“No, I’m not really thinking about that right now….I’ll probably give it to my mom or something.”
But today, in the clear light of hindsight – that ball should stand as a totem to a young quarterback who – as veteran receiver A.J. Green said after the game – is a real “special one.”
While Burrow had a couple of notable misfires in the second half, the good far outweighed the bad in his NFL christening.
That TD run showed patience, moxie and especially smarts. He may have been the only rookie starting quarterback in the NFL Sunday, but he didn’t shrink from the moment.
That also was the case in the 14-play, 69-yard drive he directed in the final 3:08 without a timeout to use. He completed 8 of 11 passes and one misfire was a spike to stop the clock and another was a sideline bobble John Ross should have caught.
He put the team in position to win, but A.J. Green’s touchdown catch with 7 seconds left was disallowed because an official decided he had shoved off more than an equally-handsy defender who sold the interference call with some theatrics.
Still the Bengals only needed a 31-yard field goal on the final play of regulation to tie the game, 16-16, and go to overtime.
And that’s when the Bengals' luck of so many seasons past resurfaced again. The left plant leg of field goal kicker Randy Bullock cramped just as he was going through his kicking motion and he pushed the ball to the right.
Afterward teammates talked about how composed and confident Burrow had been in the huddle on that final drive, even though on the preceding possession he had made a mistake that would have derailed most other young quarterbacks.
With a first-and-10 on the LA 23 with 5:13 left, he tried to avoid a defensive surge with a shovel pass to Joe Mixon. Instead Chargers defensive end Marvin Ingram smartly backed off the Bengal who was blocking him and made the interception.
After the game Burrow truly showed what he was made of.
He shielded teammates and shouldered all the blame. He covered for Ross, who not only bobbled on the sideline, but let a long heave by Burrow slip through his fingers in the end zone rather than lay out and at least try to make the catch.
Burrow said he missed Ross, just as he did Green two plays later.
“A high schooler can make that throw,” he said of his overthrow to the wide-open Green.
Burrow never brought up his anemic offensive line which threatened to turn him to David Carr early in the game.
In 2002, Carr – like Burrow this season – was the No. 1 overall pick by the expansion Houston Texans and was promptly sacked 76 times that season, still an NFL record.
In the first half Sunday, Burrow was hit six times and sacked three, but never flinched. He was used to the roughhousing of Joey Bosa, the Chargers' attack dog defender, from their Ohio State days.
Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow (9) reacts after running for a touchdown during the first half of an NFL football game against the Los Angeles Chargers, Sunday, Sept. 13, 2020, in Cincinnati. (AP Photo/Aaron Doster)
Bosa was college football’s prime pass rusher then and Burrow, a freshman running the Bucks scout team, was constantly battered.
It was part of his three years in the shadows at OSU and that prompted his transfer to LSU, where he won the Heisman Trophy and led the Tigers to a national crown last season.
During the CBS pregame show Sunday, Hall of Fame quarterback Phil Simms lamented the situation Burrow was stepping into in this pandemic-skewered season:
“He may be coming into the hardest situation ever for a quarterback in the NFL. No OTAs. No mini camp, no training camp or preseason games. All those things are going to hurt him. It’s going to be very tough for the rookie against the veteran Los Angeles Chargers.”
Burrow brushed aside that excuse, as well: “That’s kind of what I’m used to. In college you have no preseason, you just have scrimmages.”
Asked to grade his performance Sunday, Burrow didn’t flinch: " D."
Refusing to pass the buck or wilt in the big-game glare didn’t go unnoticed by his teammates.
“The way he handled himself on that last drive was unbelievable,” Green said.
He said he’s never seen a rookie handle adversity like that: “He’s a leader.”
I believe the Burrow-to-Green connection will blossom into one of the NFL best tandems by season’s end.
That likely won’t be the case with Ross, whose inability to finish a play showed when Andy Dalton – Burrow’s predecessor – was throwing to him, too.
Receiver Tyler Boyd should have been a prime target as well Sunday, but was underused.
Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow (9) looks to throw during the first half of an NFL football game against the Los Angeles Chargers, Sunday, Sept. 13, 2020, in Cincinnati. (AP Photo/Aaron Doster)
Even though he was playing in his first game in 21 months and had been back at practice only three days, Green was Burrow’s prime target Sunday. He finished with 5 catches for 51 yards and nearly had the game winner.
Guys like Green respect Burrow not just for how he plays the game, but for what he does off the field.
When the Black Lives Matter movement took hold early this year, Burrow tweeted a message to his near 407,000 followers:
“The black community needs our help. They have been unheard for far too long. Open your eyes. Listen and speak. This isn’t politics. It’s human rights.”
His teammates knew this wasn’t just lip service. He’s stood up for people in need throughout his football career, whether it was back at Athens High when he took on rivals who were using racial taunts against his teammates or when he made his memorable Heisman speech.
It was one of the most inspirational calls to action in the history of the award. He talked about kids in economically-depressed towns of southeast Ohio and within a couple of weeks the local food pantry back home had gotten $500,000 in donations, five times its annual budget.
Realizing Burrow has a heart and moral compass as big as his arm – he threw for an NCAA-record 60 TDs last season – a trio of veteran black players with the Bengals approached him this summer and asked him to read a social justice initiative Hopkins had penned in front of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati.
All this gives credence to Boomer Esiason’s preseason hyperbole. The former Bengal great called Burrow: “The Chosen One.”
He compared it to LeBron James coming back to Ohio to lift the floundering Cleveland Cavaliers to a title.
At Athens High, Burrow led a team that hadn’t been to the playoffs since 1990 to the state title game. At LSU he helped transform an often dull offense into a high powered attack that produced a 15-0 season.
While the Bengals will have to address some issues – from the porous offensive line to coach Zac Taylor’s sometimes questionable clock management and play calling – there is promise in Cincinnati.
A lot of it has to do with Burrow.
“We’ve got a special one in Joe,” Green said.
And that brings us back to that game ball.
Wherever it ends up, it should be in a place where there is plenty of empty space next to it.
Soon there will be more game balls.