JOE BURROW: RISE OF THE TIGER KING

7/01/22
Written by Jake Bowtell

LSUSports

I first watched Joe Burrow on film prior to the 2019 NCAA Football season. I was scouting film from 2018, or more accurately I was watching football games from 2018 with a pad of paper and a pen with the intention of attempting to glean something from someone on the field, so that I might write it down and offer the internet something of football value. Jake Fromm was the player I was watching, for the Georgia Bulldogs, as he took on the LSU Tigers.

My notes began to shift focus early in the game as I became more and more intrigued by the young quarterback playing for LSU. The demeanour with which he played the position, the storyline that he was a transfer quarterback, the snippy arguments with his coach as the offense was called off the field on a 4th down, or his use of a hard count to get the Georgia defense jumping offside, all little signs that spoke to me of a special talent locked inside what might otherwise have been considered a somewhat unremarkable package.

Joe Burrow had neither the rippling physique nor eye-popping bazooka arm so often associated with the lavish praise heaped upon prospective quarterbacks by the footballing community. He came across, even through the TV screen, as a scrappy brawler, or perhaps more accurately, a tough grifter. Somebody who knew what he wanted, and understood how he was going to go about getting it, and f*** you if you were going to get in his way.

LSU triumphed over Georgia in that game in 2018, and so began my adventure following the journey of Joe Burrow in his LSU career, via the internet, all the way from distant Australia. I chewed through nearly every game he had played in that 2018 season, and then tuned in with the rest of the footballing world as he tore through the college football record books en route to a remarkable season in 2019.

Nearing the conclusion of his second campaign in the NFL, I felt that it was time to write down what I have seen, and what I feel, about this quarterback who knows nothing of my existence, but has given me so much enjoyment over the past three years.

Grab a cup of coffee, or a beer, or maybe light yourself up a cigar. This one’s a journey.

EXTREME FORCE AT AWKWARD ANGLES

The NW Ark Dem

Week 11, 2020. The Cincinnati Bengals have travelled to take on the Washington Football Team, and their soon to be defensive rookie of the year Chase Young. The game, perhaps as predicted, has been a low-scoring contest, with Cincinnati holding a slender 9-7 lead over the home side early in the third quarter.

The Bengals have the ball, backed up on their own 9-yard line, it is 3rd & 2. Rookie quarterback Joe Burrow stands in shotgun formation, one receiver out wide to his left against the boundary, and another three bunched together to his right, with a running back joining him in the backfield. Washington brings seven men to the line. Six of them rush on the snapping of the ball.

Burrow drops back and sits in the pocket, as its edges begin to fold and collapse beneath the Washington blitz. He scans the field from left to right, searching for an opening to deposit the ball before his brief window of protection closes. Tyler Boyd has dashed down the right-hand sideline, facing one on one coverage, and this is where Burrow flings his pass, just as he is engulfed in the Washington pass rush.

The football spirals, carrying a slightly lame wobble to it, as it arcs upward, then downward, into, and then out of, Tyler Boyd’s hands. The ball hits the turf, and it is 4th down.

“No flag” announces the play by play man, “it was Kendall Fuller and now Burrow… oh boy…”

The tone changes worryingly.

Back behind the line of scrimmage, Joe Burrow writhes on the ground, desperately clutching his left knee.

“Uh oh”

Medical staff, as well as Bengal’s head coach Zac Taylor, rush to the side of the young Cincinnati quarterback. Burrow lies on his side, right hand still gripping his left knee, left hand grasping at his helmet, then the grass. Pain. Disbelief. Trauma.

“Oh no…”

On the Bengals sideline, backup quarterback Ryan Finley begins busying himself, ready to take the field and lead the offense should he be called into action on the next offensive series. He is called into action, and sees out the game. Finley sees one more start in 2020, in a remarkable victory over the Steelers, but it is Brandon Allen who sees out the majority of the remaining campaign for the Bengals.

Burrow is carted off the field to the Cincinnati locker room. The replays of the incident show Washington pass rusher Montez Sweat leaping high at Burrow in an attempt to dislodge the football, but the ball is already gone and so Sweat simply crashes into Burrow’s top half. As the young Cincinnati quarterback buckles forward, his left leg is hit from the side by Jonathan Allen, who is pushed back into the young quarterback by the offensive line, during his attempt to sack Burrow from the opposite side.

