’s doing is unbelievable. It’s important to treat every Burrow completion for the miracle it is, even if miracles now happen almost 80 percent of the time.