Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow is reliving his childhood before he officially joins the real world.
The top overall pick in April’s NFL draft is back home in Athens County, Ohio, living with his parents and looking for empty fields so he can throw passes to his friends. The Heisman Trophy he won while leading LSU to a national championship rests on the floor in a room of the family home.
As if preparing for an NFL starting job as a rookie isn’t hard enough, Burrow is finding different ways to gear up for his rookie season since NFL facilities are closed indefinitely because of the coronavirus pandemic.
This means Burrow is on Zoom video calls from the basement of his childhood home, going over film and installations with the Bengals’ coaching staff. Throughout the week, he’s throwing to his former high school teammates. And even though he isn’t with his Bengals teammates, Burrow’s preparation isn’t lacking.
“I mean, it’s his job now,” said Ryan Luehrman, one of Burrow’s childhood friends and receivers. “He’s just solely focused on that even more than I’ve seen than when he was in college and from high school. It keeps growing and growing, his amount of attention to detail and focus.”
Burrow can’t throw to his Cincinnati receivers. Not only are the NFL’s facilities closed, but wideouts such as A.J. Green, Tyler Boyd, John Ross and Auden Tate are not in Cincinnati.
Fortunately for Burrow, the fallback option consists of many familiarities.
His receivers are the players who helped him and Athens High School to the Ohio state championship game as seniors in 2014. Ryan and Adam Luehrman are twins who have known Burrow since he moved into town in second grade. They are now tight ends at Ohio University. Zacciah Saltzman, Burrow’s former running back who played at Georgetown, also is part of the training group.
They spread out around town on various days of the week, bouncing between whatever fields are available. It’s reminiscent of their after-school practices during their days at Athens High or in the spring when Burrow wrangled up players and their offensive coordinator for throwing sessions.
Five years after Burrow’s graduation, the group will line up and run through the plays Burrow is learning from the Bengals while also helping the Luehrmans get ready for their final year of college football.
Ryan said if the routes aren’t run to the right depth or they’re being flattened, the play restarts from the top. They enjoy the opportunity to simulate everything as precisely as possible to maximize the entire process.
“I’m thinking when I’m running a deep pass, I’ve gotta really kick it into gear,” said Ryan Luehrman, who caught 28 passes for 360 yards and five scores last season. “A.J. Green, Tyler Boyd and John Ross, I know they’re flying. So I gotta at least try to get some sort of speed.”
The Bengals drafted Burrow to be their next franchise quarterback. Andy Dalton, who was the starter since 2011, was released this offseason and signed with the Dallas Cowboys on a one-year deal.
If it were a typical NFL offseason, Burrow would have been among the rookies arriving at their team facilities shortly after the draft. But with the leaguewide lockdown, the meetings are done via videoconferencing.
Bengals offensive coordinator Brian Callahan said the plan in June will be for Burrow to call plays on a conference call as if he’s in a huddle, look at a screen depicting a defensive formation and then make the pre-snap calls.
“It remains to be seen how effective that will be, but it’s better than not doing it,” Callahan told ESPN. “Now, at least those guys can hear each other communicate, and that’s the biggest thing we try to get to.”
The 2020 NFL draftees pass their team hats to one another on a mass Zoom call.
Burrow’s early assignments were seemingly the simplest: learning snap counts, getting the ball snapped and teaching formations. Cincinnati spent all three days of rookie minicamp going over one day’s worth of installations.
Callahan said the first couple of weeks can feel incredibly boring and tedious, even as the staff uses educational games such as Kahoot! to teach concepts and review what words mean in the team’s system (one word can mean two very different things, depending on the offense).
Callahan said Burrow has been “exceptional” during the virtual learning.
“He has a really, really good feel for understanding protection schemes and how to get himself protected and where his issues are in the protection scheme, so that part has been really impressive,” Callahan said. “He’s dialed in. He comes into the meeting and competes.”
The Bengals are maximizing the benefits of the adjustments required for this year’s offseason, Callahan said. Instead of ripping through an installation during a 90-minute session and having the quarterbacks work on it the next day, they are able to use the five-hour daily period allotted by the NFL to go over things such as footwork and watch examples from others around the league.
Everyone is trying to squeeze out the positives during an unusual offseason. That also goes for Burrow’s parents, Jimmy and Robin. The extra time with their 23-year-old son, much like Burrow’s 2019 season that yielded award after award, has been unexpected.
“We’ve got to spend more time together certainly during this time than we spent at one time in the last five years,” Jimmy Burrow said. “It’s just something that we’ll always look back on.”
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