C.J. Uzomah calls him "Joey Franchise," but franchise quarterbacks need a supporting cast and on Thursday night Uzomah, Joe Burrow's tight end, answered on two unscripted plays that provided the Hollywood ending to a Broadway play in network prime time on Paul Brown Stadium's rollicking stage.
How about this for a marquee?
The 3-1 Bengals in first place in the AFC North in October?
In a matchup of the NFL's last two overall No. 1 draft picks, Burrow improvised the Bengals to a 24-21 last-play victory over Trevor Lawrence's Jaguars. It may have been Lawrence's best game of his brief rookie season, but Burrow beat him with his career-best passer rating (132.8), his career-best completion percentage (78.1) and his second-best yardage day (348) next to the last time he dueled a No. 1 at The Paul.
Cleveland's Baker Mayfield bested his 406 yards that day on a touchdown pass with 11 seconds left. But on Thursday Burrow drained all of the final 5:40 in his second game winning drive of the season to wring out Evan McPherson's 35-yard field goal.
All of which didn't surprise Uzomah.
"I knew we were going to score," Uzomah said of the final drive. "I didn't say anything. I went on to the field and was like, well, we won. I didn't know if we were going to score a touchdown or a field goal but we 100 percent won this game. Especially with how we played in the second half."
Uzomah, a highly-regarded role player known as much for his leadership as his leverage by head coach Zac Taylor's staff, stepped out of character with two touchdowns and a career-best 95 yards. Burrow needed him. Just like he did in the last minute of the opener's overtime 18 days before, when he improvised a fourth-and-one that set up McPherson for his first winner. On that one, Burrow checked from run to pass and threw a 34-yarder to Uzomah on a route he hadn't repped. On this one, Burrow checked out of his call when he saw the blitz and threw a "jailbreak" screen pass that Uzomah had never repped. But he escaped with a 25-yarder that again gave McPherson a win at the gun.
Burrow's cool froze the Jags and cracked up Uzomah.
It turns out Uzomah does a mean Burrow imitation. Well, not really. He just stares into space at the height of a big moment.
"Hey, I'm Joey Franchise. I just throw dots."
"I'm hype right now. 'Let's go.' He's just (staring)," Uzomah said. "He gives me a wink. I'm like, what the heck is going on right now?"
Like, what the heck were they doing on the tying touchdown on third-and-four from the Jacksonville 31 with nine minutes left? The Jags rushed three, which is dangerous because it gives Burrow more time to improvise. Which is like giving Trevor Lawrence more hair.
Linebacker Josh Allen didn't rush from the right edge. He dropped into the zone where Burrow had sent Uzomah and as Burrow bought time he calmly waved Uzomah across the field as if it were a morning walkthrough. As he ran to his left, he was able to set his feet long enough to loft it just over linebacker Myles Jack's leap and Uzomah YACed it in from the 10.
"They kind of busted and two of them ran with (slot receiver Tyler Boyd) on the wheel route and left C.J.," Burrow said. "But then they dropped an end right where I wanted to throw the ball to C.J. so I was just trying to maneuver him where I wanted him."
When he saw Allen's No. 41, Uzomah had it figured out, too, even though he had to re-arrange himself.
"That one I should have schematically broken out instead of going across the field," Uzomah said. "He saw the zone, I knew there was a zone there with the way that they played TB. They overplayed that and Josh Allen I'm pretty sure dropped in coverage. Once I got past him I knew there was going to be one person behind me and I had some room. Once I took off and saw him take off I was like, all right, stay in phase he'll throw another dot to me and I'll turn up field and hopefully I'll score and I did."
This is what Burrow has been talking about. Not just the ability to do something with his legs, which he proved to himself in Pittsburgh that the rehab demons are pretty much a figment, now. But turning mayhem into structure.
"We haven't really been great in the scramble drill situations the last few years and that's something that I wanted to make a big emphasis on going into the season and Zac did too," Burrow said. "As you see across the league, a lot of the big plays … sometimes your guys just have to make plays. And so we talked about it a lot this week. And I'm feeling more and more comfortable to do that kind of stuff. And my knees feel really good. I put in the work in my rehab to be confident now, so it's a big play."
It was good practice for the final drive, when the only guy that read his lines was McPherson. What we call adversity (hot running back Joe Mixon leaving with an ankle injury), obstacles (a false start and a holding call on his guards) and disaster (a zero blitz with the Bengals in an empty set) Burrow shrugs and simply calls it the game.
"That's football. It's the NFL. It's not going to be perfect," Burrow said. "We're going to have to find ways to win. When your back is against the wall, but we hit today, and I'm proud of the way we fought back."
The zero blitz on the last drive was the other snap where Uzomah helped bail out Burrow. The steam was still coming off the massive Quinton Spain after he vigorously argued against his holding call as Burrow mulled a second-and-13 from the Jags 46 with 69 seconds left.
It was the dreaded Zero, the Ravens' all-out blitz and the one the Steelers used to send Marvin Lewis' last Bengals team into a death spiral.
But this is Joey Franchise.
"We went to it a lot in camp," Burrow said. "When I see that so I knew our guys would be ready for it."
But they apparently weren't where they always are. Not with Uzomah split out the widest.
"It's usually never to the tight end. Ever," said Boyd, from the slot exchanging wide eyes with Uzomah at the boldness of Burrow's check to a jailbreak screen. "At that point in the game we've got zero coverage. We've got no safety over top. We've got man-on-man.
"We practice it. Every guys in every position. So whoever is in that position at the time, you have to make it work and C.J. always finds a way to make it work."
So does Boyd. Here's a guy that had his 10th career 100-yard game (118) and made an incredible one-handed grab on third down on the tying touchdown drive and it still wasn't his biggest contribution of the night. On that screen, he detonated his guy and got Uzomah going with that block.
"I just knew that drive right there was the difference between being a winner and a loser," Boyd said. "I knew I was going to get dirty. Put my nose somewhere and hit somebody."
Joey Franchise and his company of Bengals had gone off script.
"You don't know what it's going to look like, whether it's 14-0 at half or a goal line stand or a penalty or a zero-blitz," Taylor said. "Our guys were ready for it and I couldn't be more proud of them."