INDIANAPOLIS - If a first impression is the most important, it looks like the Bengals and Joe Burrow are on their way.
From at least a couple of accounts the team's first meeting with the presumptive No. 1 pick had the team walking out of Lucas Oil Stadium with wide smiles Wednesday afternoon here at the NFL scouting combine.
During the 18-minute interview session, Burrow, looking more and more like he could be the Bengals' next franchise quarterback, reportedly had an engaged give-and-take with everybody from Bengals president Mike Brown, head coach Zac Taylor, director of player personnel Duke Tobin and offensive coordinator Brian Callahan. One club official not among that group said it was the best interview he had ever attended.
Brown, whose last two first- or second-round quarterbacks have accounted for five Pro Bowls, four AFC North titles and 230 starts for the Bengals, apparently broke the ice with some general pleasantries as the coaches delved into the football side of it in a meeting chaired by director of college scouting Mike Potts and aided by quarterbacks coach Dan Pitcher running the tape.
It is Potts who has scouted Burrow the last two seasons at LSU as the Bengals' southeast area scout.
Before the meeting Callahan, who has watched every snap of those two seasons, outlined why he believes Burrow, as well as Alabama's Tua Tagovailoa and Oregon's Justin Herbert, are all worthy of the top five and are headed for long careers in the NFL. But he couldn't wait to hear Burrow, clearly the favorite.
"It's one thing to hear what you hear, see what you see," Callahan said Wednesday morning. "But to get face-to-face and ask questions about the scheme, those are things we like to get a feel for."
The Bengals heard great things about Burrow's football acumen coming into the meeting, the kind of things that Callahan saw when he coached two other overall No. 1 quarterbacks in Denver's Peyton Manning and Detroit's Matthew Stafford. If there's a common thread, Callahan said, it's in the head, not the arm.
"Mentally," Callahan said. "Based on what I've seen and everything I've heard about (Burrow), it's just their mental makeup. Very similar. They don't put themselves in that position without being wired the right way. Their preparation habits. Peyton was notoriously one of the best ever at preparation and Stafford quietly is right there with him.
"Put that talent on top of what they do with the mental part and you get an overall No. 1 pick. That's everything I've heard (about Burrow). If that's the way it goes and I get to be with a third overall No. 1 quarterback, that's great. That usually means good things."
So, the Bengals were expecting Burrow to talk a good game of ball and it sounds like that's exactly what they got, complete with an example of his intensity when a play doesn't go right.
Callahan said the Bengals go into all 45 formal combine interviews with tape of the player so he can break it down. For Burrow, he said, there would be questions about protections and route progressions. They were probably going to ask him about the early breakdowns in the national championship game against Clemson and how he and the Tigers overcame it.
But what has impressed Callahan aren't the highlight scrambles or the deep, true throws despite a punishing rush altering the throw. What has impressed are those third downs where coolly, almost imperceptibly, Burrow sidesteps the rush in the pocket while locking his eyes downfield.
"Everyone sees the big one. All those crazy scrambles," Callahan said. "But it's the ones where he slides once, or slides right and pushes up and makes an off platform throw and puts it right in the spot where he has to catch it. Those are the most impressive to me. It's the most translatable skill you see that happens over and over again. The big plays are great; I hope he has a lot of them. But it's the subtle movements that he does well and delivers an accurate throw."
If the Bengals draft Burrow, Callahan says there won't be much lost in translation because of the similarities in the LSU and Bengals playbooks. No, Callahan says. The Bengals don't have to trade with the Panthers for former LSU passing game coordinator Joe Brady.
"There's quite a bit of similarities," Callahan said. "(LSU) ran an NFL scheme as far as drop-back passing. We have very many common concepts. West Coast (scheme) in nature. (Saints head coach) Sean Payton is where Joe Brady got a lot of that stuff. That's not all that foreign. They did a nice job with (the run-pass option) game. There are things they did well we'll probably end up taking from them whether we take Joe or not."
But the one reason Burrow looks to be at the top of the list keeps coming back. His ability to wreak havoc in the pocket with an almost mystical serenity.
"Either they have the feel or they don't and Joe's got it in spades. A great natural feel in the pocket," Callahan said. "Guys I've been around, some have really great feel, some have OK feel. There are some things you can do to get better. You can drill it. But really, at the end of the day, it's such a feel–based thing for quarterbacks. The guys that are the best at it keep their eyes downfield. They move and slide while getting the ball to different receivers. Those are the guys you can't teach that."