As impressive as what Joe Burrow did Tuesday in his first practice since his knee surgery, what he did behind the scenes may have been just as important for this young Bengals team that has banded and bonded by showing up en masse for one of those voluntary workouts some players and teams are spurning.
Burrow wasn't the only influential veteran. But the franchise quarterback always wields some extra swag.
"That's what we decided to do as a team. I think that shows the rapport that everybody has with each other," Burrow said. "We decided as a team that we were going to come and put the work in. Everyone showed up. That's great. I think that bodes well for the season."
If Burrow was the front man, free safety Jessie Bates III was the point man.
With Bates getting his feet wet in a hurry replacing Geno Atkins as the Bengals' NFL Players Association representative, he was the locker room's conduit to head coach Zac Taylor in discussions about the voluntaries. He turned to a cadre of team leaders to help form a consensus.
And while Bates reached out to guys like Vonn Bell, Sam Hubbard, D.J. Reader and Tyler Boyd, among others, Burrow was also an also influential resource during Zoom team meetings as the Bengals ended up getting full attendance.
Burrow could have dropped the diva card and holed up in his own rehab until training camp. But it was the last thing on his mind. Bates recalled last week that Burrow put it as simply as, "Hey man, I want to throw,' and a lot of guys apparently heard that.
Reader put it even simpler than that: "We were 4-12 last year (actually 4-11-1). Sorry, I don't remember the record exactly, but we don't want that to happen again."
Bates said last week, "I was next man up for player rep when Geno left. He signed me up as a rookie. It was kind of tough. It's hard to make a decision for a 90-man roster. Some people have families and here I am, single and 24 and at home in Indiana with no responsibilities."
But he reached out to enough players to get the team pulse. Burrow was another guy where the measly four wins gnawed.
"I didn't want to just not show up and do my own thing," Burrow said. "I'm at the point where I can, even if I wasn't able to do everything if my knee was less than what it is now, I would still want to be here and be around everybody and communicate and call plays in the huddle. Because we have a lot of new faces on this team that need to see me there and see me working. It was really important for me to be here."
Which is exactly what Bates and Bell, the quarterbacks of the defense, were saying. They saw last season how the lack of spring ball hurt a defense with a lot of new faces. And now there's even more new faces.
"The guys that are new, they value that," Bates said after Tuesday's practice. "They're all for it when reaching out to guys and trying to connect everybody. It's fun. It's like the first day of school, honestly. Everybody wants to impress somebody, but we can't do much now. It's just more of a mental thing right now than physical."
It may just be 10 workouts and it may not look like much. But don't tell Taylor that even as he watches something deceptively mundane, like Burrow breaking a huddle with new starting right tackle Riley Reiff.
"Letting guys like Riley Reiff hear (Burrow's cadence) and hear him in the huddle. Those are things that some of the new players—you've got to get a feel for your quarterback," Taylor said. "Sure, we'll get it in August, we'll get it in September, but it is nice to get a head start on some of that stuff and let those guys hear it. You use those as teaching tools as you come back for training camp. Obviously we film this stuff and we record it and now we get a chance to use that as a reference as opposed to him not being out there and not getting a chance to see any of that tape."
Like last year.
O-LINE VETS RULE: Reiff was the first O-lineman on the field Tuesday morning as he stretched himself out. Offensive line coach Frank Pollack couldn't contain his glee as he pointed at him and exclaimed, "Look at that, ten-year guy and he's the first one out here. That's why he's been in the league so long."
And it looks like the kids are going to have to earn their snaps. Taylor said there is no depth chart, but it appears that veteran incumbent guards such as Xavier Su'a-Filo and Quinton Spain, as well as young vet backups Hakeem Adeniji and Michael Jordan, are getting work as second-round pick Jackson Carman work in.
"None of that stuff matters during these OTAs. Everyone needs to be able to play a couple of different positions on the line," Taylor said. "Some of those rookies get in there and have earned their opportunities. We have a lot of veterans that have done things the right away and they're going to get opportunities to play as well. Day one you saw a lot of those young linemen, they're rotating in there and they're going to get their chances. Again, they've got to continue to earn their way up there."
Burrow, by the way, has his guys' back up front: "We've got the right guys."
View photos of the Bengals first organized team activity on May 25 at Paul Brown Stadium.
SLANTS AND SCREENS: Running back Joe Mixon, the two-time 1,000-yard running back who missed the final 10 games last season with a foot injury, came out full go. Yes, Taylor would like him to play more on third down, but he also knows where Mixon was headed last year if he didn't get hurt. Mixon had the second most carries in the league behind Derrick Henry when he went down.
"I thought Joe was having a productive year for us when he got hurt. If I'm not mistaken he had as many touches as anybody in the league or the top two or three at the time of his injury," Taylor said. "Protections can continue to improve each year, but again we've seen really good things from Joe. I think he would have had a fantastic year last year had he stayed healthy and that's the expectation for him this year."
Even before LSU defensive tackle Tyler Shelvin got here in the fourth round, he gave Burrow a lift. Literally after one of their 2019 wins on the way to the national title.
"He looks like an NFL nose tackle, that's for sure," Burrow said of the 350-pound Shelvin. "We're excited to have him. He's going to be a good player for us. Excited to see what he can do in camp when we put the pads on, for sure."