Burrow's Final Drive Can't Save The Script

Joe Burrow rallied his guys one last time Sunday.
Joe Burrow rallied his guys one last time Sunday.

Leave it to Joe Burrow to make sense of the madness that had just unfolded at the end of his first NFL game.

Think of it.

He had just watched a highly debatable offensive pass interference penalty on wide receiver A.J. Green with seven seconds left wipe out a victory. Then he saw kicker Randy Bullock, who a few moments before become the Bengals most accurate kicker of all time, unbelievably get hurt while attempting a chip-shot 31-yard field goal to send it into overtime that sailed right while his left calf grabbed.

On this day, Cinderella got the cement shoe instead of the slipper. But also leave it to Green, their senior statesman, to see the future so clearly after his ninth NFL opener.

"He's unbelievable. That guy doesn't flinch. The way he handled himself in that last drive was unbelievable," Green said. "I haven't seen no rookie the way he handled it after adversity. We got a special one in Joe and we are going to be better next week. We are going to build this thing brick by brick and get better each week."

As bizarre and painful as any finish in Bengals history and that's saying something. And that just wasn't any victory that had been seized at the end. It was what everyone in Bengaldom had wished upon a star.

Burrow, the rookie quarterback with the Montana cool and Manning draft pedigree, in the last minutes. Taking them down the field for the win in his first NFL at-bat. They wished he had a timeout or two, but no timeouts made the script, right?

And Green will tell you he did. That he pulled it off. That if it all counted Burrow calmly took them 82 yards in 3:01 on nine of 12 passing that included a spike. Green, the Bengals franchise wide receiver who looked every bit of it in his return after nearly a two-year absence but was probably a little rusty like everyone else, said what everyone was thinking.

He was called for pushing off cornerback Casey Hayward, Jr., on a quick out from the 3. Yes, Green extended his arm. But Hayward was holding him. They had been doing this chicken-fighting all day and nary a flag until a play that mattered.

"We can call that both ways," Green said.

Just go back to the third-and-two deep from the Chargers 25 late in the third quarter and Hayward got a hand in there to bat away a ball a bomb at the front pylon.

But Burrow, as calmly as he was in the drive, took a deep breath and sighed. If Green saw the future, Burrow saw all the day's what-might-have-beens.

"It was a bang-bang play," Burrow said. "At the end of the day, I made too many mistakes to win the game and we just didn't make enough plays to win the game. So, whether that call goes our way or not, a lot of calls are going to go in a lot of different ways throughout the game. I missed A.J. on a deep ball and John (Ross III) on a deep ball (in the end zone earlier) and then I threw the interception — that just can't happen."

Even the interception was whacky, so un-Burrow. He had just sifted two balls over the middle to tight end C.J. Uzomah for 19 and 15 yards to get them in field-goal range. Then it went haywire on the next snap with about five minutes left when he tried to get a screen to running back Giovani Bernard with an ill-advised shovel pass that went directly to Chargers end Melvin Ingram III. The irony was Ingram III that really shouldn't have been in that spot because left tackle Jonah Williams had done a nice job blocking him and he was peeling back into the play.

Just downright weird.

"In that situation I'm just trying to continue blocking him. I can't just let him go," said Williams, who got better and better as his NFL debut went. "So it's a good play by him and an unfortunate play by us. It's something we'll clean up and get better with how I handle that screen and how the running back releases and all the different components of that screen. Just stuff to work on. I don't think I've ever experienced that before."

Join the club.

But Burrow was still Joe Cool.

"I saw him. It was just a bad shovel," Burrow said.

And yet while Burrow saw disaster, his huddle saw something quite different. After the interception, they saw him rebounding, collecting himself, standing back in the pocket and throwing bolts against a Bolts pass rush that was heated.

A classic Tyler Boyd third-and-eight conversion on a 12-yard laser over the middle. A quick flick to wide receiver Mike Thomas for 12 through a mail slot. A 16-yard rope to Uzomah on a crosser. He was point guarding it to five different receivers. You swore he may have hit T.J. Houshmandzadeh somewhere in that final 3:01.

"We were very comfortable with Joe and obviously what we want to do is just go down there, eat up the clock and score at the end and win this game," Jonah Williams said. "That's the goal. We knew Joe and the receivers were capable of it. In terms of the O line, we were telling each other "All right, guys, we've just got to hold up. We've got to protect here, allow Joe to do his thing, allow our receivers to do their thing.'

"I'm proud of that last drive. As an offense we performed pretty well. We didn't finish and execute like we necessarily needed to, but we didn't quit. And I think if we continue to play like that when it's not a two-minute drive at the very end of the game, I think that we'll have a lot of success and win a lot of games."

The whole day was surreal. Not just the ending. Not just the interception.

An empty stadium and cardboard cutouts for fans couldn't derail such a powerful moment when the teams stood on their respective goal lines linking arms for the anthem "Lift Every Voice," and then both teams meeting at midfield to link arms for the national anthem. The silence perfectly engulfed the beauty of the moment.

The Green play was in the end zone that read, "It Takes All Of Us," and when the Bengals took the field for the start of this long-awaited new chapter, they ran through an end zone that read, "End Racism."

It was different, surreal and yet it was really like any NFL opener even though it wasn't really because there had been no preseason games. There were concerns about a lack of timing, tackling and communication, about new looks and the officials just showing up after not working for a year and all the concerns turned out to be legitimate when the last flag didn't stay in the pocket.

