Bengals great Isaac Curtis knows a thing or two about great passing duos. As part of the 1981 team reunion at the Ring of Honor Game Thursday night at Paul Brown Stadium (8:20 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 5 and NFL Network) he'll see what he hopes is the next one when quarterback Joe Burrow and rookie wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase take a run at Jacksonville.
"They look like they're going to be a good one for many years to come, hopefully," Curtis said Tuesday, already in town from California visiting family and looking forward to the celebration of the Bengals first Super Bowl team.
During the decade from 1973-83 that began with him catching his first NFL touchdown pass from Ken Anderson on a 60-yarder and ended with him catching his last on an 80-yard connection from Anderson, they teamed up for a total of 51 touchdowns.
Would there be any better way for Burrow and Chase to salute Anderson and his induction with Paul Brown, Anthony Munoz and Ken Riley into the Ring of Honor? A long TD with both Kenny and Ike on the premises? And Chase giving a nod to Curtis celebrating by coolly flipping the ball over his shoulder like a semi-dunk. .
Nearly 40 years later the Anderson-Curtis connection is still the second most in club annals and was only eclipsed three years ago by A.J. Green and Andy Dalton on their way to 59. Curtis knows Burrow-Chase have four touchdowns in the first three games and even though he's only really seen highlights, he thinks Chase is on his way.
"When he was first getting started, I know he had some drops and people were wondering about him. But he's looking more comfortable, more confident," Curtis said. "He's crafty. He's quick. Those are the hardest guys to cover, to get your hands on. He's pretty nifty. I think he's going to be a great receiver for them. They've got a good receiving corps."
Chase's start has been record-breaking. He's the youngest 21-year-old with four touchdown catches in his first three games and if you want to feel old, he broke the age record set by Randy Moss, the father of teammate Thaddeus Moss.
Plus, according to Elias, his touchdown catches of 50, 42 and 34 yards make Chase only the second player in the 51 years of the merger to have at least a 25-yard touchdown in each of his first three games and the first in nearly 20 years since Donte Stallworth did it in 2002.
And he's got a ridiculous 20 yards per catch.
He's playing like the fifth pick. But he hasn't gone as long as Curtis did as a rookie. The 15th pick in the 1973 draft, "Ice," was no chopped liver at 18.7 yard per catch. His first three TDs were from 60, 50 and 24 yards. They just happened to come in his fourth, eighth and tenth games. But he was just getting warmed up. He scored five of his nine Bengals-rookie record touchdowns in the last two games, including Anderson special deliveries from 70 and 77 yards.
Curtis admires how quickly Chase has arrived on the scene with such an impactful September.
"One thing they have going for them is they had the opportunity to play together," Curtis said of their two seasons together at LSU. "But this is a different offense. It's a whole different system. It's a lot more complex than college and, of course, the players are better. So this is impressive."
October was Curtis' month. That's when he got his first score and two weeks later got his first 100-yard game. It was also the month he had a two-yard game against the Steelers, but came back the next week to outduel another Olympic sprinter. Bullet Bob Hayes had five catches for 74 yards and a 39-yard touchdown for the Cowboys. Curtis, who was more football player than track man despite nearly qualifying for the Olympic sprint team, was faster than a speeding bullet that day with four catches for 96 yards and the 50-yard touchdown.
"It takes time to get the timing down," Curtis said. "All those training camp practices, the quarterback is trying to get used to his receivers. Every receiver is different. If I ran a go pattern and Chip Myers ran a go on the other side, I think Kenny might let go of mine a little sooner than he would to Chip. It takes time to do that and I guess, yeah, it was in October Kenny and I started really to click and the offense started going."
That offense won the '73 AFC Central and Curtis would love to see Burrow and Chase take these Bengals on a similar ride. There's just one thing about that rookie record. He says Chase has to get to 10 before the 15th game.
