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MMQB: Joe Burrow and the Long Road Back

How the Bengals QB made it through the toughest six months of his football life. Plus, Adam Vinatieri’s legacy, Catherine Raîche’s history-making promotion in Philly, the market for Julio Jones, and much more.

Back in December, with the league ramping up its COVID-19 protocols, the Bengals, like so many other teams, were forced to make their Saturday night-before-the-game meetings virtual. And in doing so, Cincinnati coach Zac Taylor, offensive coordinator Brian Callahan and quarterbacks coach Dan Pitcher sensed an opportunity.

They knew their franchise quarterback, Joe Burrow, was isolated and immobilized far away, north of Los Angeles, in Santa Monica, with a torn ACL and MCL. They knew the sort of toll that could take on an athlete and figured, maybe, they could help. So they decided to Zoom him into those meetings with the other quarterbacks as the team played out the string. And maybe when we get September or October, Burrow will look back and find some sort of minute detail that he took from it and applied in returning to football.

But when it was happening? Really, while it might sound nice to say the intensely competitive 24-year-old was sapping wisdom from his laptop screen, the idea was a whole lot simpler than that. For Burrow, it gave him the chance to think about something other than his knee, and do it back in the environment he was most comfortable.

“It was just to keep me sane, basically,” Burrow says.

“It was naturally an easy way to keep him involved,” Taylor adds. “He’d jump in, and it wasn’t like an everyday thing—he hadn’t been with us during the week for all of that, obviously. But it was good just to see him there.”

Now, Burrow is no longer confined to participating from wherever he might be sitting. Over the last month or so, he’s gotten to be back around his teammates more, and last week, around the whole team again and on to the practice field.

That’s not to imply he’s totally out of the woods yet. He’s not; that’s why everything he’s doing even now requires a level of restraint he’s had to learn through the rehab process.

But he is a lot better than he was and can be realistically optimistic about what’s ahead.

You’d think that would start with what he, and the Bengals, see ahead—what they hope is a bright future for the franchise with a hometown kid in the center of it. But for Burrow, for now, just being back out there is enough.

“You appreciate a lot of the things that you don’t appreciate when you’re not injured, like putting on your own pants,” he deadpans. “I’m definitely more appreciative of a lot of things I wasn’t before.”


Happy Memorial Day, everyone! And especially to all of those who serve or have served our great country. In this week’s MMQB, you’ll find …

• A look at Adam Vinatieri’s legacy, with the help of his old Patriots position coach

• Learning more about the NFL’s first female VP of football operations

• Julio Jones intel, and analysis

• And a whole lot more

But we’re starting with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2020 draft, and his comeback from a knee reconstruction that ended a very promising start to his first year in the NFL.

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Before last year, Robin Burrow had never missed one of her son’s games, in any sport, and as such she and her husband Jimmy had plans to attend the Bengals’ Nov. 22 game against Washington. Jimmy brother lives about an hour from the Football Team’s stadium, in Fredericksburg, Va., so the plan was to go there for the weekend, then leave Sunday night after the game, make it to within two or three hours of their Athens, Ohio, home, find a hotel, then get up early to drive the rest in morning to get Robin to work (she’s an elementary school principal).

All that was scrapped by the pandemic, with Washington being one of the teams that didn’t allow fans in the stands all year. So the Burrows watched from their living room instead, and saw what we all did as their son was high-lowed by Jonathan Allen and Montez Sweat in the third quarter of a tight Week 11 game.

“We were watching the regular TV broadcast, and they went to a commercial, and we knew he was down,” Robin says. “And they came back from the commercial and said, We’re not going to show the hit, because it’s too gruesome. I was like, Oh my goodness, this is bad. And then you’re waiting for that first communication. I texted Joe right away, and he texted back that he was going in for the x-ray.”

“She was pretty calm, still positive that everything was going to be O.K.—in that regard, she was good,” says Jimmy of Robin. “But he’s always bounced up really fast. Even in the Fiesta Bowl, when he took an enormous hit, he bounced right up. When he didn’t get up, I knew then. I didn’t have to see any more.”

The doctors and trainers kept the Burrows connected, and once they were told he was cleared to fly with the team, they decided to hop in the car and make the two-and-a-half hour drive to Cincinnati so they could be at Joe’s place when he got home. When they saw him later that night, Jimmy says, “all Joe wanted to talk about was how well the offense had played against the No. 1 pass defense in the NFL,” which both parents recognized as their son finding a way to cope rather than mope.

