Joe Burrow’s next challenge? Avoiding Dan Marino’s fate

In some ways, the road Joe Burrow traveled to the Super Bowl began in the wake of a brutal hit that left him on the turf at the Fiesta Bowl, struggling to catch his breath.

The setting was the Fiesta Bowl between LSU and Central Florida, at the end of the 2018 college football season. The Tigers trailed 7-3 in the first quarter, but Burrow had LSU on the move. Facing a 3rd and 8, Burrow dropped to throw, but his pass found defensive back Brandon Moore, and was returned for a touchdown to give the Knights a 14-3 lead.

What sent Burrow to the turf? This hit from defensive lineman Joey Connors:

The Tigers now stared at a 14-3 deficit, and their quarterback was trying to get his bearings.

“The only thing I am going to say about it is, the only reason I didn’t get up in one second was because I got the wind knocked out of me,” said Burrow after the game. “I would have got up immediately if that didn’t happen.”

Burrow eventually did get up, and after that interception, he and the Tigers stormed back. Burrow and LSU would score the next 21 points, with the quarterback throwing three touchdown passes, and the Tigers eventually won the game, by a final score of 40-32.

The quarterback finished the contest having completed 21 of 34 passes for 394 yards, four touchdowns and the sole interception. But that interception perhaps taught Burrow a lesson. That in the wake of a mistake — even one that left you struggling to breathe — there could be redemption on the other side.

Prior to the interception, Burrow had completed just two of six passes. But after the turnover, and the hit? The quarterback caught fire, completing 19 of 28 passing attempts for the four touchdowns.

After the game, Burrow shared some of this thoughts. On the interception and the hit itself? “I didn’t really think about the hit too much after I got up. It hurt for a second, then I got right up and went on to the next play.”

On what leadership at the quarterback position entails? “It’s very important from leaders to exude toughness throughout the entire game and it doesn’t start in the season, it starts in the weight room in the offseason and if your best leaders aren’t your best workers then you’re not going to be a very good football team.”

On what the win could mean for the Tigers the following season? “It gives us a lot of momentum going into next year. I think we can be really special. think we can do some great things as long as we keep our foot on the gas pedal and keep working.”

You know how that story ends. With Burrow, cigar in hand in the bowels of Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans, having led the Tigers to a 15-0 season and a National Championship. That Fiesta Bowl, specifically that hit, would be arguably the final low point of his college football career.

Fast forward to tonight. After seeing his rookie season cut short due to a knee injury, Burrow and the Bengals reached a Super Bowl in just his second season in the league. But they fell short, instead watching Matthew Stafford and the Los Angeles Rams hold the Lombardi Trophy aloft at SoFi Stadium.

Here is how Burrow and the Bengals can finish the job next season, and avoid a fate another quarterback suffered decades ago: Dan Marino. After Marino and the Dolphins reached Super Bowl XIX, falling short to Joe Montana and the San Francisco 49ers, many believed Marino would get another shot at a title. Maybe even multiple chances at a Super Bowl ring.

He never returned to the big game.

Here is how Burrow can avoid that fate.

Upper-tier accuracy as a calling card in the league

Perhaps the best place to begin with Burrow and what he did to bring Cincinnati to this point is with accuracy. Coming out of LSU, ball placement was truly one of his calling cards. Burrow’s ability to put the football where it needed to be, when it needed to be there, was a staple in every scouting report on the LSU passer.

Given that Burrow does not have the power arm that some of his peers, like Mahomes or Josh Allen, can rely upon, Burrow has to find ways to beat defenses and put his receivers in position to gain additional yardage after the catch. For Burrow, that is where the accuracy comes into play. During the regular season, Burrow posted a Completion Percentage Over Expectation of 6.7%, which was the best in the league:

As an example, on this touchdown against the Chiefs in Week 17, Chase had less than a yard of separation and the probability of a completion on this play was less than 20%, according to Next Gen Stats. And yet thanks to the placement from Burrow — and the incredible adjustment by Chase — the Bengals got themselves six points:

Even tonight, in a loss, Burrow showed the impressive accuracy that was a hallmark of his draft evaluation, and his second NFL season. Early in the game when Burrow connected with Chase, you could see that accuracy as the QB dropped in a throw deep downfield where only his receiver could run under it:

Accuracy is a critical trait for quarterbacks. If you cannot put the football where it needs to be, when it needs to be there, you are going to struggle. For Burrow, his accuracy is going to be a big part of Cincinnati’s plans going forward, and his accuracy gives them a chance to be successful in the passing game.

Prowess in the pocket as non-negotiable

A recurring theme for Cincinnati during their run to the Lombardi Trophy was this question: Can they protect Burrow in the pocket? In the three playoff games prior to Super Bowl LVI, Burrow was pressured on 45 plays, the most of any playoff who reached the postseason. For comparison, the only quarterback who played in as many games, Matthew Stafford, was pressured on just 31 passing plays.

Of course, Burrow was also sacked nine times by the Tennessee Titans alone.

And yet, Burrow was almost impervious to the duress he was put under by opponents in the playoffs, to the tune of a 79.2% Adjusted Completion Percentage in the postseason, the best mark of any quarterback as charted by Pro Football Focus.

Burrow’s ability to move in the pocket and make throws in the face of pressure is nothing new, and it can be traced back to his days with LSU. Even as a rookie, Burrow flashed that mobility and pocket management skills on plays like this one from last season:

However, in Super Bowl LVI Burrow needed to stare down one of the game’s most imposing defensive fronts. With the Rams able to roll out world destroyers such as Von Miller, Leonard Floyd and Aaron Donald, would he be able to make plays under the expected pressure he would face at SoFi Stadium?

