Joe Burrow has Bengals in Super Bowl 56 thanks to transformation as college transfer
Joe Burrow played his high school football in Athens, Ohio, and was named the state's Gatorade Player of the Year in 2013, months before giving his verbal commitment to Urban Meyer and Ohio State.
"The people in our program, teammates and coaches, felt like Ohio State got a steal," said Athens High School head coach Nathan White, then the program's quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator. "The people that were working closely with Joe everyday did not have any doubt that he was capable of big things at the next level.
"When Joe left here and went to Ohio State, it felt like a national championship and Heisman Trophy were realistic goals for him. That ended up happening at a different school."
After three seasons with the Buckeyes — the first as a redshirt in 2015, then as one of several backups buried on the depth chart in 2016 and 2017 — Burrow lost the competition for the starting job to Dwayne Haskins in the spring of 2018, triggering his decision to transfer.
There was only one problem: Burrow hadn't really played. He'd drawn raves from former teammates and program insiders who had seen him prepare and excel in the secondary role, but Burrow left Ohio State with only 39 career pass attempts, all but eight coming in the fourth quarter of lopsided blowouts.
Less than three weeks before Burrow announced he would transfer, new Nebraska coach Scott Frost spoke with two reporters inside the Cornhuskers' weight room after completing his first spring game back at his alma mater. Frost posed the same genuine question being asked at Power Five programs across the country: Is Burrow better than what we've got on the roster?
Belying all that would come next — the move to LSU, the Heisman Trophy, the national championship and, eventually, the top spot in the NFL draft — Burrow transferred four years ago this May as a largely unknown quantity. After leading the Tigers to an unbeaten season as a senior, Burrow has pulled off something even more unexpected in his second season in the NFL: taking the Cincinnati Bengals to the Super Bowl.
Burrow is the seventh second-year quarterback in NFL history to reach the Super Bowl, joining Dan Marino (1984 season), Kurt Warner (1999), Tom Brady (2001), Ben Roethlisberger (2005), Colin Kaepernick (2012), and Russell Wilson (2013).
"Until you know Joe, until you know what he’s about and what he’s made of and how he works, none of this is really shocking," said former LSU offensive analyst Jorge Munoz, who worked with Burrow during Burrow's two years with the program and now serves as the associate head coach and tight ends coach at Louisiana.
'Players loved him. Coaches loved him.'
More than just a gamble on himself, the decision to leave Ohio State represented a roll of the dice for LSU, which bet on Burrow and won at a level unmatched in school and even SEC history.
The Tigers were debating over three unproven quarterbacks on the roster heading out of the 2017 season, and with little feelings of security over any one of the three options began to look around at the possible transfer market during the late winter and early spring.
The program's connection to Burrow came from assistant coach Bill Busch, a Nebraska native who was friendly with Burrow's father, Jimmy, a former Nebraska assistant and the longtime defensive coordinator at Ohio University.
Individually and as a group, LSU coaches evaluated Burrow's limited number of college snaps. Beyond the fact that each throw came in a meaningless situation — he didn't appear in any game decided by fewer than 31 points — the game tape failed to reveal anything remarkable about a quarterback who would set school, conference and national passing records as a senior.
Burrow's arm was good, but not the best. He ran around well but wasn't the fastest. Tape of Burrow's strong performance in Ohio State's 2018 spring game, when he outplayed Haskins with 238 passing yards and two touchdowns, featured little from a physical perspective that the Tigers didn't already have on the roster.
"But the more research we did, what we found out was the whole leadership side," said Munoz. "Players loved him. Coaches loved him. I think that’s what really sold us, the off-the-field stuff. I think we were more sold by what other people were saying about him."
One of his two finalists — the other was Cincinnati, coached by former Ohio State assistant Luke Fickell — LSU invited Burrow, his parents and his brother, Daniel, to visit campus. As part of Burrow's trip, Munoz cut up a tape comparing his throws with the Buckeyes against the Tigers' route packages and concepts.
Less than a graded test than an evaluation of Burrow's mental makeup, the LSU staff wanted to know what he knew.
"That's when he really shined," said Munoz. "He blew the doors out from that standpoint. That’s when we understood. Hey, this guy is way above and beyond anything that we’ve ever had the privilege to be around."
LSU also prepared a PowerPoint presentation running down what the program had to offer. The slides showed the Tigers' upcoming road games. The stadiums Burrow would visit. All the players on the roster, including a glut of wildly talented wide receivers. (One such receiver was Ja'Marr Chase, who had a record-setting rookie season and playoffs with the Bengals.) Each returning contributor's height and weight.
But Burrow didn't care — about the stadium, the locker room or anything, Munoz recalled. "All he wanted to do was talk about football. About ball. That was it," he said.
"I have no doubt that he wanted to go somewhere that he thought they could win the whole thing," said White. "When LSU came into the picture, it kind of felt like a no-brainer. It just seemed like a place where he could go and make a whole lot of noise and be in contention for the national title. Just playing was not going to be good enough."
NCAA title. Heisman. Is Super Bowl ring next?
Burrow committed to LSU and signed his paperwork but didn't arrive on campus until June 1. He wasn't promised anything more than an opportunity; LSU even placed Burrow fourth on the depth chart at quarterback upon his arrival.
That didn't last. Burrow quickly set a tone in offseason conditioning drills, finishing first in running tests and never bending over as teammates gasped for air. By the Tigers' second preseason scrimmage in August, it was obvious Burrow was the answer. In the wake of that practice, two of the three quarterback holdovers would transfer in back-to-back days, leaving Burrow as the unquestioned starter.
As a junior, he completed 57.8% of his throws for 2,894 yards and 16 touchdowns. In winning the Heisman as a senior, Burrow would hit on 76.3% of his attempts for 5,671 yards and 60 touchdowns. A similar process has unfolded with the Bengals, who went 2-7-1 in games Burrow started as a rookie — he missed the final six games with a knee injury — but are now a win away from the first championship in franchise history, with Burrow leading the NFL in completion percentage and yards per attempt.
"I really think that Joe plays this game and puts in all the work to have an opportunity to play in those big games and huge moments," said White. "I think if football did not offer those opportunities, he’d find something else. Because that’s what really drives him, that big stage and that enormous challenge. And obviously, this Sunday’s going to be the biggest stage that he’s ever played in."
Follow colleges reporter Paul Myerberg on Twitter @PaulMyerberg