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Data Says Joe Burrow and the Bengals Should Take a Leap in 2021

Football Outsiders and The 33rd Team agree the time is now for Joe Burrow to take a big step forward

This has been an exciting offseason for Cincinnati Bengals fans. The team added their next great receiving talent in Ja'Marr Chase, but more importantly, Joe Burrow started attending work like a normal employee.

Burrow's recovery from a torn left ACL and MCL has gone as well as possible thus far. According to his doctors, he projects to be "all systems go" for Week 1. 

The former-Heisman winner has attacked his rehab like he attacks his game: relentlessly.

That tenacity towards improving is a big reason why Burrow went from Dwayne Haskins back up at Ohio State to the face of an NFL franchise. It's also why Bengals fans should expect a performance leap from the young quarterback in 2021.

Fans and analysts have long observed that quarterbacks take the biggest jump in performance between their first and second seasons. Football Outsiders did a study on the topic in 2012, and the results were stark. Quarterbacks improve the most between years one and two, gaining 136 DYAR (defense adjusted yards above replacement) on average. No other timeframe yields a DYAR-gain above 50.

Courtesy: Aaron Schatz Football Outsiders

Courtesy: Aaron Schatz Football Outsiders

The 33rd Team released a study all but confirming Aaron Schatz's findings this year. The think tank observed 30 first-round quarterbacks drafted from 2010-19, comparing their first and second season numbers.

63.3% of the quarterbacks improved their completion percentage in their second year.

63.3% of the quarterbacks improved their yards per game in their second season.

60% of the quarterbacks improved their touchdowns per game in their second year.

70% of the quarterbacks improved their interceptions per game in their second season.

Those findings also showed a 7% average increase in winning percentage for each passer. 

Burrow didn't focus all of his attention on just rehab this winter either. He found ways to improve his throwing motion and mechanics. 

"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," Burrow told Sports Illustrated's Albert Breer. “There was some good and some bad [from 2020]. 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.”

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The deep ball wasn't kind to Cincinnati in 2020. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, Burrow completed just nine of 46 pass attempts of 20-plus air yards last season for 293 yards and one TD. His 19.6 completion percentage and -9.1 completion percentage over expectation were the worst among all quarterbacks with at least 40 deep shots.

If Burrow can get back to anything resembling his LSU downfield passing attack, this offense will flourish. Quarterbacks coach Dan Pitcher has seen some of these tweaks first hand over the first few OTAs.

"In terms of dropping back and passing, he doesn't look all that different," Pitcher told Geoff Hobson. "And there are times where you feel the ball is coming out of his hand with a little more pop. He's very keyed into mechanics. We have full trust in him. He knows his body and his throwing motion better than anybody. There were a couple of things he modified a little bit, and he likes the results."

No one should be surprised that Burrow went above and beyond on his end of the rehab bargain, all while the Bengals tried to hold up their side of the equation. They beefed up their offensive line while Burrow was on the mend. The improvements even included a new offensive line coach in Frank Pollack. All of this should help Burrow grow, but a majority of those year two "leaps" come from how the quarterback attacks the offseason, not the team.

The Bengals franchise player has left no doubt that he's done everything in his power to improve through another disrupted time away from football. Now fans are hoping it's enough to help Cincinnati make a playoff push this season. 

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