“There was no feeling sorry for myself,” Joe says. “It was, Let’s figure out how fast I can get the surgery so I can start my rehab. And then get it going.”

Unspoken was what everyone knew—Joe’s season was over and there was a long road ahead. Burrow decided to have renowned orthopedic surgeon Dr. Neal ElAttrache do the repair on the torn ACL and MCL in his left knee, and that meant going to, and ultimately staying in, Southern California. And as for how fast Burrow could have the surgery, the answer was 10 days after the injury, on Dec. 2.

Burrow’s agents rented a place for him in Santa Monica, and his mom took off work so she and Jimmy could be there. They left for a week the Sunday following the surgery, and came back a week later when Athens schools broke for Christmas. That meant they were there for most of the toughest days, which came while the Bengals season was still going on, with it hard for Burrow to even entertain doing anything football-related.

“It was just rehab twice a day trying to make it livable,” he says. “It was pretty miserable at the beginning. It was tough for me to do anything by myself, whether it was shower, go to the bathroom, all of that. I couldn’t really do any of that on my own. That was probably about two or three weeks.”

At first, Burrow’s parents did their best to distract him. He could play video games in his room, and when he tired of that, he and his mom and dad binge-watched TV shows like House. Robin, in her words, “waited on him hand and foot”, making him his go-to chicken-and-rice dinners, and his once-a-week cheat breakfasts too (biscuits and gravy).

But they couldn’t keep him away from football for long. Jimmy, a former CFL defensive back who coached at the college level for nearly 40 years, made sure to pack an NFL ball before making the trip, and soon after the surgery Joe was messing with it. At first he was lying on the floor tossing it in the air, working on the rotation on his ball, then asked his dad for some help.

“So my dad was sitting in the living room, catching balls from me while I was sitting on the couch,” Joe says. “And I was messing with my grip. There’s always little ways you can get better throwing the football when you can’t really do much.”

And while that part made things a little easier, Sundays made them harder.

“I think probably the hardest part for Joe was watching the Bengal games,” Jimmy says. “He just felt bad he wasn’t able to be there with his team, even though he wanted to watch and root for them to win, that’d kind of put him in a down trend. And then to not be able to get up the stairs, we had to have the shower redone for him to get into it, all that. When you’re a professional athlete and all of the sudden, you’re pretty much helpless, that’s tough.”

Joe Burrow is carted off the field after a knee injury against the Washington Football Team

Since being carted off in Washington, it's been a long recovery and rehab period for Burrow.

But watching the games was part of a process Burrow created for himself. It started with Saturday night meetings with Taylor, Callahan, Pitcher and the quarterbacks, and continued past the games.

“It was tough for me to watch it, when I’m not with the guy,” he says. “But I’d watch all of the game. And afterwards, I’d grade the film, just to feel like I was halfway involved with what we were doing.”

Slowly, he found ways to reconnect to football. He spent time in California with one of his best friends from Ohio State, 49ers star Nick Bosa, who also happened to be rehabbing a torn ACL. Fellow LSU alum/Rams tackle Andrew Whitworth invited him over, too. And he worked his way back through the games he did play in, from September, October and November, while the Bengals were finishing their season.

By February, he was comfortable enough to fly again, and the next step of his comeback would be taken back in Cincinnati.


The first challenge of being back in Ohio was a simple one.

“Nobody was in town for a while,” Burrow says.

So he hung with his girlfriend, and Sam Hubbard, one teammate who was around through the winter (and another close friend from OSU). He also spent a lot of time with Bengals director of rehabilitation Nick Cosgray, who took the reins from the rehab people in California and was tasked with getting him back throwing again.

Burrow got to the point where he could start with that at the end of February, throwing from a stationary position to stationary targets into cold wind, and whatever precipitation the Ohio winter might present. Cosgray would be at his side, and strength coaches and equipment staffers served as his receivers. Five or six weeks later, at the beginning of April, he was able to start mixing drops in.

“With my knee, it felt the same,” he says. “But I tweak my throwing motion every offseason and tweak my base. It was actually kind of beneficial for me, because I really started from the beginning and was able to refine some things that needed refining.”

He also was able to work on something else he found needed fixing, based on all the film work he’d done to pass the time.

“There was some good and some bad [from 2020],” he says. “I’d like to be more explosive. And I think I was really good in quick-game situations. On fourth down, we were really good. Empty, we were really good. But we need to be more explosive with play-action passes. All of our downfield passing needs to improve.”