This is the perfectly designed pass rush. “Meet at the quarterback”, as they say. But a leg is not perfectly designed to withstand such forces applied at such angles. A torn ACL puts a gruesome end to Burrow’s rookie campaign, just 10 games in.

It is debated in some circles of the media and football community as to whether he will ever play another effective down of NFL football.

FROM ATHENS, TO THE BAYOU

MaxPreps

Coming out of High School in 2015, Joe Burrow was ranked as the 8th best dual-threat QB by 247 Sports, sitting behind Kyler Murray, Jarrett Stidham, Brandon Wimbush, Travis Jonsen, Sam Darnold, Jauan Jennings and Sheriron Jones. A 4-star prospect regarded as the 281st best player overall in his class, and the 11th best player in the State of Ohio.

Burrow played his high school football for the Bulldogs of Athens, Ohio, throwing for more than 11,000 yards and leading his team to the Division III state runner-up in his Senior year. He not only won the Ohio Mr. Football award, but was also named to the first-team all state side, and the Division II co-offensive player of the year. During the college recruitment process, he received offers from Lincoln Riley (then working at East Carolina), as well as from Cincinnati, Central Michigan and Boston College. But it was Tom Herman who recruited him to the Ohio State Buckeyes, the team Burrow committed to and enrolled at.

But Burrow’s time as a Buckeye was filled with frustration, and limited game time. In his Freshman season of 2015 he saw no time on the field, and only limited action in backup capacity in 2016 and 2017 as J.T. Barrett, then Dwayne Haskins, dominated the starting reps at quarterback.

Ahead of the 2018 season, Burrow elected to transfer out of his home state of Ohio, in order to pursue the opportunity of being a starting quarterback elsewhere.

It just so happened to be that Ed Orgeron, the gravel-throated second-year head coach at the LSU Tigers, was also looking for a fresh direction for his offense after a middling 2017 season for the offense of the team from the Bayou. Orgeron’s Tigers had gone 9-4, and ranked 76th of 130 teams for points scored per game. LSU was also losing two year starter Danny Etling, which gave Joe Burrow an immediate opening to compete for.

That competition was fought between a crowded QB room, with the most notable contender for Burrow to unseat being LSU’s Sophomore signal-caller, Myles Brennan. But competing was no problem for Joe Burrow, it was in his nature, and he duly won himself the starting job, impressing both his coaches and his teammates in the process. He further entrenched himself as the starter by beginning his LSU career with a 5-0 record, including an impressive victory over Auburn on the road in just his 3rd game as the starter.

His stat-line against those Auburn Tigers was hardly eye-popping, completing 15 of 34 passes for 249 yards with 1 TD pass and 0 INTs, but watching the game there was already a sense that this combative young quarterback was different to what had come before. This was a young man who had sat for a three year apprenticeship at Ohio State, had burned with the frustration of sitting in reserve for three years of his footballing life, and was ready to seize destiny and bend it to his will. Even in the early days of that season in Baton Rouge, Burrow seemed to be on fire with the urgency of a man who had much lost time to make up for, and much to achieve in a rapidly closing window.

In 2018 Burrow led LSU to a 10-3 record, their first double-digit win season since 2013 under coach Les Miles. There were incredible highs for the team and their new starting quarterback along the way, the victory on the road at Auburn was seasoned with a rousing 36-16 win in Death Valley over Jake Fromm and the No. 2 ranked Georgia Bulldogs, as well as other lopsided SEC triumphs over Ole Miss (45-16) and Mississippi State (19-3).

But there were sour notes, too. Tough learning experiences for a first-time starter who had set out on the path to make himself great. One week after he lit up the Ole Miss Rebels for nearly 400 total yards (292 passing, 96 rushing) and 4 total TDs (3 passing, 1 rushing), Burrow and the Tigers were handed a sobering reality check at Florida, as the Gators humbled the young quarterback to a performance of 19/34 for 192, with 0 TDs and 2 interceptions.

Just a few short weeks after the sweetest of victories against that highly-ranked Georgia side, LSU were dismantled by Alabama in Baton Rouge, pulverised 29-0 in front of their home fans. Burrow finished 18/35 for 184 at just 5.3 yards per attempt, with 0 passing TDs and 1 INT. His passer rating of 89.9 that night would end up being the second lowest of his career as a college starter.

