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Joe Burrow Is Back From Injury, but the Bengals’ Rehabilitation Continues

The Bengals lost Burrow last season and Burrow lost football. They’ve each learned a lot from the experience.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Joe Burrow did one fun thing this year. He attended a Stipe Miocic–Francis Ngannou UFC fight with some friends in March that was otherwise closed to the public. It’s funny, he said, “I see those talking heads on football and I go, ‘Ahhh, this guy doesn’t really know what he’s talking about.’ Then I watch all these MMA talking heads and I’m like, ‘Oh, this guy is giving me some great insight.’ And then it’s like, ‘Wow, it’s probably the same thing. He probably doesn’t know what he’s talking about either.’”

The rest of his offseason was not particularly packed with fun. Part of that was by design; part of that wasn’t. It has been nine months since he tore his ACL and MCL, ending his Bengals rookie season. He brought his trainer with him on vacation. He was deeply serious. “Every workout to me was life or death,” Burrow said. “Go in there, no matter what you’re feeling. Knee hurts, body hurts, mind not up to it—you’ve got to get the work done. If you don’t get the work done, it’s not going to show up on the field. And I want it to show up on the field.”

Burrow, who 19 months ago completed the coolest and most efficient season in the history of college football at LSU, spent the past nine months rebuilding himself. His injury occurred last November, in the midst of a miserable Bengals season that was buoyed only by the optimism around the team’s rookie quarterback. But then the Bengals lost Burrow, and Burrow lost football. “I kind of had to figure out who I was without football for a little bit,” Burrow told me last week. “Lying in bed, not being able to move without someone coming to pick my leg up and go to the bathroom. It wasn’t very fun. But I think it’ll make me a better person and player.”

Burrow’s rebuilding continued in practice on a recent hot day in downtown Cincinnati. It has not been a flawless process. He trusts his knee and trusts the work he’s put in, he said, to know whether it’s stable. But some problems extended beyond his own recovery. Cincinnati’s offense was slow to develop early in training camp, something Burrow and Bengals coaches were open about but certainly not panicking over in early August. “It was more so just getting the feeling back in the pocket. I’ve always been pretty good at feeling the space in the pocket and going where I need to and feeling where the defenders are. And at the beginning of camp, it was kind of just a wall of people,” Burrow said. “I couldn’t really feel who was who, where the pressure was coming from. Then, at the end of last week, it just kind of clicked for me. And now I’m playing well again, back to my old self.”

There are two separate questions for the Bengals: The first is what Burrow’s “old self” means for the franchise; the second is whether the franchise has the team to support that version. Before his injury last year, there were some encouraging signs: He was historically good by some metrics when throwing under 20 yards downfield. In a clean pocket, Burrow’s throws within 20 yards were the best by any rookie in the 15 years that Pro Football Focus has been tracking the metric; he was fifth best in the league overall. Quarterback stats from a clean pocket are generally considered more stable from year to year than stats under pressure. He threw the highest rate of perfect passes by PFF’s count of any rookie.

But Burrow was not perfect, and even among his rookie peers, fellow first-rounder Justin Herbert overshadowed him. The Bengals were 2-7-1 in Burrow’s starts. Their offensive line was bad. This offseason, they used three draft picks on offensive linemen and signed Riley Reiff. They drafted Burrow’s LSU teammate, wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase, who told me Burrow is still making quick decisions like he did at LSU and is clearly regaining his confidence, the type that, Chase explained, led to his favorite Burrow pass ever: a catch over a Texas defensive back in Austin in 2019. “He just said, ‘I’m going to throw it up to you.’ That’s what he did a majority of the time in college. ‘Just throw it up to you, go get it.’”

I asked Burrow how he felt about the Bengals’ offensive struggles being the dominant early story line of their training camp. He had recently told reporters that the early part of camp had been frustrating, and the internet glommed onto his admission that his own struggles were a “mental thing,” by which he meant he was trying to get back to feeling like himself.

Basically, I wanted to know how he has dealt with every word he speaks being scrutinized since he’s returned to the field. “I’m an honest guy, and I’m not going to bullshit, for lack of a better word, reporters,” Burrow said. “I’ll try to give an open and honest answer to all the questions that I get and let people do what they’re going to do with it. I don’t read what anyone says. Some people tell me what people are saying, but I never really focus on that. It’s never really bothered me. I’m just gonna be who I am and say what I want.”

Burrow worked with private quarterback coach Jordan Palmer this summer. Burrow, Bengals offensive coordinator Brian Callahan said, had “very specific things he was trying to get better at. He was trying to find ways to generate more velocity and arm strength, and he’s trying to find ways to be able to throw the ball maybe a second later with a little more pop and still keeping the same accuracy. So he found some strength, I think, in his training portion, talking about lower body and core strength and hip strength. Some of this stuff shows up as you rehab your knee, realizing that these muscles that you hadn’t recruited before to use, you’re aware of what’s mechanically going on.”