We will touch deeper on this topic in a moment, but even on this night, Burrow still flashed his athleticism and pocket movement skills. Whether it was on plays like this, evading the rush and picking up a first down with his legs:

Or on plays like this, the touchdown pass to Tee Higgins right after halftime, where Burrow simply extended the play before launching downfield:

Burrow’s ability to move, extend and escape is one of his better traits as a quarterback. Pocket mobility is a non-negotiable in today’s NFL. If you are a sitting duck in the pocket, you are not going to be long for the league. Thankfully for Burrow, he has shown an ability to move and extend plays, which is critical to future success for Cincinnati.

If he is going to avoid Marino’s fate, that trait will be one he can rely upon as the Bengals look to improve the roster around him so they can finish the job the next time they make a playoff run.

The quarterback as leader

Burrow never quit.

My son is a Baltimore Ravens fan, and absent any true rooting interest in this game, he was pulling for the Bengals and Burrow. But when he saw the young quarterback limping after taking a sack, he felt, perhaps like many, that the game was over for Cincinnati.

Then, with Burrow taking the field once more, he believed again.

Quarterback is, among many things, a leadership position. You have to inspire those around you to reach new heights. It is what Burrow referred to years ago, after taking that shot against UCF in the Fiesta Bowl. “It’s very important from leaders to exude toughness throughout the entire game and it doesn’t start in the season, it starts in the weight room in the offseason and if your best leaders aren’t your best workers then you’re not going to be a very good football team.”

Throughout this season, Burrow has checked that leadership box. Whether it was picking himself up after each of the nine times the Titans sacked him in the Divisional Round, or whether it was shrugging off Chris Jones and scampering away from the rest of the Chiefs defense for a critical first down in the AFC Championship game, or whether it was on this night, standing up to the constant barrage from the Rams defnesive front, Burrow has shown time and again to his teammates that when the chips are all in the middle of the table, he is going to stand tall for them.

Even in the face of world enders like Donald.

Athletes know weakness, and some are not too shy about hiding their awareness of fear. A huddle can be a lonely place for a quarterback when his teammates do not believe in him. When those ten sets of eyes are staring at the turf, or into the stands or anywhere else but into your own? That is a lonely feeling.

One that Burrow likely never experiences, given what he has shown his teammates this season, and even on this night.

Lessons for the Bengals

(Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports)

At the same time, however, there is a lesson for his team. A lesson for how they can avoid seeing their young quarterback suffer a fate another young passer endured decades ago.

They have to help him.

Burrow tied a rather dubious Super Bowl record, as the seven sacks he endured this night matched the seven sacks that Roger Staubach was dealt in a loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl X. The famed “Steel Curtain” brought Roger the Dodger to the Orange Bowl turf seven times that January evening, and Burrow, staring down a similarly fearsome Rams defense, experienced something similar.

All season long, and particularly during the playoffs, the question of whether the Bengals offensive line could protect Burrow was at the front of every discussion about Cincinnati’s upcoming game. It was there in the runup to their Wild-Card meeting with the Las Vegas Raiders. It was there prior to their meeting with the Titans — again where he suffered nine sacks — and it was certainly there prior to the AFC Championship game.

Yet, with how Burrow kept rising to the challenge, seeming impervious to the pressure in the pocket, it gave some hope that he would similarly find a way against this talented defensive front. Those like me, who believed in the Bengals, pointed to Burrow’s 79.2% Adjusted Completion Percentage in the postseason, tops among playoff quarterbacks, as evidence that somehow, Burrow would find a way.

But it was not enough, not on this night.

In the days and weeks ahead, we will pour through the film and find plays where Burrow could have done things differently. We can screenshot plays and point to receivers that were open, or escape routes that were available. Yet going forward the Bengals do need to have protecting Burrow at the top of their to-do list.

That can be schematic, as we saw this season. Quick throws and screens designed to get the ball out of his hand quickly and use pressure against the defense.

It can also be done via roster construction. Cincinnati, as we all know, made the decision to draft Chase with their pick in the first round of last year’s draft, passing on options along the offensive line. Chase delivered an historic season, and the selection looks to have been the right one for Burrow and this offense. But this offseason, the offensive line needs to be a priority.

Prior to the AFC Championship game in 1993, between the Dolphins and the Buffalo Bills, Marino reflected on that Super Bowl XIX run. “Back then, it seemed easy. We went right through the playoffs, got to the Super Bowl. We lost the game, but in the locker room afterwards, I thought we’d be back. It’s been seven, eight years, and we haven’t been back yet.”

Marino and the Dolphins would lose that game, by a final score of 29-10. He would be sacked four times in the loss.

He would go on to play five more seasons, winning just three more playoff games along the way.

Prior to that AFC Championship game, Marino’s legendary coach, Don Shula, talked about how history judges players. “But after the ballgame is over, only one team is talked about. That’s what you want to be. The one team they talk about. That’s the bottom line. That’s how your judged.”

Does a similar fate await Burrow?

There is time ahead for the young Bengals passer. As we have seen, he has traits that matter at the position. He has also been knocked down before. Bengals fans are hoping that this loss to the Rams is the NFL version of his Fiesta Bowl knockdown. A harsh blow that sets him up for future success, leading his team to a title shortly thereafter.

But he’ll need some help along the way.

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