CINCINNATI – Joe Burrow looked a little relieved, felt a little renewed after Saturday's spirited practice. For the first time in training camp, the 24-year old quarterback, the potential savior for a star-crossed franchise, led the first team offense to a sustained scoring drive and, most importantly, started to feel like himself again.
The last eight months have been trying, to say the least, with Burrow consumed with recovering from December's season-ending knee surgery that involved a torn ACL and MCL and partially-torn PCL. Offseason work involved very incremental progress on a physical level, and even more gradual steps on the mental side. There are much larger forces involved here than simply being cleared to participate in practice -- like Burrow being comfortable again in a hostile pocket, adapting to absorbing contact and fully trusting his repaired knee to plant, step and fire with abandon. And it has required a robust and candid dialogue between player and coaches and training staff to try to navigate all spheres of recovery.
The Bengals quarterback, the first pick in the 2020 draft, has wowed the organization with his ridiculous dedication and tenacity to ensure being cleared to return this spring, but no amount of extra rehab can hasten the mind's healing and to get the brain to believe that all is back to normal, while playing a violent sport in which you are a moving target and conditioned to never really think about it. It's not easy to get back to a place where it feels perfectly rote once more to deliver pinpoint 60-yard spirals with 300-pound athletic freaks literally hunting you. Gains come in fits and starts, to the point that Burrow requested more drills that feigned pocket pressure and mimicked arms and legs and bodies thrashing about the pocket, as no shortage of recent throws sailed high or wide from not quite completing his delivery as he was accustomed to.
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That's why Saturday's mundane practice, before a small smattering of fans at a nondescript practice field, felt so gratifying. The former Heisman Trophy winner, who led LSU to a title in his only college season as a full-time starter, took solace in completing almost every pass in 11-on-11 work, including an early touchdown drive that was far and away the most incisive attack the offense has mustered this summer. Burrow hit former LSU teammate Ja'Marr Chase on a sideline out on third-and-long and then found Tee Higgins, poised for a breakthrough Year Two, on a pretty 50-50 ball about 30-yards downfield to set up a score. It seemed to come naturally – albeit still without the threat of a defender actually crunching him – and, for Burrow, marked another milestone in his journey back.
"It was a big step," Burrow told me after the practice session. "I felt comfortable back there today, and today is the first day that I really felt like that. It's exciting for me to make a step in the right direction. I've just got to stack days now. Today felt great, but tomorrow's gotta be better."
Of course, tomorrow and the practice after that might not go as smoothly. This is not a linear process, and no one here is pretending that Burrow will automatically pick up in Week 1 where he left off in Week 11, when Washington's potent pass rush ended his season. But there certainly seems to be a natural synergy taking place with the Bengals, coaches and players in tune to the needs of the quarterback and the team. There is an onus on everyone to try to prevent Burrow from taking both the volume and intensity of hits be endured as a rookie, trying to evolve their scheme and personnel to better incubate the can't miss QB.
"He's done everything possible to get himself ready to go," head coach Zac Taylor said, "and now it's on us to protect him."
Facing the heat of a pass rush
The group effort to get Burrow all the way back often manifests itself an hour or so before practice, with a collection of coaches and trainers using blocking dummies and themselves to simulate Burrow having to throw under duress in a way that might help him continue to trust his knee and get back to normal.
"Joe actually asked for it," offensive coordinator Brian Callahan said. "He said he just needed more reps with people around him."
It was clear through the first two weeks of practice that he was fighting his way through some things. "Feeling the pocket is something that always came naturally to me," Burrow explained. "But I kind of lost it." Callahan, too, noted his pocket confidence wasn't quite there. Burrow went into Saturday's practice a bit frustrated with the early returns. The Bengals defense – the bane of the team for quite some time – was having its way with Burrow's unit. The quarterback was feeling his way through drills, uneven and at times unsure.
In some instances Burrow "might not have the confidence to step into a throw and lean into it like he used to," Callahan noted, echoing sentiments the quarterback himself uttered from the same pre-practice press conference spot about an hour before.
"I would say right now it's a mental thing," Burrow said, "getting back to playing football against top-level competition; getting back to being able to feel the people around me as opposed to seeing people around me."
There are ample adjustments for all to make along the way, and it requires fluidity. Taylor is adamant that Burrow take successive days off at times, and back off some even when he might be feeling strong. They continue to plot out any exhibition work – "He'll definitely sit out the first game and then we'll have conversations from there," Taylor said – though I wouldn't plan on him seeing much preseason work, especially as the team still sorts out its top offensive line unit (an ongoing struggle).
