NFL Week 1 Recap: Joe Burrow leaves us wanting more in his Bengals debut

Joe Burrow's Bengals debut in Week 1 was a mixed bag of impressive late-game leadership, wild mistakes, typical rookie stuff, and awful pass protection.

Saturday, September 19, 2020

Cincinnati Bengals rookie quarterback Joe Burrow would have gotten mixed reviews for his NFL debut if he got many reviews at all. Admit it: Unless you are a diehard Bengals or Los Angeles Chargers fan, you watched Tom Brady vs. Drew Brees on Sunday afternoon and only peeked at the 16-13 Chargers victory over the Bengals during commercials. That’s all the NFL Recap team did, too. But now we’ve gotten a long look at the tape and are ready to pass judgment on the first overall pick in the 2019 Draft.

Or, more appropriately, reserve judgment on him.

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Recap of Joe Burrow’s NFL Week 1 Debut

Burrow was most impressive at the very end of the game, which may give a false impression of how well he played among fans who switched over when Brees had a comfortable lead over Brady in the Over 40 Seniors Tournament.

Burrow was 7-of-9 for 70 yards on the Bengals final drive. His completions were quick strikes into tight windows. His incompletions were near misses, like a sideline pass that John Ross caught but failed to toe-tap in bounds. Burrow also ran for positive yardage on a designed draw and managed the clock efficiently.

A would-be game-winning touchdown by A.J. Green was nullified by ticky-tack offensive pass interference; a would-be game-tying short field goal missed by a mile, marring Burrow’s comeback bid. Burrow was poised, decisive, and accurate. Not surprisingly for a Heisman Trophy winner who won a national championship, the “moment” of facing a weak opponent in an empty stadium wasn’t too big for him.

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The rest of Burrow’s debut was more of a mixed bag. He was sloppy with the ball several times: not just on the ill-advised fourth-quarter shovel pass interception which was almost a direct handoff to defender Melvin Ingram, but on a wild early-game dump off to Joe Mixon that turned into a live-ball fumble.

He also missed his few deep shots, overthrowing a wide-open Green streaking toward the end zone in the third quarter. It didn’t help that the Bengals pass protection was terrible all game, with right tackle Bobby Hart once again leading all NFL offensive linemen in embarrassing Monday morning screenshots.

Head coach Zac Taylor set Burrow up with the Standard Rookie Quarterback Starter Kit Game Plan for most of the afternoon: short passes to the flat, designed runs (including his rushing touchdown on a draw play), slip screens, and safe throws in front of the sticks. Faced with an early 2nd-and-24 situation, Burrow completed two straight passes for six yards to set up 4th-and-18: good for the stat sheet, fine for a rookie’s confidence, not something you want to see from him this time next year.

What it means for Joe Burrow and the Bengals

NFL Recap has been doing this for a long time, and we have a simple rule of thumb when evaluating rookie quarterbacks in their first few starts:

  • If he curls up in the fetal position and starts sucking his thumb, you should be worried.
  • If he throws seven touchdown passes while levitating six inches above the field and glowing with an ethereal inner light, you should be ecstatic.
  • Treat everything else with cautious optimism.

Burrow falls squarely in the middle of the two extremes. He has the tools and poise. There are no red flags. And there are also no expectations, so we can take our time and keep watching him develop instead of worrying about whether he’s going to lead the lowly Bengals on a 2020 playoff run.

What’s next for Joe Burrow and the Bengals

A two-game road trip to face the Browns and Eagles will introduce Burrow to pass rushers like Myles Garrett and Fletcher Cox. With Hart protecting him, let’s hope he survives the experience.