In Week One, Burrow switched from a run to a pass on fourth and short near midfield in overtime, when he saw the Vikings defending the 50 as if it were the goal line. When his first two reads were covered, Burrow calmly found tight end C.J. Uzomah for a run and catch that set up the game-winning field goal.
In Week Four, something similar happened. Burrow spotted a zero-blitz (extra pressure, no safety, single coverage of his receivers). Burrow then changed the play to something that he believed would work.
“We better have an answer for zero-blitz,” coach Zac Taylor told reporters after the game. “Joe handled it well and calmly, got us in the right check and executed. . . . That wasn’t the play we called. That was a check from Joe.”
Taylor explained that the zero-blitz was likely a reaction to the fact that the Bengals had done well with their empty set.
“I don’t know how many empty plays we ran, but it was a lot,” Taylor said. “I don’t know if the ball ever hit the ground. They had to try something different. They zeroed us and Joe was ready for it.”
And it wasn’t simply a check to an alternative provided to him by Taylor. Burrow dipped into the playbook and found something that he believed would work.
“You guys have heard me talking about having the playbook in the back of my head and seeing looks that I can take advantage of,” Burrow told reporters. “That just comes with experience. They gave me a ‘zero’ look, and so all week I knew the defensive coordinator [Joe Cullen] had a Baltimore background. They showed some ‘zero’ on film — I knew I’d have to be ready for it in a big spot. I had C.J. out there, that’s not exactly the personnel we usually throw those jailbreak screens to, but he really took advantage of the opportunity. I had those plays in the back of my head expecting ‘zero,’ and I just got to it and didn’t really think about it.”
After the Minnesota game, Burrow said that they’d used the play in practice for two years, and that he’d never thrown it to Uzomah until the prior week, during practice. Burrow wondered whether Uzomah would have been ready for it in a game if he hadn’t previously seen it come his way. After the Jacksonville game, Burrow said he doesn’t think he’d ever thrown it to Uzomah on the play that Burrow called.
Uzomah was surprised to hear the call.
“I’ll be honest, I [did a] double take on that one,” Uzomah told reporters. “Tyler Boyd was looking at me, too, like ‘What did he just call?’ It was cover zero and we knew going in that [Cullen] was coming in from the Ravens and that’s what they like to do — run cover zero in critical situations — and Joey Franchise is just back there dealing dots out there knowing and understanding what the defense is doing. He called that play up and just made something happen. Boyd had a huge block on that one, Trenton [Irwin] came out and had a big block. [Burrow] gave me a wink after I caught it and I was like ‘This guy here, he’s reckless! . . . He is the smartest person out there at all times. . . . He’s just Joey Franchise.”
That’s great news for the Bengals. Burrow isn’t just a potential franchise quarterback. He’s a quarterback with the potential to permanently change the narrative of the franchise.
Like Drew Brees did for the Saints. Like Tom Brady did for the Patriots, and is doing for the Buccaneers. Like Peyton Manning did for the Colts, and then the Broncos. Like Joe Montana did for the 49ers. Like Terry Bradshaw did for the Steelers. One man, one player, one quarterback. His arrival sparks a transformation that turns a long-suffering team into a perennial, high-level contender with one or more Super Bowl championships.
Burrow has a long way to go to match Brees, Brady, Peyton, and/or Montana. But Joey Franchise is on his way.