The toughest loss, though, arrived in Week 12, at Texas A&M. A game that officially kicked off at 6:39pm (CST) on Saturday Nov 24th, and concluded some 4 hours and 53 minutes later, after a combined 146 points, and 7 periods of overtime. Joe Burrow threw for 25/38 for 270 yards with 3 TDs and 0 INTs, adding 100 rushing yards and 3 TDs on 29 carries. But his herculean effort fell short, with the Tigers beaten by the Aggies 74-72.

Full LSU vs Texas Game Here

Burrow reportedly required multiple IVs after the game, after carrying much of the offensive burden all evening. While the loss stung at the time, and for many months after, this was a game that truly marked the end of Joe Burrow’s trials as a first year starter, and the beginning of his ability to achieve in material terms what his mind had always dreamed of. A time where his vision of the kind of quarterback he could become, was born into reality.

A game of football had been lost, but a new Joe Burrow had been found.

A FIESTA BOWL INTERLUDE

Saturday Tradition

In hindsight, the way in which LSU’s first game of the 2019 calendar year finished might have served as an ominous warning sign for the rest of college football. But LSU’s triumph over the UCF Golden Knights, on the 1st of January in the Fiesta Bowl, went largely unnoticed. But those watching closely understood that this was a team that was beginning to turn a corner, and a young quarterback blooming into full control of his powers.

On the day, Burrow completed 21/34 passes for 394 yards with 4 TDs, the most yards and touchdowns he had ever thrown in his college career. The most noteworthy moment of the game, however, came on the lone interception Burrow threw. With LSU trailing 3-7 midway through the first quarter, Burrow dropped back to pass in the UCF redzone. He delivered his throw slightly late, and to the outside of his receiver, and had the ball picked off and returned for a score the other way, extending UCF’s lead.

On that play, as Burrow attempted to chase down the ball-carrier, he was hit by a horrific blindside blow from a UCF defensive player. The kind of hit that rattles the skeleton inside a person, that leaves the mind in one place and the body in another, separated by eons of time and space. UCF players slung verbal barbs at Burrow, hunched over on his hands and knees, as they walked off the field. Joe Burrow did not leave the game.

Thereafter, LSU outscored UCF 37-18, Burrow compiling the bulk of his work in the wake of that savage cheap-shot. If the final score of 40-32 failed to send even the mildest of shockwaves through the college football landscape, Burrow’s wrathful performance after being dealt a cowardly blow by his opponent, should have.

The 2019 tone was set. The transformation was underway. And no-one had seemed to notice.

YEAR OF THE TIGER KING

And The Valley Shook

LSU had concluded the 2018 season ranked 6th in the final AP Poll, they had produced a nice Bowl win to round things out, but there was no significant praise heaped on the side heading into the 2019 campaign. The obvious contenders for a National Championship out of the SEC would be Alabama (+240), Georgia (+900), and perhaps Florida (+2800). All three teams were given higher National Championship odds than LSU (+3300), and perhaps that made sense, for the overall body of work from Burrow and the Tigers in 2018 hadn’t looked particularly glamorous.

The loss to Alabama in particular had seemed to illustrate such a decisive gap in class between the Tigers and the Tide, that it seemed hard to imagine LSU making a legitimate run for the SEC, let alone the National Championship.

But make a run, they did.

Georgia Southern was LSU’s first opponent of the season, and they were duly dispatched in Baton Rouge, 55-3, with Burrow slinging 23/27 for 278 yards and 5 TDs, before exiting the stage for Myles Brennan to perform mop-up duties.

If the Georgia Southern result didn’t make anyone sit up and take notice of the Joe Burrow transformation, the following week against the Texas Longhorns did.

Prior to the game in Texas, Longhorns cheerleaders and the assembled Texas hoopla crew, stretched out a Joe Burrow No.9 jersey over a cannon and fired a shot through it, blowing the shirt to smithereens. Which, fittingly, is what Joe Burrow spent the next three hours doing to their secondary, as he passed for 31/39 for 471 yards, with 4 passing touchdowns and just 1 interception. If his total statistical production wasn’t enough to blow football scholars away, then his composure in huge moments across the afternoon was, as Burrow went toe to toe with Sam Ehlinger in the Longhorns’ den, and time and time again came up clutch at the most crucial of times.