Callahan continued: “And I think he’s really, really into ‘where can I improve 2 percent?’ And that 2 percent may be the difference of winning three more games because of a couple of things that he does in the offseason, both mentally and physically.”

Chase going up and getting a Burrow pass will probably be a focal point of the 2021 Bengals offense. Cincinnati coaches stress that Burrow has elite vision and processing ability, so getting as many talented pass catchers out into routes is the key. “I like having as many routes available to me as possible. Five people out in the route just to stress the defense. Because what I’m good at is feeling space, feeling defenders, feeling where they’re supposed to go, feeling the zones that open up behind them,” Burrow explained. “So when there’s only one or two guys out in the routes, that’s not where I’m at my best.” This preference, Callahan said, leads to “free-flowing conversations” among Bengals coaches about the offense and what parts of Burrow’s college game should be emphasized at the pro level. It’s a conversation that Burrow said head coach Zac Taylor actually listens to. “Some coaches will ask you and put it on a list and then forget about it, and not actually call it in the games.” Burrow said. “Zac calls it in the game.”

During Burrow’s stint as starter, the Bengals ran more empty backfield sets than any team in the NFL and utilized running backs and tight ends as receivers in these empty sets. There was some early success:

Now, let’s be clear: It is not easy to run empty sets at the NFL level, but they can be useful for the Bengals because Burrow’s processing and vision are so good. I asked Callahan the difference between running empty at the college level and the pro level, and he rattled off a long checklist: The NFL features tighter coverages than what is seen in college and teams won’t just settle into zone; teams are also less afraid to blitz in the NFL or press receivers. Then, of course, there’s the protection issue, which cuts to the heart of the matter: If a team brings five pass rushers on a play against five offensive linemen, that’s the sort of one-on-one matchup defenses are looking for, and there are fewer options to help the quarterback with extra protection. And, of course, teams know you’re going to pass, even more so than if you’re in shotgun, Callahan explained, so the rushers are coming fast. That necessitates quick, easy completions, spreading every player out, and using Burrow’s strengths. “Joe can diagnose exactly what he’s getting,” Callahan said. “Then the flip side is, most of the time you have to get rid of the ball pretty quickly and efficiently, or otherwise you’re gonna open yourself up to some protection issues.”

This is the push and pull as the Bengals build around Burrow: His greatest strength is his ability to quickly diagnose plays and get the ball to the open receiver, but it also potentially exposes him to getting hit hard if there’s a miscue on any level of the offense. Still, Burrow’s on-field vision will always be the most important part of the Bengals’ game plan. His most effective play is a “levels” concept, Callahan said, that was used at LSU but is a staple of the Peyton Manning playbook: a post route on the outside, a receiver in the flat, a bunch of guys trying to get open, and Burrow reading the entire field trying to answer any coverages the defense throws at them. Taylor told me he thinks Burrow’s vision is “all-encompassing” in that he can diagnose coverage not just in empty or in shotgun but in play-action under center or when his back is to the defense. He can feel when running backs are uncovered. “There’s a lot of things he has not yet seen. So the experience does matter. He does not make the same mistake twice. He learns from other people’s mistakes,” Taylor said.

Callahan said as Burrow progressed, he took on “free rein” at the line of scrimmage to make checks and play changes. “Ideally, you’d love to get to the point where he’s in that Peyton Manning mode, where he can just do whatever he sees,” Callahan explained.

The coaching staff has been letting Burrow run some of the offensive meetings with skill players. “So it’s ‘Hey Ja’Marr, I don’t see this, I don’t like the way you ran that, I need you to run it at this depth and this angle so I know exactly when you’re going to come out.’ So him having those conversations of what he expects is far more powerful than any conversation I’m going to have in front of them,” Callahan said. “The more ownership we can give Joe the better. “

I mentioned to Callahan, a former Broncos assistant, that he’s now mentioned Peyton Manning twice in the same interview when talking about Burrow. Any similarities? “He shares some of the same traits. He knows how to distribute the ball and knows where to go with the ball all the time. There’s not a lot of indecision. And so you factor that in with his ability to diagnose ... Matthew Stafford was really the same way. It’s just guys that like being able to just see what they see and then find the best answer,” Callahan explained. “Not by any stretch comparing it to Peyton, but when you’re talking about frames of reference, those are my frames of reference. And I see a lot of the same things in him, in his game, what he’s capable of.”

Taylor does not think the constraints of COVID-19 hampered Burrow’s development last season—the team had a “belief” in him from the first training camp practice last August. But he does think that Burrow’s personality wasn’t able to resonate with his teammates as much because players simply weren’t together very often unless they were in meetings. “So the defense probably didn’t get a chance to see that as much as they do this year,” Taylor explained.

They are seeing it in training camp. I asked Burrow what he learned about football since his injury. “To not take it for granted,” he said. I’d listen to him. Because, unlike the guys on TV, that is a guy talking about football who does know what he’s talking about.