Against no defenders on the practice field, Burrow waited for tight end C.J. Uzomah to leak away from the line of scrimmage before throwing the ball to him. Uzomah wasn’t ready for the pass and Burrow sailed it over his intended target.
“In three years, I have never gotten that ball,” Uzomah said.
He did in practice and again on Sunday in a 27-24 overtime win against the Minnesota Vikings. The play Burrow wanted to rerun in practice was the one Cincinnati used on fourth-and-inches in overtime that set up rookie Evan McPherson’s game-winning, 33-yard field goal in the season opener.
What Uzomah called “serendipitous” was actually a byproduct of the expectations Burrow has for those around him, a clear sign of the second-year quarterback stepping into his role as a team leader.
“You see the demand from him to the players around him picking up,” Bengals offensive coordinator Brian Callahan told ESPN. “He has less tolerance for mistakes. He doesn’t have a whole lot of tolerance for when he says something once, ‘This is what I want,’ and he doesn’t get it. He gets pretty irritated.”
The play the Bengals used in overtime is similar to one in Week 7 of the 2020 season, when Burrow found running back Giovani Bernard on fourth-and-1 for a go-ahead touchdown against Cleveland, a game the Bengals lost after the defense capitulated.
Against the Vikings, the play was virtually the same aside from a few tweaks. When Burrow lined up he noticed, because they needed just a few inches for a first down, Minnesota’s defensive front was designed to stop any run up the middle.
So Burrow checked into the second playcall, a staple of coach Zac Taylor’s offense. Burrow motioned the change at the line of scrimmage, dropped back and waited for Uzomah to release from the fray and leak into open space.
“When the game is on the line and I have the ball in my hands, I think I’m prepared to put myself in those positions, and I’m always ready for them,” Burrow said after the game.
The play was a culmination of so many aspects of Burrow’s growth throughout the offseason.
The repetition in practice demonstrated his zeal for the offense to look and operate a certain way.
"If Joe doesn’t like what he’s getting at practice, of course he wants to run it again because he wants things to be perfect,” Bengals wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase said afterward.
The pre-snap adjustment on Sunday illustrated Burrow's ability to call an audible to exploit a specific mismatch, an area he believes he can “better take advantage of those situations.” And it was a small glimpse at the confidence Taylor and the coaching staff has in their franchise quarterback.
“We trust Joe with everything that we’re about,” Taylor said.
Callahan, the third-year offensive coordinator, described Burrow as “maniacal” when it comes to his focus. It’s the same intensity he expects from those around him, too. Callahan said it’s a trait possessed by the NFL’s top quarterbacks.
And as Burrow spent the entire offseason rehabbing from reconstructive left knee surgery while simultaneously refining his passing mechanics, Callahan said he has earned the right to demand his teammates are operating on a high level.
“He looks around and goes, ‘I was here every day this offseason and I did everything I could to get back on this field for Week 1, and god damn it, the rest of you better, too,’” Callahan said.
When the Bengals drafted Burrow with the top overall pick in the 2020 draft, it was with the expectations he could transform a franchise mired in losing. The team hasn’t reached the postseason since 2015, when Andy Dalton was the team’s starting quarterback.
Burrow and the Bengals will face Dalton’s new team, the Chicago Bears, this Sunday as the Bengals look to start the season with two wins for the first time since 2018. Cincinnati running back Joe Mixon said the entire team has high standards for each other.
But the way Sunday’s game finished and the conversation Mixon and Burrow had afterward underscored why Burrow is the benchmark the rest of the team will be measured against.
Said Mixon: “I was telling him, 'Bro, come on, you got to lead us. It's that time. This is what you are made for, this is who you are, this is what you do. You come here and make plays.'
“And he led us.”