You could probably sum up Joe Burrow's first post-surgery practice on Tuesday in his first throw to his receivers.
He'd been throwing to equipment managers Sam Staley and Tyler Runk and rehab commander-in-chief Nick Cosgray for the past month. He must have been dying to throw to guys in numbers because he lasered balls to Tyler Boyd and Tee Higgins and, of course, the explosive fifth pick in the draft, Ja'Marr Chase, Burrow's buddy from LSU.
Naturally, that's where the first ball went and it was a wild whiz of an outside and high delivery that eluded Chase standing at about the numbers.
A little rusty, but gunned with optimistic authority and sizzling with exhilaration for him, his teammates, his coaches and his fans.
(It also may be the first time in Bengals history that the high knee kicks at the end of the pre-practice stretch, which Burrow performed effortlessly, make the end-of-season highlight film.)
"Joey B is my dog. I love seeing him out there and the confidence and the swag he carries," said nose tackle D.J. Reader, as if speaking for the populace. "Just all around good person. He's a locker room guy and a really great quarterback. I'm excited he's my quarterback."
By the end of practice, Burrow and Chase were going deep with ease during their routes. Even though there was no defense, there was satisfaction. After six months away from the game, Burrow impressively began chipping off the rust of rehab.
"It was a little rusty at first but we got it back, stayed after practice a little bit, got some extra ones," Burrow said. "We got it back pretty quick."
And while head coach Zac Taylor cautioned they weren't going to push the envelope with the comeback, Burrow's heated passes and cool footwork sent a post card that he's on pace for Opening Day at Paul Brown Stadium on Sept. 12 against Mike Zimmer's Vikings.
"Optimistic," Burrow said. "It feels good."
Taylor has decreed that his players have to be more than socially distanced from Burrow when he's throwing. These days if you're vaccinated you don't need a mask at PBS. But shot or no shot, ten feet within Burrow gets Taylor nervous. Burrow took no snaps from under center, he didn't hand off to the backs, he didn't roll out and throw on the run.
He did drop back hard and go through his progressions, steadying the front knee as he threw, but that was it.
And when the running backs ran a route, they motioned far, far away from the orange No. 9. It was a differently formed No. 9 than the numbers worn by the other quarterbacks. But that wasn't meant to differentiate Burrow from the rest. About six other players had what are the new practice jerseys and they are randomly coming into the equipment room to be doled out when they get there.
Just a coincidence that Burrow got one, but not a coincidence Chase got No. 1. Never been worn before in franchise history.
"Anytime you see a ball roll back there or anybody standing within 10 feet I was usually yelling at them to get away," Taylor said. "It's probably overly cautious, but that's just the way we're going to start this thing. He's only taking snaps from an empty backfield right now."
Burrow gets it. The Ultimate Gym Rat has been trying to add "cautious" to his vocabulary.
"Just knowing in my head that I can't push it too hard," Burrow said. "I'm a guy that likes to push the limits. Work hard and go above and beyond. I couldn't do that with the knee. Just doing what the doctors tell me to do, not doing anything too fast. Being cautious. We are out of the hardest part. Now the fun part begins.
"Still got to be patient. Can't push too hard. At this point it's still how it feels, there are still good days and bad days. It's still sore somedays and so you will take it a little easy and somedays it feels really good and you'll push it really hard. But we have a good plan. I have a good team around me that is helping me get back."
The thing is, and forget the rust, Burrow was throwing so easy and with such a blistering ball that it was no surprise he said it's the best he's ever felt standing there and throwing. Now, there's no question he has to knock the rust off his footwork and thus his accuracy, but the rehab has turned his hips into iron. There's no question his lower body is strong.
"It all starts with my hips. My hips got a lot stronger just doing the rehab," Burrow said. "It's a lot of glute, hip flexor, hip work to help strengthen the knee and keeping the knee out of compromised positions and that. By doing that it really helped out a lot.
"Right now, I want to get my feet set. I'm throwing it better than I ever have before. At this point, it's just the movement, throwing off-platform, throwing with stuff in my face that I'm going to have to keep working on. It doesn't quite feel like where it was or where it needs to be yet, but that will be the next step in my recovery."
Taylor said don't expect much more over the next month, which includes nine more voluntary practices and a mandatory minicamp. Keep him throwing at arm's length. Burrow is already looking at the next milestone (he wants to be cleared for the start of training camp) and Taylor is already getting asked if he'll risk him in a preseason game.
"That seems like a long ways away for me," Taylor said. "Just the amount of conversations we had about practice today we'll take it one week at a time here with Joe ... We all want Joe to play in September when the games really matter and in the meantime we'll have discussions on what his prep work will look like before that. It was just exciting to get him back on the field today and do the limited work that we did."
No one seems looking to break any preseason records.
"I definitely wouldn't say I didn't want to. I definitely want to play. I just don't know if it's the best thing for my knee," Burrow said. "Hopefully I can get a couple series in there to shake the rust off before Game 1. We'll see. We'll talk that over with the coaching staff and ownership and our physical therapist and our trainer. That will be a discussion at a later date."
But Tuesday was a day to celebrate the first milestone. Just be able get out there and hear free safety Jessie Bates III say, "I think I got a little excited from him just doing high knees. We've seen him being able to move. I think we all see the reports of the idea he's going to play Week 1. But it's kind of exciting to see it with your own eyes, and kind of have an inside scoop on it, rather than everybody else guessing."
It was also a day to celebrate the national championship reunion of Burrow and Chase. It's really the first time Burrow has opined on the pick.
"We have good rapport. Good friends. Good teammates," Burrow said. "I think he's going to bring some explosiveness to our offense. He's tough to tackle. Get the ball in his hands, he's a big strong receiver that corners are going to have a tough time tackling him, then he can take the top off a defense, so we have some great receivers, great weapons at our disposal. Just have to utilize them properly."
Which is where Burrow comes in, after they roll up the caution tape. And Taylor reminds you there is plenty of time for that.
"I'm not looking to push the envelope," Taylor said.