This discussion — when was Joe Burrow at his best? — will forever be a topic in the saloons of this town. What we're venturing into now, after LSU's resounding 42-25 victory over Clemson in the College Football Playoff national championship game, is legendary territory. Burrow is so complete a player — part magical wizard, part lunch-pail worker — that his best works are cast against one another, because there's no other competition. In three months, he will be the first pick in the NFL draft. For eternity, he will be a leading character in football folklore on the bayou.
"I don't know about the whole 'hero' thing," Burrow said afterward.
Bounce down Bourbon Street as Tuesday dawned, and he would get an argument from anyone and everyone wearing purple and yellow beads. He won the Heisman Trophy. He won the national championship. That'll win you the hearts of an entire region. Free gumbo for life.
"We always knew this was Joe's team," linebacker Patrick Queen said, "from the day he came in."
Pick a play from Burrow's evening, and LSU fans will treasure it. The 24-yard touchdown toss to sophomore Terrace Marshall Jr. that put LSU up three scores early in the fourth quarter stands out for its touch. The 52-yard bomb to Ja'Marr Chase, another sophomore, got LSU on the board and put aside the Tigers' early jitters. And so much in between.
But I'll take something a little more innocuous. The play in question didn't show off Burrow's arm strength, which is tremendous. It didn't really highlight his accuracy, which is astounding. And it didn't lead to an LSU touchdown.
But here, late in the third quarter, Burrow took a shotgun snap from center. With the protection breaking down, he skittered forward. He is a danger to run at any moment, fast and shifty and tough enough to take a hit. Indeed, he rushed for 58 yards and a touchdown Monday.
Here, though, with Clemson defenders closing in, space was scant. Burrow found a slice, then sauntered parallel to the line of scrimmage. Eyes downfield — eyes always downfield — he saw wide receiver Justin Jefferson a few yards away. He flipped him the ball, with nothing more than a flick of the wrist. Thirty-five yards later, Jefferson had a first down.
Right there was so much of what Burrow brings — inventiveness, savvy, sense. He is smart enough to run an elite offense at the highest level. No team averaged more yards or scored more points than LSU this season. That takes an engineer's precision. But if he needs to make a play that looks as if it's drawn up in the sand, well darned if he can't do that, too.
"Joe was going to take the ball in his hands," LSU Coach Ed Orgeron said. "Some of those plays were passes called that Joe ran. Some of those plays were runs that Joe passed. Just give great players an opportunity to make plays, and he did it."
A great player, with the greatest of achievements. For himself. For his team.
"He's at the top of the hill right now," Jefferson said.
In Baton Rouge, he'll never come down. Take in the measure of Burrow's unlikely career. Remember that it started at Ohio State in Burrow's home state, and that he transferred to LSU only because it became apparent that Dwayne Haskins — yes, that Dwayne Haskins, now of the Washington Redskins — was going to beat him out to be the Buckeyes' starter in 2018. That his path was so circuitous somehow makes the outcome — as an undisputed icon — more special.
"Got a lot of respect for him and his journey," said his counterpart, Clemson sophomore Trevor Lawrence, who lost for the first time as a college player.
Which says nothing of his interpersonal skills. It takes something for a character who arrived on campus as an unknown transfer — "Quiet," in Jefferson's telling — to essentially put his personality on an entire team. By this summer, though, that's what Burrow had done.
"Joe demanded everything he wanted as far as him being the starter and the ultimate team leader," said mighty little running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire. "This was his team."
The results back that up, and they are in turn backed up by numbers. When Burrow found a statue-still Thaddeus Moss in the end zone just before halftime, giving LSU a 28-17 lead, it was his 58th touchdown pass of the season. Think about that for a second. It's an average of nearly 3¾ scoring passes per game — and he still had a half to play. More than the math is the history. The pass to Moss — son of Hall of Fame wide receiver Randy Moss — tied Colt Brennan of Hawaii (and, for a fleeting moment, those same Washington Redskins) for the most scoring tosses in a single season at the highest level of college football. Ever.
Yeah, sure, Burrow had the advantage of playing a 15th game. (Remember, these "student-athletes" must be protected from playing too much football. Unless there's more money to be made off them. Money that goes to other people. But I digress.)
Consider how out-of-place Burrow's senior season looks in Baton Rouge. Before this year, no LSU quarterback had thrown more than 28 touchdowns in a single season. Burrow surpassed that total in seven games. And then he used the rest of the season to more than double that total. That final scoring toss to Marshall was his 60th.
More data: Burrow led the country in completion percentage (77.6). He led the country in passing efficiency (204.60). He was second in passing yards and completions per game. It's an unassailable résumé.
When there is two weeks to hype an event, and the lead character was coming off a game in which he threw seven touchdown passes — as Burrow did against Oklahoma in the semifinal — it would seem natural for a lesser character to seize the spotlight. Burrow was unwilling to allow that Monday. Not for some selfish, look-at-me reason. Rather, because he is the difference between all previous LSU teams and this one.
"A lot of work was put into this that nobody ever saw," Burrow said.
You could argue that Lawrence leads a more diverse offensive attack, what with running back Travis Etienne Jr., the school's first 4,000-yard runner, providing more balance, and wide receivers Tee Higgins and Justyn Ross looking like first-round draft picks on the outside.
Such an argument kind of makes Burrow look even better. Clemson had a million ways to beat teams. LSU had one. Or maybe two. Joe Burrow's arm. And Joe Burrow's legs.
When Burrow emerged from the LSU locker room afterward, pads still on, he was chomping on a cigar, fully lit. He sat in a news conference and was asked to reflect on his accomplishments, which made him tear up. When he finally stood up to return to his teammates and begin the celebration in earnest, Orgeron, in his nearly indecipherable Cajun baritone, bellowed, "Take it easy on that cee-gar, boy."
Joe Burrow hasn't taken it easy on anyone all year. He earned that cigar. He earned that moment, and all the Louisiana hagiology that will follow. He can beat you with a wand. He can beat you with a sledgehammer. And for the rest of time in a football-mad region, they'll be talking about which way he did it best.