Joe Burrow's 'Magic' Is Already Evident

Bengals coach Zac Taylor talks about how the rookie has impressed through three games. Plus, movement in the top five of the power rankings, what we should learn from the Titans' COVID-19 outbreak and Marlon Humphrey's well-deserved pay day.
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Because there aren’t fans in the stands, because Zac Taylor was yelling at the top of his lungs, and because the network mics can pick up just about everything that’s being said out there anyway, the message the Bengals coach was trying to get across to Joe Burrow was totally unmistakable.

Pull it up on NFL Game Pass and you’ll hear it too: Cincinnati at Philly last week, 7:33 left in the fourth quarter, Bengals in second-and-15.

Throw it away! Throw it away! THROW IT AWAY!

Looking at the play, it’s hard to argue with Taylor’s logic. Burrow had already dodged Fletcher Cox in the backfield and outrun Derek Barnett toward the boundary, and now 230-pound middle linebacker T.J. Edwards was staring down a free run at the rookie, and Burrow’s coach was just trying to spare him the punishment.

Instead, Burrow tuned out Taylor and tripped up Edwards, sticking his foot in the ground as if he were cutting back his scramble, then spinning back outside as Edwards spun like a top, buying time and space to reset, run to the sideline and unleash a strike 25 yards downfield to Tee Higgins for a first down. He didn’t take a hit. He didn’t give up on the play. He did make a point.

“He turned around and laughed at me,” Taylor said late Tuesday night, from his office. “He completed the ball, he turned around and laughed at me. Fourth quarter, up four, with seven minutes left. And Albert, when you watch the clip, you’ll know what I’m talking about. I’m three feet from him yelling. There’s no way he didn’t hear me.”

Sure enough, it was there. I could hear him.

“That’s just what I’m learning,” Taylor said. “Sometimes you’re gonna deal with that where, it’s not always gonna be the prettiest way, but he’s just gonna make plays.”

Burrow and the Bengals are 0-2-1, and no one’s satisfied with that—Burrow lost three games total as a college starter. There’s a long way to go in his rookie year, and there have been bumps to this point, to be sure. And there are more coming.

That said, as the team turns the page on September, there is this one feeling that going through it seems to have cemented within the organization.

They have zero doubt they got the first pick right.

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Week 4’s here, and so are we for this week’s GamePlan. Inside the column, you’ll find …

Week 4’s here, and so are we for this week’s GamePlan. Inside the column, you’ll find …

• What we should learn from this week in Nashville.

• Marlon Humphrey getting paid.

• A shakeup in the power rankings.

And we’re starting with an inside look at where the first overall pick is going into Week 4, and how he’s looked like anything but a rookie through three weeks.

***

Taylor’s first coaching job was as a graduate assistant at Texas A&M, and during those four years, from 2008 to 2011, he worked closely with Aggies quarterbacks coach Tom Rossley, then in his 60s and a former NFL coordinator and college head coach. And one of the things the two would do together was evaluate high school quarterbacks, something Taylor quickly took to, being a former college quarterback himself.

They had a system for doing it, too, taking traits and grading them on a 1-to-10 scale.

“Usually, you’d get these high school kids, and it’d be accuracy: 6, arm strength: 7, football IQ on tape: whatever,” Taylor said. “And he added a column called ‘magic’. And I was like, Magic? What? And he added it because we were watching Johnny Manziel. This is, at the time, a 60-something coach, he’s been a head coach, he’s been a coordinator in the league, he coached Brett Favre, all these guys. And he adds magic to the criteria. And I’m like 23 years old, I don’t know what he’s talking about.

“And he says, ‘This kid’s got a 10 out of 10 on the magic scale, and that’s important when you play quarterback.’ And that’s always stuck with me. There’s no question Joe Burrow would have a 10 of 10 on the magic scale, if you were ranking 1 to 10 on that trait. That’s just something you don’t really coach, the guy’s just got it and guys around him believe in it.”

No matter what you think of Manziel now, Rossley’s grading system proved prophetic—the diminutive prep playmaker from Texas Hill Country wound up becoming the Aggies’ first Heisman winner in 55 years. And if it holds like the Bengals think it will on Burrow, the Heisman he won last December will be just the start for Cincinnati’s new quarterback.

That throw to Higgins, by the way, wound up being taken off the board. The Eagles challenged the call on the field that the rookie receiver was eligible, replay showed he’d stepped out of bounds on his volition before making the catch, and Cincinnati went to third-and-15.