Then, getting more specific, he adds, “I just wasn’t accurate as I was the year before [at LSU] down the field. And that was frustrating to me, because I’ve always been a good down-the-field thrower. Just getting back to the basics of that, really focusing on my fundamentals. I just started running and throwing a few weeks ago, so standing and throwing, and focusing on the fundamentals helped.”

Part of that led to a focus on getting stronger through his hips, to give him a shot to get more consistent juice throwing it. And that, as he sees it, worked. “Just getting my hips stronger through my rehab has gotten a ton more velocity on my ball,” he says. “I’ve been very happy with that.”

While that was going on, the Bengals found ways to involve him in team-building, and one big one was bringing him along for dinners to recruit free agents, like one he had with ex-Vikings tackle Riley Reiff at one of Jeff Ruby’s local steakhouses.

“He needed to be a part of that,” Taylor says. “People want to play with him, so having him there just became a natural part of the process. And he wanted to be there.”

Eager as he was in that arena, he had to be patient in the most important one. Based on the 9-12-month timetable he got from ElAttrache—who told him Week 1 was on the table right after the surgery—he knew all along that he’d be limited for OTAs and minicamp, and showing restraint with that sort of thing, his parents say, is what tested Burrow the most.

After taking deliberate step after deliberate step to make sure the rehab went right, just being there with his teammates was a big step forward, regardless of how much (or little) he could do. Seeing them, en masse, in the locker room was a big deal. Putting on a jersey and a helmet was a big deal. And getting to throw to them was a really big deal, even if it took a little tweaking of drills by Taylor and the staff to make it happen.

Last week, during the first OTA practices, the coaches basically replaced the rehab work Burrow was doing and baked it into practices—so Ja’Marr Chase and Tyler Boyd and Tee Higgins were catching the balls rather the equipment guys—and played out of empty or without a back on his snaps, so as not to take any unnecessary risk around the knee. And Burrow was also able to take the reins during install, with the team at a walkthrough pace.

And while the way he’s felt before, during and after the sessions has been enough to bring him a level of excitement, going through this has given him a pragmatic realism too.

“I don’t know how mobile I’ll be yet, it’s too early to tell if I’ll feel normal evading the rush and doing all that,” Burrow says. “But I’m optimistic, I feel good right now. We’ll just have to wait and see until camp, how that’s gonna feel. … I’m really doing everything, at this point, it’s just getting my leg stronger. It’s hard to say how explosive I’m going to be in the run game as of right now.”

But for the last two weeks, he’s been running full speed, and cutting, and everyone sees him as being right where he should be based on the timetable he’s got. When will he be 100%?

“I’m hoping it’ll be the beginning of camp, at the latest by the first game,” he says.


The hopes of Taylor and the Bengals are tied up in Burrow’s hopes. The quarterback’s approach over the last six months has given everyone else hope too.

“He’s obviously attacked it, he’s something who wants to do everything he can,” Taylor says. “He hasn’t wasted any opportunity, and Nick [Cosgray] and him have done a great job together. And now to get him on the field, that part was really exciting for me, and for the whole team. It’s been since November that we last saw that.”

Joe Burrow smiles as he exits the field during 2021 OTAs

It’s a long way from those first few weeks—from the day after the injury, when he was at the stadium to make sure his blood flow was where it needed to be; from the video his therapist shot and he sent his parents that showed them the swelling was down and he could walk; and from learning to go up and down stairs again like a normal person, let alone a pro athlete, should. But then, it’s been a long three years, too.

Remember, he’s the guy transferred from one college blueblood to another, won a starting job at the latter, was pegged as a mid-round pick after his first year there, exploded in Year 2 at Baton Rouge, won a Heisman and a national title. He had his pre-draft process muddled by a pandemic, went first overall anyway, became a Day 1 NFL starter even with COVID-19 taking his first offseason program away, experienced some highs, some lows as a rookie … Then, tore his ACL and MCL.

“Two-and-a-half years ago, I didn’t know if I was going to be a starting quarterback anywhere in college,” Burrow says. “And now, sitting where I’m at, I’ve gone through a lot of adversity that’s helped put me in the position I’m in. This is just another bump in the road that I have to overcome. And I’m confident that I can, and I’m confident I’ve done it the right way so far.”

At the very least, it sure looks like the worst is behind him. And sure, it probably helps that he could put on his own pants again.


VINATIERI'S LEGACY

If you want to make the case that Adam Vinatieri should make it to Canton, the record book alone can make a compelling one.