Credit too, must be given to the play-calling of LSU, who allowed their aggressive young quarterback to take the game on and throw for the win, most notably late in the 4th quarter, on 3rd & 17, leading by just 6 points. Burrow dropped back to pass, and as the pocket collapsed around him, stepped up, and under intense pressure fired a pass to Justin Jefferson, who claimed not only a first down, but a game-sealing 61-yard touchdown. That kind of execution, on those kinds of gut-check play-calls, would come to define the 2019 season for Burrow, and his Bayou Bengals.

From there, the Tigers rolled. They dominated Northwestern State, Vanderbilt and Utah State, outscoring those three opponents 173-58. To prove it was no fluke, the Tigers hung 42 on the Florida Gators the next week, in a 42-28 victory, the first tick on Joe Burrow’s revenge list from 2018. There followed a comfortable win over Mississippi State, and a close victory at home to Auburn, who managed to keep LSU’s dynamite offense clamped better than anyone would all season long. It didn’t matter, as LSU found the right plays at the time, to extend their winning streak to 8-0, and set up another mouth-watering revenge game in Burrow’s college career. A Week 9 matchup in Tuscaloosa, against undefeated Alabama.

103.7 The Game

In what proved to be one of the games of 2019, Joe Burrow exorcised the demons of the previous season’s shutout with a ruthless exhibition of skill and tranquility under pressure. In hostile territory he completed 31/39 passes for 393 yards, with 3 TDs and 0 INTs. His passer rating of 89.9 from the 2018 encounter utterly smashed by the 2019 rating of 189.5. In a back and forth game in which a hobbled Tua Tagovailoa overcame some first half struggles to throw for over 400 yards and 4 TDs himself, LSU and their feisty quarterback held their nerve even after a 20 point halftime lead evaporated, to claim a 46-41 victory, and solidify their claim as the best team in the nation.

If that victory was the validation LSU’s title claim required in 2019, it seemed to pale in comparison for the team and Joe Burrow on a personal level, to the one score that remained to be settled on the Tigers’ schedule.

In the build-up to LSU’s clash with Texas A&M in 2019, Burrow was asked during an interview with The Advocate’s Sheldon Mickles whether he had seen that the Aggies had made commemorative cups of the 2018 overtime game. Burrow replied that he had not. Mickles also asked whether he realised that Texas A&M had also had the score engraved inside the rings from their Gator Bowl triumph. Burrow raised his eyebrows.

“They have bowl rings?”

Pressed on whether LSU’s players wanted to “annihilate these guys after last year”, Burrow toed the company line.

“It’s just another game for us.”

Another game indeed. LSU obliterated the Aggies 50-7 in Death Valley to conclude their regular season in savage style, with Burrow completing 71.9% of his passes for 352 yards and 3 TDs with 0 INTs. It was a dominating result, a Godfather-esque demolition job of an enemy who had perhaps gloated a little too much, and celebrated a little too long, about it’s victory from a season ago. While Texas A&M had wallowed in its overtime triumph, Burrow and the Tigers had sharpened their claws, and this was the final burying of that 2018 result.

WAFB

There was deep significance in Burrow’s final entrance into the stadium at Baton Rouge, adorned in a jersey that read “Burreaux” across his shoulders. If the season to that point had been the process of transformation, from the 281st ranked overall player in the 2015 recruitment class, from his years with his nose at the grindstone at Ohio State, from the poor performance in the 29-0 loss in Tuscaloosa in 2018, then this was the final coming out party. The young man who the fans in Death Valley had come to know as Joe Burreaux, finally claimed the name as his own, stepping into that transcendent version of himself.

After the game, Burrow penned a Tweet that seemed to sum it up.

“A tribute to this great state and university. Death Valley, where opponents’ dreams come to die… but where mine came true”.

Joe Burrow would play three more matches in LSU colours, an SEC Championship game against the Georgia Bulldogs (winning 37-10), a National Semi Final in the Peach Bowl against Oklahoma (winning 63-28) and the National Championship against undefeated Clemson (winning 42-25). In those three games, two of which were played against the nation’s best defenses, Burrow threw for 1,305 yards with 16 passing touchdowns and 0 interceptions.

