Joe Burrow did one fun thing this year. He attended a Stipe Miocic–Francis Ngannou UFC fight with some friends in March that was otherwise closed to the public. It’s funny, he said, “I see those talking heads on football and I go, ‘Ahhh, this guy doesn’t really know what he’s talking about.’ Then I watch all these MMA talking heads and I’m like, ‘Oh, this guy is giving me some great insight.’ And then it’s like, ‘Wow, it’s probably the same thing. He probably doesn’t know what he’s talking about either.’”
The rest of his offseason was not particularly packed with fun. Part of that was by design; part of that wasn’t. It has been nine months since he tore his ACL and MCL, ending his Bengals rookie season. He brought his trainer with him on vacation. He was deeply serious. “Every workout to me was life or death,” Burrow said. “Go in there, no matter what you’re feeling. Knee hurts, body hurts, mind not up to it—you’ve got to get the work done. If you don’t get the work done, it’s not going to show up on the field. And I want it to show up on the field.”
Burrow, who 19 months ago completed the coolest and most efficient season in the history of college football at LSU, spent the past nine months rebuilding himself. His injury occurred last November, in the midst of a miserable Bengals season that was buoyed only by the optimism around the team’s rookie quarterback. But then the Bengals lost Burrow, and Burrow lost football. “I kind of had to figure out who I was without football for a little bit,” Burrow told me last week. “Lying in bed, not being able to move without someone coming to pick my leg up and go to the bathroom. It wasn’t very fun. But I think it’ll make me a better person and player.”
Burrow’s rebuilding continued in practice on a recent hot day in downtown Cincinnati. It has not been a flawless process. He trusts his knee and trusts the work he’s put in, he said, to know whether it’s stable. But some problems extended beyond his own recovery. Cincinnati’s offense was slow to develop early in training camp, something Burrow and Bengals coaches were open about but certainly not panicking over in early August. “It was more so just getting the feeling back in the pocket. I’ve always been pretty good at feeling the space in the pocket and going where I need to and feeling where the defenders are. And at the beginning of camp, it was kind of just a wall of people,” Burrow said. “I couldn’t really feel who was who, where the pressure was coming from. Then, at the end of last week, it just kind of clicked for me. And now I’m playing well again, back to my old self.”
There are two separate questions for the Bengals: The first is what Burrow’s “old self” means for the franchise; the second is whether the franchise has the team to support that version. Before his injury last year, there were some encouraging signs: He was historically good by some metrics when throwing under 20 yards downfield. In a clean pocket, Burrow’s throws within 20 yards were the best by any rookie in the 15 years that Pro Football Focus has been tracking the metric; he was fifth best in the league overall. Quarterback stats from a clean pocket are generally considered more stable from year to year than stats under pressure. He threw the highest rate of perfect passes by PFF’s count of any rookie.
But Burrow was not perfect, and even among his rookie peers, fellow first-rounder Justin Herbert overshadowed him. The Bengals were 2-7-1 in Burrow’s starts. Their offensive line was bad. This offseason, they used three draft picks on offensive linemen and signed Riley Reiff. They drafted Burrow’s LSU teammate, wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase, who told me Burrow is still making quick decisions like he did at LSU and is clearly regaining his confidence, the type that, Chase explained, led to his favorite Burrow pass ever: a catch over a Texas defensive back in Austin in 2019. “He just said, ‘I’m going to throw it up to you.’ That’s what he did a majority of the time in college. ‘Just throw it up to you, go get it.’”
I asked Burrow how he felt about the Bengals’ offensive struggles being the dominant early story line of their training camp. He had recently told reporters that the early part of camp had been frustrating, and the internet glommed onto his admission that his own struggles were a “mental thing,” by which he meant he was trying to get back to feeling like himself.
Basically, I wanted to know how he has dealt with every word he speaks being scrutinized since he’s returned to the field. “I’m an honest guy, and I’m not going to bullshit, for lack of a better word, reporters,” Burrow said. “I’ll try to give an open and honest answer to all the questions that I get and let people do what they’re going to do with it. I don’t read what anyone says. Some people tell me what people are saying, but I never really focus on that. It’s never really bothered me. I’m just gonna be who I am and say what I want.”