But that’s beside the point (and Burrow did wind up converting that third-and-15).

Part of Cincinnati’s bet on Burrow was that he had the sort of on-field moxie and flair to pull stuff out of you-know-where in spots like that, and this was another example of it translating right out of the SEC and into the NFL. As Taylor said, that’s the stuff you don’t coach.

Then, there’s the stuff you do coach, and that’s where Manziel wound up, eventually, failing as an NFL player and another area where the Bengals are supremely confident that Burrow—the son of a coach himself—will deliver. And there’s been proof of that already, too, as there was in the magic category.

***

There’s been a lot of focus on the disadvantage rookies are at this season—with 2020 being the Year of COVID-19—but Taylor and his staff haven’t really seen it that way with Burrow. Because they held the first pick in the draft, all the Zoom meetings they were allotted, with a guy they knew pretty early on that they’d probably take, turned into de facto teaching sessions.

By the time they took Burrow, Taylor says, “He’d been exposed to all the terminology.”

“Any time you walk into a college or pro team, the first step is just learning how to call the play. What’s the rhythm of the formation, and the motion, the call, the tag, there’s a rhythm to it,” Taylor continued. “It’s just getting comfortable picturing the call as you’re saying it.”

So Burrow had that as a baseline—in addition to some concepts and concept names that carried over from LSU’s Saints-style offense—as he heard his name called on April 23. And from there, the Bengals were deliberate with their quarterbacks. The staff went through the install twice with the group over the spring, and Burrow and Co. did what amounted to a third install with OC Brian Callahan and QBs coach Dan Pitcher on top of that.

As we detailed back in the spring, the team also creatively worked to make up for what was lost in that style of distance learning. One such example: Taylor would mute his Zoom and FaceTime Burrow to give him the playcall, then make Burrow spit the call back out to his teammates over the Zoom. And Burrow was, indeed, shouting cadence from his parents’ basement in Southeast Ohio. All of which, as Taylor sees it, benefitted the rookie.

“The way the offseason was structured was better for a rookie quarterback in some ways,” he said. “Not all the ways, but in terms of being drafted April 23, normally, you’re expected to go on the field May 12 and compete against a bunch of veterans in OTAs. So you’ve got two weeks to digest a playbook, which is really too quick. And then you go out there, and maybe you don’t have a ton of confidence in what you’re being asked to do, and you gotta go compete, and you gotta make the corrections.

“And it’s good, because you get to throw the routes with the receivers, and you get to see what an NFL defense is like, and you kind of get to feel what the NFL feels like. But it’s really too quick, at the end of the day, to have learned a playbook and get on the field and have to go execute.”

Instead of Burrow’s days being filled with his own bumps, he was being fed clips of Jared Goff running the Rams offense (where Taylor was), and of Peyton Manning running the Broncos offense (where Callahan was) to build his feel for the hybrid of schemes that the Bengals’ staff had built. Then, because of the COVID-related rules, he got two-and-a-half weeks of ramp-up, with walkthroughs, followed by 11-on-0 full-speed work with the offense, before actual football practice started.

When it did, he was ready.

***

The Bengals didn’t do anything unexpected with Burrow to speed up his learning curve once actual training camp began with 11-on-11 work, mostly because they didn’t feel they needed to. And that approach was validated in how Taylor felt in the days before the team’s Sept. 13 opener against the Chargers.

Nerves regarding how Burrow would look going into the game?

“No,” Taylor said. “It didn’t feel like a rookie going into his first game. That’s the best way I can say it. I’ve been around quarterbacks at all different points of their careers. This did not feel like a rookie walking into Week 1, and I would say he didn’t play like a rookie in Week 1. So I’d say it just verified what you thought you were gonna get going into the first game.”

As Taylor sees it, there were three jump-off-the-page examples from the first two weeks of just where Burrow played like a pro quarterback.

Week 1: the two-minute drive at the end of the game. Everyone saw this: Burrow and the Bengals got the ball with 3:08 left at their own 18. Almost nonchalantly, the rookie went 9-of-10 for 79 yards in getting the Bengals to the Chargers’ 3. And he threw the game-winning touchdown pass on his last snap of the game, only to have it nixed by an OPI call on A.J. Green. The Bengals missed a field goal that would’ve forced OT, but Burrow had already proved plenty.