LSU won the National Championship, Joe Burrow won the Heisman. He set the record for the most passing touchdowns in an FBS season with 60 scores through the air (against just 6 interceptions). Most importantly, he had transformed himself from a gritty grifting bandit of a player, into a savagely intelligent warlord of a quarterback, able to not only understand the enemy but now possessing the skills to take them apart piece by piece, and impose his will upon them.

Business Insider

His ability not only to learn the game, but to earn the love of the LSU faithful and his teammates, as a transfer quarterback, should not be undersold. How quickly he moved from new outsider, to the heart and soul of the team, is a testament to his ruthless work ethic, his brutal commitment to compete, and his warmth and authenticity. It is rare to see an athlete so ably combine such a ferocious thirst for winning with such a charming, likeable sense of good-heartedness.

A moment that stands out from that mythical 15-0 season, the greatest in the school’s history, dating back into the late 1800s, is Burrow setting off with the ball against for a scramble, and taking a bruising hit from a defender. Burrow, of course, jumped back to his feet, his shoulder pads popping at ugly angles out of his collar. In a heartbeat, one of his offensive linemen dusted him off and immediately attended to rearranging his quarterback’s armour inside his jersey.

A small moment in a massive campaign, but one that defined the camaraderie and care Joe Burrow inspired in his teammates. 

THE BAYOU BENGAL RETURNS HOME

ESPN

In 1949, American Professor Joseph Campbell offered the world his theory of the hero’s journey in a book titled The Hero With A Thousand Faces. The main thrust of the concept being that the heroes of any of our great myths, legends and fables follow essentially the same narrative loop. The hero must first be called to adventure and leave the place that they have known as home, just as Joe Burrow did in leaving Ohio and making his way to the distant land of Louisiana.

Once on this strange new journey, the hero undergoes an initiation, as they work their way through a series of trials and challenges, confronting who they are and, just as importantly, who they can become. Burrow’s two years at LSU offered the young quarterback the chance to further this part of his journey, to traverse one of the wildest landscapes in college football, the SEC, and learn the nature of himself and what he was capable of. The hero of Campbell’s journey analysis achieves their ultimate goal, just as Burrow did in realizing his potential at the Tigers, and must then take another turn on the path.

With the world seemingly at their feet, the hero on the journey is called to return to the place from which they originally set out, to go home as a changed being, possessing a greater level of self-mastery and access to their true nature.

It seems fitting then, that Joe Burrow’s hero’s journey finally wound it’s way back home, to the State of Ohio, when Cincinnati selects him with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft.  The young quarterback having learned how to be a tiger in the lair of the Bayou Bengals of LSU, now charged with the prospect of turning around the fortunes of the Bengals of Cincinnati, a franchise languishing in the depths of pro-football mediocrity.

His first season in 2020 was brutally cut short with a horrific knee injury that left him requiring surgery and a significant stint on the sidelines, nursing his body back to health. But there were signs that given the time and supporting cast around him, Burrow could do as he had done at LSU, and springboard his team dramatically in a short amount of time. Prior to his injury against Washington in Week 11, Burrow had completed 65.4% of his 404 rookie passes, (asked to throw the ball a whopping 40.4 times per game on average), with 2,688 yards, 13 passing TDs and just 5 interceptions. His legs too were shown to have retained their value from college, as he rushed 37 times for 142 yards and 3 scores.

How Burrow would return from his injury when the 2021 season arrived remained a major question over the offseason, for it had the ability to impact not only his own career, but the career of his Head Coach, Zac Taylor.

Taylor had been in charge for two seasons, in 2019 and 2020, and had presided over a team that had won just 6 games, and lost 25, with one tie. The hiring of Taylor by the Bengals was generally commented upon snidely by fans and media from around the league. A boring, mediocre hire for a boring, mediocre franchise. A vanilla misstep by one of the NFL’s most vanilla franchises. More low-hanging fruit plucked from the much touted Sean McVay coaching tree.

But Zac Taylor’s team showed signs of gradual improvement, and the seeds of a rugged bravado. While 2019 brought a 2-14 train-wreck that felt like one long dark tunnel of suffering, in which they defeated only the moribund New York Jets and Cleveland Browns, 2020 offered the beginnings of some light at the end of that tunnel. The early season promise of Joe Burrow being cut short by injury could have obliterated teams of lesser character, but Cincinnati continued to fight, and found it’s roar with a 27-17 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 15, as backup QB Ryan Finley, and RB Giovanni Bernard, orchestrated one of the great upsets in recent Bengals history.

