The Cincinnati Bengals were a 2-14 team when he joined them. Now they are hosting a playoff game, fashioning the league’s most exciting young offense and watching their quarterback swagger into the MVP discussion. Burrow may occupy only a back wall in that conversation, but he’s in the room, looking at legendary and long-lasting quarterbacks Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady. In addition, Burrow’s splendid second season gives him a prominent place among the NFL’s distinguished batch of 26-and-under superstar quarterbacks. He belongs with Patrick Mahomes, Lamar Jackson, Josh Allen and Kyler Murray as torch-carrying figures at the position. His elite early-career productivity demands it, but he’s more than big plays and spectacular numbers.
All the fancy stuff — long touchdown passes, highlight-reel escapability in the pocket, sniper accuracy — augments Burrow’s defining intangibles. You should judge quarterbacks on how they handle messiness as much as how well they play under ideal conditions. There are plenty of good ones who can produce when given a good play caller, a clean pocket, a foundational running game and an array of receiving talent. But the great ones separate themselves when pressured heavily, when forced to make uncomfortable decisions and when asked to overcome a team’s deficiencies.
For Cincinnati, it’s plenty exciting to see Burrow command an offense that features dynamic rookie wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase, established star running back Joe Mixon and solid complementary pieces in wideouts Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd and tight end C.J. Uzomah. With Coach Zac Taylor calling the plays, the Bengals appear to have an offense that can continue growing for several years and perhaps become a trendsetter. But they’re still a fledgling offense and team, with holes unfilled and questions to answer, and that’s where Burrow covers for Cincinnati with his toughness, his leadership and his unyielding desire to make the best play even when there’s a physical price to pay.
At this stage in their development, the Bengals are an explosive-play machine, not a precise and consistent offense. They are scarier than their raw statistics show. During the regular season, they ranked just 13th in the NFL in total offense, but they were seventh in scoring because they are a touchdown waiting to happen. That’s usually because Burrow is agile and fearless in the pocket. If he can’t evade pass rushers, he will absorb their punishment.
Burrow was sacked a league-high 51 times, a year after he injured the ACL and medial collateral ligament in his left knee and was limited to 10 games as a rookie. But he also threw 34 touchdown passes, a preposterous 15 of which came on plays of at least 30 yards. He led the league in passer rating when pressured. Despite all the defensive heat, he led the league in completion percentage (70.4) and yards per pass attempt (8.9).
Under the best circumstances, it’s mind-boggling for a quarterback to be accurate enough to complete 70 percent of his passes while specializing in throwing deep. The ability to do so while improvising puts Burrow in a category with creative artists such as Rodgers, Mahomes and Russell Wilson.
Burrow is something different, however. He has the potential to be an era-bending quarterback who is both a classic tall pocket passer and a mobile playmaker. He’s not a runner; he moves to throw. It makes him capable of playing in any system, old or new. He’s the truest hybrid of all the things that have influenced the position over the past 20 years, and he’s a player who had to grind his way to stardom in college, transferring from Ohio State to LSU and finally emerging as a redshirt senior.
He’s 25, the same age as Allen and Jackson and a little younger than the 26-year-old Mahomes. He’s about seven months older than Murray. The other four quarterbacks came into the NFL younger, rose quickly and now are dealing with the sport’s adjustments to them. Their extreme talent propelled them, and they’re learning the nuance on the fly. By taking the traditional long route, Burrow walked in the door with some of the subtlety and scuff marks that a few of his peers are starting to experience.
For all the jokes they have endured through their history, the Bengals have had decent luck at quarterback. You can go all the way back to Ken Anderson’s stable, long-term productivity. Boomer Esiason won an MVP and led Cincinnati to a Super Bowl. Andy Dalton wasn’t a star, but he finished with a winning record over his nine seasons and helped those Marvin Lewis-coached teams make five straight playoff appearances (though they never won a postseason game).
But when thinking of Burrow, Carson Palmer is the best comparison. And he’s the cautionary tale. This is the finest offensive setup the Bengals have had since the days of Palmer, Chad Johnson, TJ Houshmandzadeh and Rudi Johnson. In 2005, when the Bengals went 11-5, it seemed as if they opened a window of contention. The Bengals hosted a first-round game against Pittsburgh, and on Cincinnati’s second offensive play, Steelers defensive tackle Kimo von Oelhoffen tumbled into Palmer’s left knee, dislocating his kneecap and tearing two ligaments. Palmer came back the next season, but he and the Bengals were never really the same. They played in just one more playoff game during that era. After the 2010 season, Palmer left Cincinnati in ugly, contentious fashion.
As an organization, the Bengals never finish the job. Now they have been given another chance, with a player who looks to be even more talented than Palmer — and more committed because he’s an Ohio native. Now Cincinnati must complement his competitiveness with good decisions and avoid overtaxing Burrow by making him carry an incomplete team.
This playoff appearance should be the beginning of something new and wonderful in Cincinnati, something that could redefine the franchise. But it would be foolish to get lost in the celebration of Burrow’s emergence without acknowledging what that now demands of a ne’er-do-well organization.
Will it be the Burrow era or just another Bengals reprieve? The quarterback is the rare talent who can shoulder just about any dream, but only the team can activate all of his powers.