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The subtle genius of Joe Burrow

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CINCINNATI — Brandon Allen joined the Cincinnati Bengals as a backup quarterback before the 2020 season, at the same time the franchise drafted Joe Burrow with the first pick. Allen had shared meeting rooms with about a dozen quarterbacks over four NFL seasons, and he’d had hundreds, if not thousands, of conversations about how to read a defense. How would they study the shifting alignment at the line? Which defender would they look at right before the snap? What did they do to get to the backside progression before a 280-pound man slammed into their ribs and ruined an entire city’s Sunday?

All the quarterbacks had developed personal systems, mechanisms to discern complex patterns within fractions of a second in the cauldron of an NFL field. Burrow was different. He did not key in on one player. He had no tricks to determine what he needed to do. He just … knew.

“Every time you ask Joe something, he says, ‘I can just see it all,’ ” Allen said. “It’s a special talent he has. He’s got full vision of the field. He feels things. He always just says, ‘I can see it all.’ ”

In the three years since Burrow arrived in Cincinnati, the Bengals have transformed from NFL punchline to annual contender, the one team consistently capable of standing up to Patrick Mahomes’s Kansas City Chiefs. They went to the Super Bowl after the 2021 season and missed a return trip last January only after Mahomes’s heroics and a shove that came half a yard on the wrong edge of the sideline. They are favorites in the loaded AFC North, having retained their entire coaching staff and top offensive weaponry, continuity rarely afforded a team with such success.

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If one superpower has driven the Bengals’ ascent, it is Burrow’s ability to scan a football field and see more than any of his peers. Burrow is the son of a college football coach, and his vision derives from an inherently gifted mind, an advanced football background and years of refinement. It makes him one of the best at the most demanding position in professional sports.

“He has a natural, athletic-spatial mind,” Bengals offensive coordinator Brian Callahan said. “Things just make sense to him. Space makes sense. Where people are in space, he doesn’t have to work very hard at that. He just sees and feels. He sort of has a sixth sense of what’s around him.”

Burrow’s field vision extends beyond experience and preparation, toward something like genius. He excels at any pursuit that requires sifting through information to solve a problem. Hayden Hurst, a former Bengals tight end, said Burrow could beat anybody in the locker room at chess. Bengals Coach Zac Taylor thinks Burrow could be an excellent pilot. Burrow’s mother, Robin, recalled her son being a whiz at jigsaw puzzles and building Lego sets.

“Does that have anything to do with football?” Burrow’s father, Jimmy, asked. “I have no idea.”

Maybe it does. At the conclusion of the Cincinnati’s final quarterback meeting of each week, a quality control coach posts a challenge that tangentially relates to the city of the Bengals’ upcoming opponent. They are trivia questions nobody knows the answer to: How many Starbucks franchises are in the world? How many cars, on average, are driving on Detroit roads at a given moment? Without fail, Burrow wins the contest.

“That’s got to mean something,” Taylor said. “He’s got the same information we all have. He continuously wins these games. Surely, that transfers over to why he’s a great quarterback and has insane vision and can process the game different from the other seven people in the room.”

Football as a native language

Jimmy Burrow coached defense, mostly as Ohio University’s defensive coordinator during Burrow’s childhood. Burrow’s two older brothers played defense. “He really wanted to play defense all along, even when he was the quarterback,” Jimmy said of his youngest son.

In a sense, Burrow learned how to play quarterback inside-out. Most kids watch the ball and the people carrying it. “At the games, he was focused more so on watching what [my] guys were going to do,” Jimmy said. Jimmy specialized in defensive backs, and Burrow studied how they moved in unison.

Being a coach’s son did not provide the kind of football education most outsiders expect. “A lot people think we just grinded away on film,” Jimmy said. “We really didn’t.” There were advantages, though. Burrow attended practices and could tell how work ethic separated the good players. He learned terminology through immersion, which he meant he could speak football as a native language with his own coaches.