That victory showed the fire burning within this roster, a fire that Zac Taylor was beginning to kindle, and one that a resurgent Joe Burrow was about to pour gasoline on.

THE TIGER KING RISES AGAIN

PFF

Despite doubters in various NFL circles questioning whether Joe Burrow would ever take effective snaps at his position on an NFL field again after his injury, Cincinnati welcomed their second year quarterback back into the lineup for Week 1 at home to the Minnesota Vikings.

Burrow completed 20 of 27 passes against Minnesota, for 261 yards with 2 touchdowns and 0 interceptions, with the Bengals pulling off a 27-24 victory in over time via an Evan MacPherson field goal, having squandered away a 21-7 lead early in the second half. Burrow looked like Burrow, and unlike in 2020, was supported by Joe Mixon (29 carries for 127 yards with 1 TD) on the ground and the much maligned rookie Ja’Marr Chase, who caught 5 balls on 7 targets for 101 yards and a touchdown.

The following week in Chicago, Burrow struggled against the Bears, completing 19 of 30 for 207 yards, 2 touchdown passes and 3 interceptions. His passer rating of 66.2 was the lowest of his career since his first start back in 2020. The Bengals had been fortunate, perhaps, to claim their victory over the Vikings in Week 1, but the 20-17 loss to Chicago proved to be a timely kick in the pants for Cincinnati, as they claimed 4 wins from their next 5 games.

That run started with a dominating 24-10 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers in the Steel City, and went on to include triumphs over the lowly Jacksonville Jaguars, a thumping of the Detroit Lions, and an obliteration of the Baltimore Ravens. Their single loss in that five game stretch came in a 25-22 over time loss to the Green Bay Packers, a game which each team seemed determined to lose off the boot of their kicker. But the Packers loss seemed to matter less than the ominous results the Bengals were producing inside the AFC North.

For so long the Steelers and Ravens had been the benchmarks in the North, the two franchises that set the pace within the Division at a speed which Cincinnati and Cleveland could rarely follow.


In that first season of NFL football in 2020, Burrow went 0-4 against the AFC North and was outscored 77-135. The 2021 Bengals flipped the script entirely. In four contests against the Steelers and Ravens, Joe Burrow and his Cincinnati team emerged with four victories, and outscored their opponents 147-58. This sort of ruthlessness was the kind of whipping usually reserved for the Steelers and Ravens to mete out to their neighbours, and here was Burrow and his Bengals, savagely turning the tables on their tormentors.


Sitting at 5-2 after seven games, Cincinnati stubbed their toe in the way that all young teams on the rise habitually do, as they lost in back to back weeks to the New York Jets and Cleveland Browns. That bitter taste was left to resonate in the mouths of Burrow and his teammates over their Bye in Week 10, and the course correction came swiftly, as Cincinnati claimed four victories from their next six games, including a flogging in Vegas of the Raiders, and another Divisional thrashing of Pittsburgh. The two losses in that time occurred in back to back weeks against the Los Angeles Chargers, who power-punched the Bengals 41-22, and the San Francisco 49ers, who outlasted them 26-23 in over time. But Cincinnati adjusted once more, putting their mistakes behind them to claim back to back victories, first in a gutsy effort in Denver, and then a 41-21 trouncing of the Baltimore Ravens.

While there were inconsistencies across the Bengals 2021 campaign, one constant in Joe Burrow’s career had been his ability to continually improve, to find the answer to the test, and ace it on the second time of asking. This was clearly demonstrated in college, when he worked his way through an up and down rookie season at LSU in 2018, before destroying everything in his path the following year, and it was a concept beginning to prove itself once more on the pro stage.

In his freshman NFL season Burrow averaged 40.4 pass attempts per game, 1.3 touchdown passes, 268.8 yards, and finished with a 2-7-1 record from his 10 starts. In 2021, his pass attempts dropped to 32.5 per game, while almost every other number in his passing game soared. Yards per game rose to 288.2, average passing touchdowns up to 2.1, yards per attempt up from 6.7 to 8.9. These gains occurred not only on an individual level for Burrow, but for his team as well, as they ascended to the rank of one of the NFL’s most potent offenses.