Among the NFL records the former Patriot and Colt holds: Most points scored (2,673), most field goals made (599), most field goals attempted (715), most consecutive seasons scoring (24), most seasons with 100 points (21), most playoff field goals (56), most playoff points (238), oldest player to make a 50-yard field goal, make two 50-yarders in a game, and make a 55-yarder (46), most points (49) and field goals (14) in single postseason, most Super Bowl field goals (7) and extra points (14), most overtime field goals (12), most consecutive field goals (44), and most playoff games by a kicker (32).

He’s also tied with ex-teammate Tom Brady for most wins by any player in NFL history (226) and is the only player ever to score 1,000 points for two different teams.

That’s plenty, right?

And that’s just it—what’s really interesting is that rundown fails to capture why he’s considered by so many to be the greatest kicker in NFL history. To most, that’s more about the moments he created. The kick in the snow to tie the Raiders in January 2001, then one to beat them. The game-winners in Super Bowls XXXVI and XXVIII.

The simple fact is that no was nails with game on the line quite like Vinatieri was nails with the game on the line, and I think you can build his legacy out from there.

“He’s the best I’ve had in the sense where you always hear someone say, ‘this guy is the ultimate gamer’. That’s what Adam actually was,” says Brad Seely, his special teams coach in New England from 1999–2005. “I’ve had guys with better legs, guys that were more accurate, guys that had an overall skill set that was better than Adam’s. But with Adam, you just counted on the guy. He was gonna make the kicks.”

Adam Vinatieri celebrates the game-winning field goal of Super Bowl XXXVI

Vinatieri announced his retirement on the Pat McAfee Show last week, telling his former Indy batterymate that he was filing papers with the league to make it official.

And while the announcement wasn’t a shocker, it showed Vinatieri to be another football player who rode right up until the wheels fell off. He battled a knee injury through his final season, 2019, before it finally got to the point where he decided to undergo surgery to clean the issue up. As such, the Colts put him on IR on Dec. 9 of that year. Vinatieri didn’t play in 2020 due to continuing discomfort stemming from surgery, but as recently as last week said he wanted to try to give it another go.

In a certain sense, all of that is fitting, too, because it showed that while Vinatieri couldn’t fill a gap like a linebacker or lead block like a fullback, he really wasn’t a “kicker” in the way the position is often derided—as something on the fringes of the sport.

“I really have to say, and this might sound bad, but he probably wasn’t a great practice kicker,” Seely says. “I’ve been around a lot of really good kickers—Sebastian Janikowski, Phil Dawson, John Kasay, a zillion guys. He was probably really average compared to them as a practice player. Most of those guys, they don’t miss in practice. This guy would miss. But once we got to the game, you always felt great about him getting it between the posts.

“That was just him. I never thought of him as a kicker. Some guys, you say, That guy is just a kicker. This guy was an athlete that happened to be a kicker. He trained with linemen in the offseason. He was a part of the team.”

The interesting part is how, through Seely’s first year in New England, which was Pete Carroll’s last, it looked like Vinatieri’s days might be numbered. He missed a 32-yarder to beat Kansas City in Week 5, with nine seconds left, that would’ve made those Patriots 5–0 (they lost 16-14). He then missed a 33-yarder to beat Buffalo with five seconds left in regulation in Week 16, then a 44-yarder in overtime to end it (the Patriots lost 13-10). So instead of being 10–6, New England finished 8–8, and Carroll was fired.

“With Bill [Belichick] coming in, there was some question if this was gonna be our kicker forever,” Seely says. “And good for him that he felt like he had to prove himself to a new coach, and he proved himself to Bill. And going forward, he became the Adam Viantieri everyone recognizes.”

Seely’s first memory of thinking Vinatieri was more than a football player actually came four seasons before that, when the coach was in Carolina, and he saw, on TV, a rookie Vinatieri run down Herschel Walker on a kickoff. And the way he handled himself after those misses only affirmed that his mentality matched his physicality.

“This guy didn’t complain about a hold, about snaps—if it was missed, he put it on himself,” says Seely. “He was a stand-up guy in that regard. If something bad happened, he was taking the heat, not dishing the blame on somebody else, and guys respected that.”

And for that period of time when it seemed like he couldn’t miss? Seely has two favorite kicks, and they’re probably exactly the ones you’re thinking of.

The first was the 45-yarder in a blinding storm to force overtime in the January 2002 Snow Bowl against the Raiders. What Seely remembers about the moment is that there really was no discussion on what the Patriots would do—just Belichick barking “field goal” to get the field goal team out there for fourth-and-9 from the Raider 28 with 32 seconds left.