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Is Joe Burrow Already Trying to Break Up With the Bengals?

The presumptive top pick in the NFL draft is becoming increasingly cagey about his desire to play for Cincinnati, but he’ll have to do more than make hints if he wants to play for another team

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

“It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble,” Mark Twain once said. “It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”

That quote …

  1. Is in the opening image of The Big Short.
  2. Applies to itself (Mark Twain probably didn’t even say it).
  3. Perfectly summarizes the first NFL draft drama of 2020.

Ever since Cincinnati locked up the no. 1 pick in 2020, the draft-media-industrial complex has agreed that the Bengals would draft the Heisman Trophy–winning Ohioan quarterback Joe Burrow. But Burrow might have other plans, and the only thing we knew about the 2020 draft may not be so. On Monday, Burrow walked a tightrope with his answers to repeated questions from Mac Engel of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram about whether he wanted to play for the Bengals.

“Look, this is a long process, right?” Burrow told the Star-Telegram. “They have their process that they have to go through, and so I am blessed to be in the position I’m in. If they select me, they select me, I’m going to do everything in my power to be the best football player I can be.”

If they select me, they select me. Engel told Burrow those words could be interpreted multiple ways and gave him a chance to clarify, but Burrow doubled down.

“It’s a long process in the next couple of months,” Burrow said. “We have the combine. We have pro days. There is a long time until the draft. There is a lot of information in a lot of different places. A lot of people saying a lot of things. I’m just focused on training right now.”

Those comments, combined with a little prologue and a few basic facts about Burrow’s pre-draft process, suggest there may be fire behind all the smoke. The Star-Telegram reported that at the same dinner, former no. 1 pick Steve Bartkowski told Burrow’s family they should “pull an Eli Manning.” In the lead-up to the 2004 draft, Manning’s representatives told the San Diego Chargers, who had the top pick, that Manning did not want to play for them.

Some more smoke: Burrow is training with quarterbacks coach Jordan Palmer before the draft. Jordan Palmer is the younger brother of Carson Palmer, who won the Heisman Trophy in 2002 and was drafted no. 1 by the Bengals in 2003. Carson Palmer’s tenure with the Bengals was so bad that he threatened to retire after just seven seasons when the team refused to trade him (he was eventually traded to Oakland, and played seven more years). Last month, on a CBS Sports radio show, Carson Palmer went on an extended rant about why the Bengals organization was so awful:

“That’s why I wanted out: I never felt like the [Bengals] organization was really trying to win a Super Bowl, and really chasing a Super Bowl,” Palmer told Damon Amendolara.

Players accuse former employers of different things all the time—incompetence, malpractice, malice—but you rarely hear anyone question whether an organization wants to win a Super Bowl. Even comments that are intended as insults, like calling players dirty or cheaters, are about their wanting to win too much. So Palmer’s questioning Cincinnati’s desire to compete is about as damning a criticism as an athlete can levy against a sports organization. Palmer did not come out and say that Bengals owner Mike Brown was the problem in Cincinnati, but he effectively did so by invoking other owners as the foil to Cincinnati’s problems.

“[After Cincinnati and Oakland] I then went and played for [Cardinals owner] Michael Bidwill in Arizona, and Michael was all about winning,” Palmer said in the same interview. “Everything was about winning. The culture was about winning. … When you’ve got good players but you’re not really forcing everybody in the organization’s hand to do what we can to be better, to do what we can to win a Super Bowl, that’s the difference in the NFL. You look at what [Patriots owner] Bob Kraft’s done. You look at the teams that have had success year in and year out. You look at what goes on in Baltimore. I mean, that team is always good. That team is doing whatever it takes. They are willing to do whatever it takes to win.”

Burrow selected Palmer’s brother to be his pre-draft trainer just a day after Palmer made those comments, according to Albert Breer of Sports Illustrated. That same day, Burrow went on The Dan Patrick Show, where Patrick asked Burrow whether he’d rather go no. 1 or play for the right team. “A combination of both,” Burrow said. “You want to go no. 1, but you also want to go to a great organization that is committed to winning, committed to winning Super Bowls.”

Burrow’s words mirrored Palmer’s criticisms about the team from the previous day; it doesn’t take Charlie from It’s Always Sunny to connect the dots here. If Burrow (and his family, his agents, and everyone else involved in his life) was just doing the bare minimum of due diligence during the most important few months of his life, he’d ask Jordan Palmer for Carson’s cellphone number, give Carson a call, and offer to buy him a beer or seven. Wouldn’t it be weird if Joe Burrow did not reach out to Carson Palmer? And considering what Carson was willing to say in public, it’s easy to imagine the stories Burrow might have heard in private.

The next question is: What can Burrow do about any of this? The NFL has set up its labor system to make the draft nearly inescapable. Players have few options if they don’t want to play for the team that drafts them beyond pursuing another profession (Bo Jackson), threatening to pursue another profession (John Elway), or signaling they need to be traded elsewhere (Eli Manning). Perhaps Burrow could try to pull an Eli Manning and hope the Miami Dolphins (who have three first-round picks, including the fifth pick) trade up to draft him.

It is quite the plot twist to think that the Ohio-raised Burrow, who went out of his way in his Heisman speech to focus on proudly being from Athens, Ohio, would want to be traded away from one of the two Ohio NFL teams. But Athens is three hours away from Cincinnati, and Burrow was a Saints fan growing up. He’s connected to the region, but that doesn’t make him disconnected from reality. People assume that every team wants to win the Super Bowl equally, but Burrow may have learned that it just ain’t so.