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Joe Burrow Is a Great Story. Will He Become a Great NFL Quarterback?

The top pick has shown plenty of fight in his first two games, but hasn’t shown the ability (or willingness) to make all the throws. Can the Bengals’ rookie quarterback channel some of his LSU magic?

Watching Joe Burrow play his second career NFL game on Thursday night, there were times when you could tell the kid ain’t scared. Then again, maybe he should be. Burrow’s been scrambling a bit more in the NFL than he did at LSU, and, well, NFL players are different:

Burrow has fought his way through two one-possession losses in his first two weeks as a professional. On Thursday, Burrow threw his third and final touchdown pass of the night with 43 seconds remaining to cut Cleveland’s lead to 35-30, although his team wouldn’t get the ball back; in Week 1, Burrow led his team on a 79-yard drive to the Chargers’ goal line in the game’s final minute, only for his team to attempt a game-tying field goal that missed when kicker Randy Bullock suffered a cramp in his left calf. (Ignore the video footage that shows Bullock grabbing his right calf after the miss.) Again, Burrow’s not scared. Regardless of the situation, he’s got fight in him. The wins haven’t come yet, but that’s to be expected when taking over a Cincinnati team that went 2-14 last year.

But while Burrow’s not scared of the bigger stage, he does seem to be scared to make the bigger throws. Burrow attempted 61 passes against the Browns, a number only one quarterback hit last season. And yet, he threw for only 316 yards, an alarmingly low number considering the high number of attempts. Many of Burrow’s 37 completions (an NFL rookie record) came on short routes and dump-offs. Combined with a debut in which Burrow needed 36 pass attempts to total 193 yards, Burrow is averaging just 5.2 yards per pass attempt through two games. If Burrow kept that up for a whole season, it would be the worst average for a qualifying quarterback since 2010, when Jimmy Clausen averaged 5.2 yards per attempt for the 2-14 Panthers. Burrow’s average depth of target on completed passes is 4.8 yards, which would’ve finished tied for last in the NFL last season.

It’s uncharacteristic from Burrow, who made his name last year as one of the greatest deep-ball throwers in college football history. Pro Football Focus graded Burrow’s deep passing at LSU as a 99.3 out of 100. Burrow threw 26 touchdowns on targets deeper than 20 yards and just two interceptions on such attempts. That feels like it shouldn’t be possible, but at LSU, Burrow completed bombs like they were checkdowns. “If he were a gambler,” I wrote about Burrow last year, “he’d put the damn casino out of business.” Through two games, Burrow is just 1-for-12 on targets deeper than 20 yards.

Burrow doesn’t look like the passer he was in 2019—but then again, Burrow in 2019 didn’t look like Burrow in 2018. Burrow wasn’t on anybody’s draft boards before his senior season. He failed to win the starting job at Ohio State and was mediocre after transferring to LSU and starting his junior year. Then, out of nowhere, he set the NCAA’s single-season records in passing touchdowns and passer efficiency rating. He also tied for third in passing yards and second in completion percentage. LSU went 15-0 despite playing seven opponents ranked in the top 10. In Burrow’s worst game, he threw for 321 yards with a touchdown and an interception against Auburn, which was ranked ninth at the time. (Yes, that was his worst game.) Burrow did it all with a swagger that implied he was born for glory, in spite of his years of unspectacular play. It was as if Burrow stepped into a Baton Rouge phone booth and ditched the outfit of a coach’s son with a rinky-dink arm and emerged as a football superhero. His rise, and LSU’s perfect season, is one of the greatest college football stories ever.

After that 2019 season, Burrow had to be the top pick in the NFL draft. Anybody who puts together a season that spectacular is worth that kind of investment. But LSU’s 2019 season was so miraculous it was difficult at times to evaluate exactly how good Joe Burrow was. Burrow could lob the ball up to wide receivers Justin Jefferson (a 2020 first-round pick) or Ja’Marr Chase (a near-certain 2021 first-round pick) and they’d come down with 50-50 balls what seemed like 90 percent of the time. Was that because of Burrow’s brilliant ball placement, or because he was working with two stud receivers? Last year was LSU’s only season with passing game coordinator Joe Brady, the 30-year-old scheme prodigy instantly hired by the Carolina Panthers to be their offensive coordinator as soon as LSU’s season ended. How could we properly evaluate Burrow if we never saw how Brady made other quarterbacks look? There was talent everywhere on that Tigers team. LSU tied the record for most players (14) selected in one NFL draft. The team’s running back, Clyde Edwards-Helaire, has played one NFL game, and already seems to be the best running back the Chiefs have ever put next to Patrick Mahomes. Two of Burrow’s offensive linemen last season, Lloyd Cushenberry and Damien Lewis, were also Week 1 NFL starters. LSU was so good in so many ways that it’s tough to tell how much of its success stemmed from Burrow’s individual brilliance and how much came from the baseline of perfection that surrounded him.

The best way to describe Burrow’s play for the Bengals thus far is that he looks like someone who went from throwing to the best wide receivers and behind the best offensive line to someone surrounded by teammates who went 2-14 last year. He has been constantly under pressure: He’s been sacked six times in two games, and fumbled three times. In Thursday night’s game, Burrow was strip-sacked by Myles Garrett before immediately getting driven into the ground by Porter Gustin; the Browns recovered the ball on the 1-yard line and quickly scored a touchdown. There probably could’ve been even more sacks—here’s a play when a defender sneaks up on Burrow without Burrow sensing his presence at all. Should we be happy Burrow somehow made an impressive play, or alarmed at how easy it is for defenders to run up on him?

The Bengals’ receivers have already shown their deficiencies. Tyler Boyd dropped a gimme touchdown in the end zone Thursday night; A.J. Green was called for offensive pass interference on a play which could’ve been a game-winning touchdown in Week 1, after he had a bad drop earlier in the game. Burrow is trying really hard to establish a connection with Green, a seven-time Pro Bowler. The veteran wideout had 13 targets Thursday night, but only three catches, with three balls hitting him in the hands before falling to the turf. Some of that falls on Green, but Burrow’s passes weren’t perfect. Last year, his minor inaccuracies could be ignored when his receivers made spectacular grabs for touchdowns; this year, that’s clearly not going to happen.

Burrow was the main character of one of the most spectacular college football stories ever, but it feels like 2020 will be more revelatory with regard to how good he actually is at playing quarterback. He’s not scared of the moment—but he’s been timid in other ways.