The biggest obstacle of Joe Burrow’s fledgling NFL career, however, was just over the horizon. After the 41-21 humbling of a beat up Ravens team in Week 16, a visit from one of the NFL’s modern superpowers loomed large, as Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs rode into Cincinnati.

While the Bengals had risen in 2021 to be the bullies of the AFC North, it was Kansas City that had been the tormentors of the entire Conference for the last three seasons, on their way to repeat Super Bowl appearances in 2019 and 2020. In three seasons as a starter, Patrick Mahomes had redefined what was to be expected from your franchise QB. He had taken the intermittent improvisational jazz quarterbacking of Aaron Rodgers, and infused it with a kind of machine-like frequency, making the off-platform throw, the off-schedule scramble, the side-arm sling, into an every possession experience.

For all of Joe Burrow’s improvements, and the changing fortunes of the Bengals in 2021, the game against the Chiefs promised to be a step up in weight divisions from any AFC opponent that Cincinnati had faced all season.

The stage then, was set.

SHOWDOWN AT PAUL BROWN

WKRC

Week 17, January 2nd 2022. The Cincinnati Bengals host the back-to-back reigning AFC Champion Kansas City Chiefs in Paul Brown Stadium. The game is billed as one of the matchups of the year, between two of the league’s highest flying offenses. Significantly, the Chiefs are also in possession of a staunch defensive unit that has allowed just 13 points per game in its last 7 bouts.

The Chiefs rapidly ascend to a 14 – 0 lead on the back of touchdown throws from Mahomes to Demarcus Robinson and Travis Kelce. With just two minutes left in the first quarter, the narrative appears to be following well-worn grooves. Kansas City set to rout another upstart pretender on the road in a stadium full of bitterly disappointed fans.

The Bengals answer with a score of their own, Burrow to Ja’Marr Chase who slices, then gallops, his way for a 72 yard score, melting the Chiefs’ secondary into nothingness. But the champs respond immediately, Darrel Williams rushing for two touchdowns either side of another Burrow to Chase touchdown connection. The score is 28 – 14, Chiefs, with two minutes remaining in the half. The Bengals drive for a field goal, to reduce the margin to 11 at the main break.

The future of so many 2021 NFL season storylines rest on what emerges from each locker-room after half-time. The Chiefs, with another imperious victory, their ninth consecutive win if obtained, will solidify their push on the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoff race. Another challenger will have been seen off, and for the Bengals there will exist a week of soul-searching ahead of a crunch game against the Cleveland Browns.

What emerges is decidedly different from all that has gone before. The fire that Zac Taylor has kindled for almost three years is suddenly ignited into a raging inferno of black and orange Cincinnati napalm, as Joe Burrow begins an assault upon the Chiefs reminiscent of the kind of destruction usually wrought upon the NFL by Kansas City themselves.

Burrow finds Chase for a third score just 90 seconds into the second half, as the Cincinnati defense stiffens to repel the crashing waves of Kansas City’s offense. The Chiefs go scoreless in the third quarter, and then fall behind for the first time on the afternoon early in the final period of play, when Joe Burrow finds Tyler Boyd in the corner of the endzone for his fourth touchdown pass of the day.

The Chiefs embark upon a twelve play field goal drive that ties the game and erases almost six minutes of the fourth quarter. With six minutes remaining, yet another challenge has been thrown down to the Cincinnati Bengals, another gauntlet for their young hero Joe Burrow to run.

As the Bengals take the football at their own 25 yard line, this exquisite footballing acid-trip reaches its hallucinogenic crescendo.

Joe Mixon grinds ahead for short gains across the Cincinnati earth, but it is the connection through the heavens of Burrow to Chase that unlocks Bengals euphoria. First, on 2nd and 8 from their own 41, Burrow finds his former LSU companion on a 35 yard rainbow that sets Cincinnati up on the Kansas City 24. A holding penalty, then a Chris Jones sack, repel the Bengals back as far as the Chiefs’ 41 yard line. A Joe Burrow incompletion on 2 & 27 leaves Cincinnati in a 3rd and 27 hole, barely clinging to field goal range.

