INDIANAPOLIS – Joe Burrow did not come to the combine to throw the NFL draft for a loop.
Burrow, the projected No. 1 overall pick who produced the most prolific season ever by a college quarterback, pricked a pin to the narrative that he is poised to pull an Eli Manning-John Elway type of power play with ABC – Anybody But Cincinnati – intentions.
In fact, Burrow didn’t come to throw much of anything. The former LSU star won’t sling it in the quarterback drills. Won’t burn rubber in the 40. Won’t be caught inside Lucas Oil Stadium on Thursday night shuffling through anybody’s three-cone drill. Heisman Trophy winners, you know, can sit out such action at the annual NFL meat market.
Yet Burrow, who threw for 5,671 yards and 60 TDs in leading the Tigers to a national championship, also seemed to be in a great position to dictate a key term to the NFL draft process by refusing to play for the Bengals. I mean, if Eli could thumb his nose to the Chargers in 2004 and Elway could snub the Colts in 1983, you’d think the time is ripe for another dramatic adventure.
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Burrow, though, will apparently have nothing to do with bucking the system while, incidentally, NFL owners and NFL Players Association heavyweights discuss a new labor deal.
Asked whether he would accept being picked No. 1 by the Bengals, Burrow almost seemed offended by the question.
“Yes, of course,” he said.
So much for that bit of intrigue. Burrow is exactly what the Bengals management was praying for: A politically correct kid with a reliable arm.
“You don’t have a lot of say in that,” he added of the draft process. “Whoever picks you, picks you. And you’ve got to go play.”
It isn’t always so simple, as Manning and Elway, who won a combined four Super Bowl rings with the Giants and Broncos, respectively, can contend.
Sure, teams are at the top of the draft for a reason. The Bengals were 2-14 last season. But this goes back much further than last year. Cincinnati hasn’t won a playoff game since 1990.
Does Burrow know what he's getting into? On top of the postseason victory drought, the Bengals are trying to rebuild with a young coach, Zac Taylor, who has proven absolutely nothing in the way of producing an NFL winner. In 2017, Taylor was the “assistant receivers coach” for the Rams.
Maybe Taylor is the next Joe Gibbs. Maybe not.
The uncertainty and franchise track record is why Steve Bartkowski, the former quarterback drafted No. 1 overall by the Falcons in 1975, actually suggested that Burrow “pull an Eli Manning” and opt out of the Bengals. According to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Bartkowski mentioned this during recent ceremonies where Burrow was bestowed the Davey O’Brien Award as the nation’s top college quarterback.
You never know how these things will turn out. If Burrow doesn’t live up to high expectations – which, for quarterbacks, can hinge on the supporting cast – his leverage might never be higher than it is now.
“I haven’t really thought about it like that,” Burrow said during his media session on Tuesday.
Still, if he wanted to explore, he’s connected to quite the resources. One of Burrow’s agents is Tom Condon, who also represented Manning when the trade was orchestrated that sent Peyton’s younger brother to the Big Apple. Burrow also has developed a relationship with the Mannings and worked as a counselor at the passing academy established by Archie and his sons, Peyton, Eli and Cooper.
No, Burrow said he hasn’t heard directly from Eli on this.
For weeks, though, it’s been a bit murky. When Burrow was in Fort Worth for the awards ceremony, he mentioned something about having a certain amount of “leverage.”
“I was kind of talking more about the combine process,” he explained on Tuesday. “But yeah, I’m going to just try to be the best player I can be for whoever drafts me and try to fit in in any way that I can.”
That sounded a lot like a man looking for a job, trying to say all the right things. It’s sort of a combine tradition for players during the combine interviews and news conferences.
Even so, let’s not forget that Burrow has talked about wanting to join a team that is “committed” to winning championships – which hasn’t exactly been the description you’ve heard from former Bengals over the years.
When I asked Burrow what he wanted to learn about the Bengals during the draft process, he said, “I don’t know if there are any concerns. I want to know a lot about a lot of different teams. Through these interviews, you just talk ball. That’s what I enjoy doing.”
With formal talks with the Bengals in the days ahead and other engagements in the coming weeks, including his private workout and undoubtedly a visit to Cincinnati, the process is kicking in to a deeper level.
“I’m looking forward to just talking ball, seeing what they’re all about, seeing the offense that they run, see what they think about,” Burrow added.
The book on Burrow gives him high marks for pocket presence. After listening to Burrow’s session, Dave Lapham, the former Bengals offensive lineman who has remained in Cincinnati as a radio and TV figure, raved about the signal-caller’s ability to process information quickly.
Lapham was talking football IQ, but it stands to reason that Burrow has processed something about his power position in this draft run-up. He seems to be all-in on the Bengals, whose stadium is about a 2-hour, 15-minute drive from his parents’ home in Southeastern Ohio.
“I’m not going to not play,” he repeated of the Bengals scenario. “I’m a ball player. Whoever picks me, I’m going to show up.”
That was music to the ears of Duke Tobin, the Bengals VP of personnel.
“Our research tells us that he’s his own man,” Tobin said when told of Burrow’s remarks. “If that’s what he said, that’s fantastic.”
Of course, time will tell on all of this. But for now, the NFL system wins again.
Follow Jarrett Bell on Twitter @JarrettBell.
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