NFL

Super Bowl LVI: 'When he's comfortable he plays at a special level' - Unflappable Joe Burrow may turn heat on the Rams

By Sports Desk February 13, 2022

Joe Burrow is used to overcoming adversity. His career has been defined by doing just that. 

Recruited to Ohio State after a stellar high school career, Burrow never achieved his ambition of being the starting quarterback for the Buckeyes, who preferred to give first J.T. Barrett and then Dwayne Haskins the reins to their offense. His response: transfer to LSU and win the National Championship in the 2019 campaign, using his final year in college to put together one of the finest quarterback seasons ever produced at that level.

Five thousand six hundred and seventy-one passing yards, 60 touchdowns and just six interceptions proved more than enough to convince the Cincinnati Bengals he was deserving of the number one overall pick in the 2020 draft.

There was concern that decision would not be vindicated when, in Week 11 of the 2020 season against the then-Washington Football Team, Burrow tore multiple knee ligaments, ending his rookie season prematurely.

It was no secret that Burrow endured his struggles in training camp as he attempted to put the mental and physical pain of that devastating injury behind him, but any doubts that existed in the summer have long since been extinguished by a season in which he has continually thrived in adversity and excelled in the most significant moments.

No NFL quarterback was more accurate in the regular season, Burrow's well-thrown percentage of 85.7 the best in the league among quarterbacks with at least 200 attempts, and no quarterback fared better under pressure. He delivered an accurate, well-thrown ball on 80.1 per cent of his 156 pass attempts under pressure, putting him tops for quarterbacks with a minimum of 50 such attempts. His nearest challenger was Ryan Tannehill (76.5) while the average was 70 per cent.

Burrow does not just excel at being accurate under pressure, he also does a remarkable job of escaping it, his leap out of the clutches of Chris Jones in the fourth quarter one of the defining images of the Bengals' stunning comeback against the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC Championship Game.

When the odds appear stacked against him, Burrow changes the calculus, and he is the reason why you'll find many in Los Angeles expecting him to spoil the Rams' party and lead Cincinnati to victory in Super Bowl LVI on Sunday.

Kevin Clark, senior NFL writer at The Ringer, is among those selecting Cincinnati to pull off the upset because of Burrow.

"I think it's going to be close, and when that happens it becomes situational football, it becomes third and eight, what's your best play? Who's best equipped for that? For me, that's Joe Burrow," Clark told Stats Perform this week.

"I was leaning Rams because I just believe in talent, a lot of times I say 'there's more blue-chip guys on this roster, I'm picking them' but when I started to look at it, I realised the difference wasn't that great. The Bengals just beat the Chiefs, and they did a nice job against the Chiefs. The idea that the Bengals are some Cinderella story plus Joe Burrow, I don't agree with that."

No quarterback in the NFL with at least 100 attempts on third down in the regular season had a better completion percentage in those situations than Burrow (72.5) while he also led the league in passing plays of 50 yards or more (12) despite his arm strength being a tick below the level of some of his superstar contemporaries.

"I was just reading a book that his college coach wrote, and they were saying in his junior year in training camp he didn't separate himself because his arm just wasn't that strong. You go from that to leading the NFL in 50 plus yards receptions, it's remarkable, it's unbelievable," added Clark.

"I think that's a testament to getting the ball out quickly, knowing exactly where the ball is gonna go, any quarterback can go throw 50 yards, it's whether you can throw 70 yards. If you're in the NFL you can get there and so Burrow, using all of his arm strength, but then you look at what he's able to do with just vision, the placement, it's all there and it's rendering the lack of arm strength quite frankly meaningless.

Burrow's success in overcoming his own supposed physical limitations is also giving his coach, Zac Taylor, freedom to be more aggressive. The Bengals were third in the NFL this season in fourth-down conversion success rate (65 per cent) and the confidence Taylor can afford to have in his quarterback could tilt the coaching matchup with Sean McVay in his favour.

Clark explained: "I think that McVay is obviously a much better coach than Zac Taylor, I think Burrow has liberated Zac Taylor in a way that gives him cover, almost like if you remember with the Ravens and Lamar Jackson a few years ago where the Ravens were getting very aggressive because they had Lamar Jackson, and if there was any question in the media about why this person went for it, the answer was just always Lamar Jackson.

"Joe Burrow is that kind of player where it's fourth and four, they're gonna go for it. I think in the coaching matchup Burrow makes a difference because he's the kind of guy who's going to go over there and say 'coach we're going for it on fourth down' and Zac Taylor is smart enough to say 'this guy's driving the bus I'm gonna let him do it'".

Taylor confirmed as such during the Bengals' media availability on Friday, the Bengals' desire to involve Burrow in the process on gameday and in the offseason allowing both coach and quarterback to feel more comfortable.

"We took with the number one pick so there's obviously some special traits, we know he's a winner, he's a champion," said Taylor. 

"We wanted to make sure that we built this thing around him and how he could feel most comfortable. I think that when a player like that, who prepares like he does and sees the game, really from a coach's perspective, he should be involved in everything we do, and that's opinions on other players that we're adding to the team, that's scheme and game plan, that's adjustments that we make over the course of the game, he's earned that.

"Any time he's involved, he tends to make it work really well. And so I don't think that there's any egos on our staff that say no, we've got to do it the way that the coaches want it done. I want him to feel comfortable on game day, because when he feels comfortable, he plays at a really special level."

Comfortable with how the team operates, at ease in the spotlight and always calm under pressure, Burrow has even earned the blessing of the original 'Joe Cool', Joe Montana, to take that nickname. In what could be the warmest Super Bowl ever, Burrow's composure may turn the heat on the home favourite Rams.

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