“Not only him, but the other 10 guys, just being on top of their stuff in the two-minute, giving the ball back to the official, him being quick to communicate the next play, being decisive in where to go,” Taylor said. “The only incompletion we had was a scramble where he actually hit A.J. Green, and it was just enough to where he couldn’t get both feet in.”

And that part about the other 10 guys? That’s a big key, too.

Their attentiveness to Burrow, Taylor continued, showed “that they have confidence in him. They don’t look at him as a rookie either. They’ve got confidence that he’s gonna lead the team to victory when his number’s called, and they feed off of that and he raises their level of play as well.”

Week 2: second-and-8 on the fourth play of the game. This one’s a little more difficult to see without knowing the background. But it’s a rookie in his second game, on a short week (Thursday night), and it displays how quickly he’s processing—Burrow got rid of the ball in a tick over two seconds and, by the time he did, he’d turned his head three different times before finding receiver Mike Thomas for a three-yard gain.

“He gets to No. 4 on his progression,” Taylor said. “He goes through the back, he goes through C.J. Uzomah, he goes through the deep guy over the ball, and gets to his backside snag, which is fourth in the progression. It’s just a three-yard gain, but puts us in third-and-five, and then he scrambles on third-and-five for the first down. That was just him being comfortable and calmly going through his progression.”

And that first down wound up leading to the first points of the game.

Week 2: first-and-10 with 10:46 left in the game and the ball at his own 31. In this situation, the Bengals were down 28–16, and a big negative play could have effectively ended the game. And Cleveland brought heat to try and make that happen—something that Burrow recognized quickly. Seeing his line was outnumbered, the rookie didn’t panic.

“It’s a five-man protection, he knows he’s hot, he’s waiting on a decision on a route, he’s trying to give himself to the last minute to make the decision, and now the pressure’s on him,” Taylor said. “And he’s able to keep two hands on the ball, pull out of Myles Garrett, who’s around his ankles, scramble to his left with really nice ball security, and find a completion to Tee Higgins for 12, 13 yards.

“When you watch the play, you understand, Hey, we can only block five. He knows he’s got the sixth guy, and he’s able to stay composed, to give his receiver to the last second to make a decision, until he’s finally gotta bail out of there, and pull away from some real impressive defensive linemen’s grasps with two hands on the ball, eyes downfield, trying to make a big play down the field. And he makes it.”

Taylor paused, then added, “That was one of the most impressive quarterback clips I’ve seen in a long time.”

***

And so here the Bengals are now, with the Jaguars, Ravens and Colts coming the next three weeks. Taylor’s under no illusion that either he or Burrow has it all figured out yet.

But optimism is there, as are reasons to believe that Burrow will continue to get better from here. Here’s another one: As the coaches and Burrow went through the install in the spring, the quarterback didn’t simply return to them cocksure and confidently saying, I got it. He came back, instead, with questions. Which showed another part of all this.

“He’s gonna be real honest with you,” Taylor said. “He’s very careful not to say, Yeah, I got it, when he doesn’t have it. And that’s important, because a lot of guys in this league want you to think that they understand everything when they don’t.”

In other words, he understands that he’s just starting to get what it takes to play the position in the NFL. And once he actually does have it? Look out.

“You try not to get carried away with the future,” Taylor said. “We need to be very much in the present right now with where we’re at. What I can just say about Joe is he’s making the progress that you hoped he would make. Now it just needs to start translating into wins for this entire team. That takes everybody, that’s not just on the quarterback. We’re all a part of this thing and we gotta make it happen.

“But I can say through three weeks, he’s what you’d hoped you would get when you drafted him No. 1.”

And for a team that’s been where Cincinnati has the last few years, there’s plenty of magic in that.

***

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POWER RANKINGS

1) Kansas City Chiefs (3-0): This isn’t too complicated. K.C. went through Baltimore like a hot knife through butter, and the Ravens were No. 2 on my list last week. Which means, with the Patriots on tap Sunday, the Chiefs are No. 1 until further notice.

2) Green Bay Packers (3-0): I’m leaping them over the Seahawks just because, right now, they look like the more complete team. And they didn’t have much issue Sunday taking apart what I still think is a really good Saints team.

3) Seattle Seahawks (3-0): Russell Wilson and Co. sure have been a high-wire act the last couple weeks, and the look of the team is kind of jarring—they have to outscore everyone now. Miami could be a get-right game for their banged-up defense in Week 4.