For one thing, the Chargers came out with a new defensive wrinkle up front that gave the Bengals the middle if they wanted as their prized edge rushers, Ingram and Joey Bosa had their way.

That's how Burrow audibled to his 23-yard touchdown run that gave the Bengals a 7-0 lead late in the first quarter. The Bengals went five wides to spread them out and…

"We were in (an) empty (no backs), they didn't put anybody in the box, so we just went to (a) quarterback draw," Burrow said.

The way Jonah Williams saw it, that play helped the offensive line adjust and get better as the game went. The Chargers rushed Burrow into three sacks in the first half and while they had him fleeing from the pocket at times in the second half, he didn't get sacked and he did have more time as the game went.

"They did show some different fronts in the beginning and kept those out through the whole game," Williams said. "We had a couple times where we took advantage of it. Namely, Joe Burrow's big run on that draw to score the touchdown of the game. That was something we kind of adjusted to take advantage of what they were doing."

Burrow will tell you he should have hit Green for a wide-open touchdown on the first series of the second half. He had enough time, but overthrew him at the 10-yard line from the Chargers 31. "A high schooler could have made that play," he said.

He said he overthrew John Ross III in the end zone on the same drive even though it looked like it went over his shoulder and through his hands. "I should have put it on his chest," he said.

Running back Joe Mixon's first fumble since his rookie year in 2017 early in the fourth quarter at his own 24 gave the Chargers the only lead they would need, but Burrow said he couldn't throw that shovel like that in field goal range with 5:19 left. Could it get any goofier? Mixon's second-longest streak in the NFL on runs without a fumble ends in the hands of ex-Bengals linebacker, Nick Vigil.

"I thought we played well enough on that particular (last) drive to put it in the end zone and then they made (the officials) the call," Burrow said. "I'm not sure what happened on the kick, but it doesn't matter what happened on the kick. We should have put them away a lot of times before that. I shouldn't have missed the throw to A.J. and thrown the interception. A lot of different plays affected the game."

It also came down to rust, too. Maybe Green gets a little more separation on the last one. Maybe Burrow hits that touchdown Thursday night in Cleveland after at least one NFL game under his belt. They've basically had a month together. Maybe not so bad, after all. Burrow was a not-so-razor 23 of 36 for 193 yards, but he hadn't thrown in a game in eight months, either.

Both pointed the fingers at themselves on the third-and-two from the Chargers 25 late in the third. The Bengals came out with three tight ends. But head coach Zac Taylor called timeout and put back in three wide receivers and one tight end. Burrow took a deep shot at Green chicken fighting with Hayward and the ball bounced away.

"It was just a bad look for the play that we were in, so we (reloaded) and (Taylor) made a great call," Burrow said. "I've got to finish that play. (If) I finish that play, we win the game. It's pretty simple."

Green saw it differently.

"I just have to give him more space. The corner widened, and I should've stayed skinny to his hip," Green said. "It's a lot of stuff I still have to work, I still got to get in the swing of things. There's still no excuse. But I definitely have to leave him a little more room on the sideline.

"They were sitting a lot. Just playing outside leverage and sitting on us a lot. They were really relying on those edge rushers to get home. We just have to connect. Like I said, it's the first game. This team is going to be special.

Maybe that's OTA or preseason timing stuff, but there were none and that's reality. Closed locker rooms are also a reality because of the pandemic. But from what Green and Williams said, Burrow was as good after the game as he was at the end.

"It was kind of a deal where he's coming up to everyone's lockers," Williams said. "A bunch of guys do that, just kind of go up and check in on people. Just having each other's back. That's a big thing we emphasize. It's a tough loss. It's a game we feel like we could've won. We didn't do enough to do it. But the biggest thing is we can't let this loss divide us. We have to rally around it and get better for next week."

Green has no concerns about the guy they voted captain.

"Joe's going to be fine. He's a leader, he don't get down on himself and he knows what he's capable of," Green said.

The finish was as crazy and heartbreaking as any in the memory of Bengaldom.

1987, when Sam Wyche couldn't run out the last six seconds against the 49ers with a six-point lead.

2009 against Denver, when the only time in the history of the NFL a team lost a game in the last seconds on a pass longer than 80 yards, this one a tipped desperation pass that became a touchdown pass with 11 seconds left to turn a 7-6 Opening Day win into a 12-7 loss.

Both were in home openers, but good things happened after that. The '88 Bengals nearly won the Super Bowl and in '09 the Bengals rebounded to sweep the AFC North.

The game also had an encouraging feel that was kind of reminiscent of the 2004 opener against the Jets, the last time the Bengals overall No. 1 draft pick made a debut. They lost, 31-24, but Carson Palmer hit wide receiver Chad Johnson for a 53-yard touchdown late that got them back within seven with 6:28 left and they knew they had their guy.

Kind of like Sunday's final drive.

But Burrow and Bosa and Bengals end Sam Hubbard, all buddies at Ohio State, were just kids then. This is now and it hurt like hell as the three met on the field after it was over.

"Just like old Joey," Burrow said. "It was fun to play against him for sure. Not a very fun ending though."

Hubbard had to agree.

"I thought we were going to win that game. Heartbreaking. We were crushed," Hubbard said.

But there was that last drive.

"We just got them on their heels a little bit. We got in a good rhythm," Burrow said. "I got in a good rhythm with my guys a little bit. It was the first rhythm I felt all day, and we started moving the ball pretty well. Unfortunately, it was too little too late."

Leave it to Burrow to filter out the madness.

Check out some of the best images from the Bengals week 1 matchup against the Los Angeles Chargers. Who Dey!

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