Burrow’s sense for football also came naturally. When Burrow was in fourth grade, his father watched him audible to a quarterback run because of how linebackers had reacted to a bunched set of wide receivers. He tapped his center on the backside, then ran for a 70-yard touchdown.

Burrow’s unique skill for seeing the field was revealed to him only after he temporarily lost it. He didn’t play his first three seasons in college, passed over by Urban Meyer on Ohio State’s depth chart. In 2018, Burrow transferred to LSU, started immediately and played well, but not exceptionally so. Entering 2019, his final season of eligibility, he was viewed as a mid-round draft pick at best. After three years without game experience, he could not process the game like he had in high school.

“And then after my first year starting in college, it kind of clicked for me … and everything was back to the way I remember it,” Burrow said. His second season at LSU might be the greatest collegiate passing season ever: He threw for 5,671 yards and 60 touchdowns and won the Heisman Trophy while leading the Tigers to an undefeated national championship.

“You have a natural feel as an athlete, and then you focus on a sport, and you accumulate reps and get better and better every time you see something and feel something and put it in the back of your mind,” Burrow said. “The more you play, the more reps you get, the better you get.”

‘I can’t really coach that’

A quarterback’s vision begins when he breaks the huddle. He first looks at the way the linemen and linebackers are aligned. From there, he can determine how he must direct his offensive linemen to protect him and consider everything the defense can do in pass coverage behind that front. He looks at the safeties first, which winnows the number of pass coverages the defense might play. Once the ball is snapped, he keeps his eyes on the safeties to confirm — or reconsider — everything he thought before the snap.

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“It’s a puzzle,” Bengals quarterbacks coach Dan Pitcher said. “Once he’s identified one or two pieces of that puzzle, he knows how the other nine or 10 pieces fit. He just has that global understanding of what they’re trying to do.”

Roger Federer once told the writer David Foster Wallace that he rarely watched tennis in person, but when he once sat courtside for a match, he could not believe how fast the players and the ball moved as a spectator. The game slowed down and made perfect sense to him only while he was on the court.

Many quarterbacks, and most of the quarterbacks who fail, process the game on television better than they can while playing. They identify their mistakes on film, then go out and make them again on the field. Burrow, like Federer, is the opposite: The game comes easiest to him when he is in the middle of it. He can see everything only when he’s playing.

“On TV, you can’t really see anything,” Burrow said. “You see what happens, and then you try to decipher what the coverage was or what the play was, but you don’t have the full picture.”

During a film session last year, Pitcher asked Burrow why he had correctly chosen not to make a quick, short throw despite the defense giving the look of a blitz.

“I knew that guy wasn’t coming,” Burrow said.

“How did you know?” Pitcher asked.

Well, I could just tell by the way he was communicating with the safety,” Burrow replied.

There have been other times, Pitcher said, when Burrow might make a similar decision based on a minuscule tell in a defender’s stance.

“I can’t really coach that,” Pitcher said.

Coaches marvel at Burrow’s access to memory. In his rookie season, Washington’s defense played a formation the Bengals had not expected or prepared for. But another opponent had used it earlier in the season. On the fly, Burrow recalled the proper audible and changed the play to a run the Bengals had installed weeks prior.

“He never really misses,” Taylor said. “And then when they do [beat him], he stores it away and remembers it, and it doesn’t happen to him again.”

Burrow translates his mental acuity into physical execution. Callahan called him “one of the most accurate passers in football history.” His ability to read defenders allows him to identify not only which receiver he should pass to, but where he needs to precisely locate those passes. He sometimes will purposefully throw outside a receiver’s frame, either to give him room to run or so he can avoid a big hit.

“A lot of times when he throws a ball, sometimes it’ll look like, ‘That wasn’t a very good throw,’ ” Callahan said. “He knows exactly what he’s trying to do with the ball.”

Last year, the Bengals frequently used Hurst, who has since signed with the Carolina Panthers, as a checkdown option. Hurst would typically catch short passes with his back to the defense. But he knew with 100 percent certainty where the nearest tackler would be, based solely on which side of his body Burrow had thrown the ball toward.