4) Buffalo Bills (3-0): For now, I’m going to chalk up the big blown lead to the Rams as a learning experience for a very talented young team that has learn to step on its opponent’s throat. The Bills showed some stomach too in coming from behind after blowing that lead.

5) Pittsburgh Steelers (3-0): Do I think the Steelers are going to outlast the Ravens in the AFC North? I’m not willing to go there yet. But Pittsburgh has taken care of business through three weeks and, if you’ve watched, it’s clear that they have another gear in them.

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THE BIG QUESTION

If the Titans make it out of this week O.K., what’s the biggest lesson to take?

That even if you do all that you can, you can’t control everything when it comes to COVID-19, which is why the league is being so draconian with rules—like the ones requiring coaches to wear masks. And all you have to do to see that is to look at the chain of events in Nashville over the last six days.

• Last Friday, Titans outside linebackers coach Shane Bowen (who succeeded retired DC Dean Pees as the team’s defensive play-caller) took a COVID-19 test that turned up a positive result at the crack of dawn on Saturday morning. Bowen was informed before coming to work and didn’t travel with the team to Minnesota later in the day.

• Later Saturday, all members of the Titans’ traveling party took their PCR COVID-19 tests. The results came back clean on Sunday morning, and everyone was cleared to play or coach against the Vikings.

• The Titans returned to daily testing on Monday, and the tests turned up eight positives (three players, five football staffers) on Tuesday, which prompted the team to shut down its facility later that morning.

• One more player positive was returned on Wednesday morning, and another player and a non-player positive came back on Thursday, which led to the NFL moving the team’s game with the Steelers out of Week 4.

So, assuming all protocols were followed and diligence was done, it’s hard to see what the Titans could’ve done to prevent this. If Bowen’s case caused the spread, and it’s impossible to really know if it did or not, then the Titans went through a round of testing, and passed all those tests, before playing in the game on Sunday. Which means either the incubation period of the virus got them, or Bowen wasn’t the one who spread it.

Two days later, with eight people having tested positive, the building was shut down. These guys weren’t around each other after Tuesday morning. Yet, there was another positive test on Wednesday and two more on Thursday. And that, really, illustrates the biggest fear the NFL has had all along.

The league’s done a really good job keeping COVID out of its facilities over the last two months. But there are ways for it to get in—and the incubation period of the virus is one way the door can be cracked open for the virus. Which, at least on the surface, appears to be how this spread happened in Nashville.

And as we’ve seen in other sports, it’s harder to get the virus out than it is to keep it out.

My other biggest takeaway is this: The switch to rapid daily testing is probably coming. Those tests are getting more and more accurate, to the point where the Big Ten and Pac-12 will be relying solely on them, and being able to turn results around quickly enough to where they can be required for entry would change the overall equation big-time for the NFL.

Until then? Well, what’s happened in Tennessee this week sure could happen again.

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WHAT NO ONE IS TALKING ABOUT

How good Marlon Humphrey is as a ballplayer.

Last year, I ran a midseason poll of guys experienced on the pro scouting side and asked them to name a player who doesn’t get the credit he deserves—and Humphrey was the only one who came up multiple times. And that was because, in a Baltimore position group that had bigger names (like Marcus Peters and Jimmy Smith), he was the one consistently drawing the toughest assignment week-in and week-out.

That told everyone what the Ravens, a pretty smart team, thought of him.

And in case you didn’t hear them, the Ravens told everyone again on Thursday, in locking up the first-team All-Pro through 2026. As part of that deal, Humphrey is due …

• $97.5 million over five new years.

• $40 million fully guaranteed at signing.

• $67 million in injury guarantees.

The deal’s also a good sign of how the Ravens have successfully reworked their defensive back seven after losing cornerstones C.J. Mosley and Eric Weddle. Humphrey’s 24 years old, Chuck Clark’s 25, Patrick Queen’s 21 and even Peters is still just 27.

Few organizations can reload like that. The Ravens have. Again.

(Also worth noting here: That 2017 draft class was loaded at corner, with Humphrey joined by Marshon Lattimore and Tre’Davious White in the first round.)

***

THE FINAL WORD

I’m actually looking forward to tonight’s game! And I’m not even joking—I always feel like these games can be a good chance to get a look at teams that would be an afterthought on a normal NFL Sunday.

What am I most excited to see? Denver’s rookie receivers, Jerry Jeudy and K.J. Hamler. So here’s hoping Brett Rypien can get them the ball.