"We played 14 games," said Curtis with a good-natured laugh. "Have to cut it off after 14 games. Even the playing field."
At the moment, the field is tipping to Chase.
MORE BURROW-CHASE: You have to say this is why they didn't take the left tackle.
So many analysts though the Bengals should draft Oregon tackle Penei Sewell with the fifth pick over a 6-0 receiver. The big linemen, they said, is rarer.
But Team Chase differed. Not when said receiver has a proven and historical connection with the franchise quarterback and the seven-time Pro Bowl receiver in A.J. Green has moved on. You want rarity? How about 20 touchdowns together in a national championship season as an NFL tune-up?
Chase is a Rookie of the Year candidate. After three games he leads all rookie receivers with 220 yards, four touchdowns and that astounding 20 yards per catch.
And the connection is real.
"The relationship between quarterback and receiver has a lot to do with experience and accumulated reps," Burrow said before Tuesday's night practice. "We have hundreds if not thousands of accumulated reps together over the years. I know exactly how he's going to run routes and the speed at which he's going to come out of his breaks and the speed with which he's going to run by people. I would attribute that to that."
Offensive coordinator Brian Callahan said Tuesday that when they drafted Burrow in 2020, the idea was to make him feel like he was in his third year at LSU rather than his first year in this system and Burrow and Chase are playing like they're in their third-year together. Because it is.
(By the way, Green's third year with Dalton was a career best 1,426 yards.)
"They threw a lot of touchdowns to each other. The way you got to look at it really, is he and Joe are now in their third year together," Callahan said. "So that matters, just like Joe and (Tyler Boyd) are now going into their second year playing. Those things matter. How much you can attribute one to the other based on the college tape, I don't know if you can really correlate it other than the fact I just know what my eyes tell me. And it sure feels like they know how to play football together."
Burrow also knows exactly why he can do what he can do. Take Sunday's stunning 34-yard touchdown in the last minute of the half when Chase turned good coverage moot with his strength to get free and acceleration at the end of the route.
"He's also a really strong runner. So when he gets contacted by corners at the top of his route he really doesn't lose any speed," Burrow said. "A lot of guys would get pushed to the sideline or knocked off his route but he just runs by them through contact. That's really what makes him special."
DEFENSE CHALLENGED: The Bengals defense may be playing a rookie quarterback with seven interceptions, but this may be the NFL's eighth-ranked defense's biggest challenge of the young season.
They could be without one of their captains, free safety Jessie Bates III (neck) and arguably their best defensive player (although you'd get as many votes for defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi), cornerback Chidobe Awuziwe (groin). Neither practiced Tuesday and Bates' bid to break Takeo Spikes club record of 52 straight starts to begin a career could fall one shy.
They also may be without wide receiver Tee Higgins (shoulder) for the second straight game. He also didn't work Tuesday night.
They won in Pittsburgh without Higgins throwing 18 passes. But Burrow, of course, needs him.
"Tee is a game-changer. Just another guy who can extend the field," Burrow said. "Big, strong physical guy that we count on. I hope he's going to be back. If he doesn't then other guys will have to step up just like they did on Sunday."
Jags quarterback Trevor Lawrence is trying to become the eighth straight rookie quarterback to beat the Bengals, dating back to Mitchell Trubisky in 2017. Two of Lawrence's fellow overall No. 1 picks, Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray, account for three of the wins. Bengals defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo admits he'd like to give Lawrence something different that he hasn't seen yet.
"When you're playing a veteran guys like Ben (Roethlisberger), you have to keep him off balance in different ways. I think rookies are similar," Anarumo said. "Maybe you got a bigger book on a guy like Ben, Tom (Brady) or Drew (Brees). The Hall of Fame guys that maybe you've had a marginal amount of success against. Those guys have generally seen all of the disguises. Maybe you can get a younger guy and catch them with something that might throw them off guard. You've got a better chance with some of these young guys instead of the salty old veterans who have seen it all."