But as has so often been the case during the rise of Joe Burrow, the Athens High School Bulldog, the Buckeye, the Tiger, now Bengal, where mere mortals see a cataclysmic hole for their dreams to disappear into, Burrow sees opportunity out of which his legacy may be grown.

The full extent of the Burrow to Chase mind-meld is on display as the Cincinnati QB drops back to pass, faced with a seven man rush from the Chiefs, and fires a piece of pure art thirty-three yards through the air into the hands of his wide receiver, who makes an incredible catch with his arms extended as he outpoints his defender, before finishing the masterpiece by turning and gaining the extra couple of yards for a first down on the Kansas City fourteen yard line. The trust from Burrow to release the ball far in advance of Chase getting his eyes around to search for the football reverberates back to Burrow’s gut-check throw on 3rd & 17 two years previous to kill off the challenge of the Texas Longhorns.

The Bengals vs Chiefs football psychedelics turn strange at the end, as having advanced the ball to the teeth of the Kansas City goal-line, the Bengals try and fail repeatedly to run the football in for a score. Multiple 4th & 1 attempts finally result in a situation in which Cincinnati can evaporate the clock and kick a game-sealing, and AFC North Division-winning, field goal via the boot of Evan McPherson. Jubilation erupts around Paul Brown Stadium. Zac Taylor is embraced by his coaching staff, an enormous grin, seemingly of elation and relief at the same moment, strikes across his face. The smile of a man who has seen his team acknowledge and act upon all of their potential in one remarkable afternoon.

Joe Burrow smokes a cigar in the locker-room.

At age 25 with the NFL world seemingly beginning to be rearranged before him, even Burrow must realise that this is not the end of a journey, but the beginning of a new one. With a path into the NFL playoffs secured, he now has his first shot at winning the biggest footballing prize of them all. That sort of pressure has swallowed many who have come before. It is, after all, 32 years since the Cincinnati Bengals last won a playoff game, triumphing 41-14 over the Houston Oilers on January 6th, 1990.

A hell of an opportunity to go and build a legacy.


AN ADDITIONAL INDULGENCE


SI

So many hours of my 31 years on the planet thus far have been consumed with watching the deeds of other human beings on the field of play. Across numerous different codes, and leagues, I’ve been privileged to watch the individual journeys of so many athletes as they strive to reach the mountain top of their chosen field. Not all journeys are as captivating, or inspiring, as Joe Burrow’s.

Figures like Burrow are, for many of us, the modern personification of the leading character in Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey. Heroes from modest means who embark upon great adventures, into the deepest depths of the wild, fighting monsters, emerging victorious and changed for the better. They are the characters of legend, inspiring us to set out on journeys of our own imagining. To pursue the dreams we hold close to our hearts. 

If you’ve made it to the end of this article, my hat tips to you. It will not be everyone’s cup of tea, but then, I never claimed to be brewing tea for everyone. If you’ve enjoyed it, then I’m glad.

And, if you’ll indulge me just one more minute of your time, I would caution you to heed the call of life in the manner of your heroes. Go forth and pursue that life which you have dreamed of living. We are guaranteed nothing in our lives beyond the opportunity to be here, now. Some of us, are deprived even of that. So go forth in 2022 and set out on your journey. As with Joe Burrow’s odyssey, you may find that your path winds to unexpected places, and entwines with unexpected faces. This is as it should be, for the greatest joys in life are most often found in wholly unexpected ways. Like a football besotted bloke from Australia discovering a community of fellow weirdos on a website called A Football World.

Go lightly, with compassion, curiosity, and great purpose. Heed the call.

Jake Bowtell is a sports podcaster and writer with a particular obsession with American Football. You can listen to him on The Jake Bowtell Sports Experience, The Chaps Chat Cats, and read him on A Football World, and his Patreon page “The Jake Bowtell Sports Experience”. He resides in the Middle of Nowhere, Australia, and is stared at oddly by locals when he wears his NFL jerseys down the street.

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Feature photo: Fine Art America

One thought on “JOE BURROW: RISE OF THE TIGER KING

  • January 18, 2022 at 4:38 pm
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    Once again Mr. Bowtell provides a great article for the masses! I’m loving what Joe Burrow is creating in Cincinnati! The AFC is loaded up QB talent right now!

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