Sitting things out is something the youngster is having to grow used to.
"Zac called me in there and wanted me to take the day off the other day, and that wouldn't have been my choice," Burrow said. "But I have enough trust in Zac and he knows what's best for me and the team, and I came back feeling better than I did the day before. So it's all about trust; that's how you win championships and that's how you win games."
Callahan said: "This a marathon, and we're trying to get him to September. He understands that, but Joe is also the ultimate competitor, and he wants every rep possible. It's day-to-day, give-and-take and ebb-and-flow."
That process will continue into the regular season. Week 1, and the beginning of games that count in the standings, won't alter Burrow's mindset alone. Even the great Tom Brady, coming back from "just" an ACL tear, did not look like himself the first half of the following season, and there is no mental switch Burrow can flick to just trigger a return to form for the opener. It's far more complicated than that, and facing a real pass rush for the first time is another hurdle and not the end game.
The Bengals brass understands as much.
"He's just trying to get to the point where he feels confident enough that he's not thinking about anything other than playing football when it's time to play football," Callahan told me. "And we've still got plenty of time to get there, knowing that there may still be those things that you are working through into the season. That's certainly possible, and that's sometimes more likely than not as you are fighting through it.
"Because, again, there are steps in this process, and the next step we have taken now is 11-on-11 team drills with no rush. And then the next step is going be to go out there and get hit, and there are going to be people around him and he's not going to be un-touchable in that regard. So the steps keep coming, and he's just got to keep stepping in there and being uncomfortable, and the next time you are in there you get a little more comfortable."
Where Burrow and the Bengals offense go from here
There is also an open discourse about the evolution of this offense. What's working short and long term, and where they need to go. The individual talent can be overwhelming – Burrow and Chase and Higgins and Taylor Boyd and Joe Mixon – but finding the right mix and carving out the best identity can be elusive.
The Bengals lived in five-wide, empty set more than any other team with Burrow at the helm, and more than they would have liked a year ago. Mixon was hurt again, protection was an issue and with so much talent and a wunderkind passer preternaturally adept at reading defenses and finding their underbelly, the allure was obvious. Burrow could determine the best running or passing lane and take advantage … but at a risk with no threat of a rushing attack to mitigate the defensive approach, and no one beyond the five (often overwhelmed) offensive lineman to incubate the rookie QB.
"What makes him unique is his ability to process quickly," Callahan said.
"He knows exactly what he is seeing, he knows exactly what is happening and he knows what to do with it. And I think that's a unique thing for a young player. It takes some time for most guys, and it hasn't taken him any time at all. That's part of what makes him special -- he gets to diagnose with his mental acuity to help his physical acuity. So we'll still do those things, but I do think we have to have the ability to run the ball more and more efficiently."
Yes, balance would be imperative, rushing attempts by nature limiting the sample size of potential massive hits the quarterback takes.
"We'd like to run the ball more than we did last year," Burrow said. "And my mindset is, whatever we have to do to win the game, we'll do it. If we have to run it 100 times, then let's run it 100 times. If we have to throw it 100 times, then we'll throw it 100 times. Obviously, we'd like to be 50-50, but whatever it takes."
The reality is more nuanced than that.
They need to be more unpredictable on first down and stay out of the second-and-forever, or "back-on-track" downs as Callahan calls them, that they found themselves in far too often in 2020. "That limits your playbook and gets you kind of in drop-back pass mode at that point," the coordinator said. "And that doesn't help Joe, or us."
It will take a collective effort to avoid the pitfalls of last year. Coaches and teammates being as supportive as can be. both in scheme, and in terms of pass protection, in deeds. Ultimately, though, the most arduous days of this comeback were lived by Burrow alone, or him and a trainer, and his mental rehab remains largely insular. No one can do it for you, or make you trust once more what you always took for granted. Even as an early standout among the fraternity of NFL quarterbacks, and someone who earned immediate respect around the league from his first snaps a year ago, there is so only much Burrow can glean from a text or a phone call or pep talk from his peers, even those who have already gone through something similar to his journey.
This path is his, and his alone, in many ways. No one in this organization is betting against him being better than ever at some point in 2021. Slowly but surely the returns are there. Saturday was a very good day, and Burrow is hopeful that there will be more good days than not as he completes these last phases of his recovery. Monday was an off day. More work awaits this week. Great things are ahead, eventually.
"A lot of people reached out in the beginning with the injury, right after it happened," Burrow said. "But right now, it's just something I have to go through. I don't think there's really anybody who can help me with that. I just have to get reps and get comfortable back there again. And if felt comfortable today, so that was really exciting."