“He’s seeing the defenders, and he’s expecting me to turn up the field,” Hurst said. “That’s why I’ve had so much success on third and short, because of his ball placement. As soon as he puts it on a certain shoulder, I’m going to turn and burn for a first down.”

Taylor has trouble choosing his favorite Burrow throw — “At this point, it’s like calling out your favorite child,” he said — but he settled on a play from Burrow’s rookie season, against the Tennessee Titans.

Burrow took a shotgun snap on third and nine. The pocket rapidly caved in from his right. A cornerback mugged wide receiver Tyler Boyd, who ran across the middle from Burrow’s right to left. Burrow scooted up and to his right, finding a sliver of open space. Boyd planted his left foot on the left hash marks, still blanketed by the corner. With Boyd still moving left and looking left, Burrow rifled a pass behind Boyd’s right shoulder, just over a pass rusher’s fingertips and into a swath of open air.

It looked like a misguided prayer — until Boyd spun to the right and the ball hissed into his arms the instant he turned his head. Burrow had deciphered the cornerback was playing Boyd inside, which meant Boyd would eventually reroute back the other way. With a mass of bodies collapsing on him, Burrow read Boyd’s body movement to determine the exact right time to throw the ball to the exact right location.

“Only he could do s— like that,” Boyd said.

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Burrow is capable of magic, but his brilliance often lies in the mundane. Taylor thinks Burrow’s willingness to audible to running plays is a sneaky attribute; most quarterbacks resist surrendering a pass play. The Bengals’ offense works because Burrow is a master at turning potential calamity into small victory.

During the Bengals’ playoff victory in Buffalo in January, Burrow saw the Bills line up in the exact wrong front for a particular play call; the Bengals would have had nobody to block Buffalo’s defensive end. In an instant, Burrow diagnosed his problem. Before the end could reach him, he dumped a quick pass that gained five yards. The play was forgettable, and that was what made it great: It could have been a sack or a rushed interception or some other disaster that doesn’t befall the Bengals because Burrow is their quarterback.

“The plays that get on “SportsCenter” that everybody fawns over, a lot of those are physical stuff he can do, which are outstanding,” Pitcher said. “We fawn over them, too. Don’t get me wrong. Some of the most impressive plays for his coach are ones that may not appear impressive to the general viewer on television. It’s because I know what happened between his ears to get him to do it, to get him to do it really fast. Those may not appear as spectacular, but they’re equally important — you could argue more important — to his ability to do his job.”

“If he wasn’t an NFL quarterback, he’d be making a billion dollars doing something else,” Pitcher added.

Burrow’s next contract will give him a good head start at making $1 billion playing quarterback. Entering his fourth season, with two years until free agency, Burrow is at the stage when star quarterbacks sign extensions. He has accomplished more by any measure than draft classmate Justin Herbert, whom the Los Angeles Chargers signed this summer to a five-year deal worth up to $262 million.

A calf injury early in training camp, which sidelined Burrow for most of the preseason, added to the potential stress of his summer. Jimmy Burrow noticed no difference in his son’s demeanor.

“That’s part of his success, is his ability to not focus on outside things that could affect football,” Jimmy said. “We don’t talk a lot about the contract. We don’t even really talk about the injury. … I get more information from talking to a coach or the trainer than I do from him. Maybe that allows him to focus even on more football.”

What Burrow sees when he is playing football is ultimately a mystery. It is neither explainable nor transferrable. “I watch a bunch of golf videos,” said Allen, who signed this offseason with the San Francisco 49ers. “Tiger Woods says, ‘When I’m hitting this shot, I feel it in my hands.’ All the other pro golfers are like, ‘That doesn’t work for me. I can’t do that.’ ” Allen felt the same when he talked to Burrow.

Taylor has coached in the Super Bowl and played quarterback at Nebraska. He understands the position at a molecular level and speaks with Burrow daily. He still realizes he’ll never know what football field looks like through Burrow’s eyes.

“It’s probably hard for me to articulate what he sees, because I’m not him,” Taylor said. “Only he knows.”



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