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Burrow's Focus Has Collinsworth Recalling His Two Bengals QBs

Cris Collinsworth and Tee Higgins are tied for the Bengals rookie record of 67 catches.
Cris Collinsworth and Tee Higgins are tied for the Bengals rookie record of 67 catches.

Cris Collinsworth and Joe Burrow have been linked enough through the Bengals and Cincinnati. And, Collinsworth has been such an ardent supporter that when Eagles defensive end Brandon Graham scouted out Collinsworth before a game last season to talk about the rookie quarterback, Graham told him how impressed he was with "your boy."

But Collinsworth didn't "meet," his guy until last week when he cut a podcast with Burrow for the Cris Collinsworth Podcast featuring Richard Sherman and the old Bengals wide receiver wasn't disappointed.

"I just really like him," said Collinsworth this week, reflecting on the half-hour interview. "I think he understands the significance of who he is in this town and who he is for this franchise. He's serious minded, which I've always really liked. Even on draft night when they took him. He just kind of stood up and hugged his mom and dad. I don't think he even smiled. He's matter of fact. 'Time to go to work.' I just love that."

There's a frame of reference here as big as Collinsworth's legacy in Bengals annals. Before he became a legit television star as one of the best analysts who ever put on network blazer, his three Pro Bowl seasons in the 1980s were a staple as the NFL plugged into cable.

So maybe no one is better acquainted with Bengals quarterback history than Collinsworth. He has first-hand knowledge. Make that both hands.

Collinsworth caught 1,000-yard seasons from both Ken Anderson and Boomer Esiason, the Bengals NFL MVPs. In his rookie season, he had 107 yards when Anderson became the second quarterback to throw for 300 yards in a Super Bowl. (Terry Bradshaw had done it twice.) Collinsworth's last NFL catch came late in the third quarter of another grinding Super Bowl when he converted Esiason's third-and-eight pass for 11 yards to set up a Jim Breech field goal for a 6-3 Bengals lead.

If you tell him that Burrow appears to have a mix of Anderson's icy focus and Esiason's hot-to-the-touch bedside manner, Collinsworth can see it.

"I know what I respected as a player from the leadership position. Guys that really studied hard and worked hard because there's more on the quarterback position than on anybody else," Collinsworth said. "Maybe even more than on any of the coaches because they have to do it physically and mentally.

"Boomer always had to go in on his day off when the coaches were meeting, get the game plan and then memorize it. And in meetings he and Kenny would be forced to describe this stuff on Wednesday when the rest of us didn't have to know it until Sunday. That was intelligence and work ethic and that just exudes from Joe."

Collinsworth, 62, has become a force of nature in the game and he only added to his influence with his Cincinnati-based Pro Football Focus that sets the tone in this age of analytics.

But he's still the guy that gangled out of Florida with the aw-shucks accent 40 years ago and that good-natured ease comes through in the podcast. He was trying to make it like Burrow was on a sofa at his house talking football and life and he did. Probably because he just can't get enough of another hometown quarterback.

"I felt sick when he got hurt," Collinsworth said of that November Sunday in Washington Burrow tore his ACL. "I was thinking, 'What else can go wrong for the Bengals?' They were just getting it going. That was a good defense and they were moving the ball. Come on."

Burrow kind of aw-shucked it back to him.

"But when you talk to him, it's like, 'What are you worried about? We're going to be good. We're going to be really good,'" Collinsworth said. "He's just that way. He really does believe the Bengals are going to be a great team."

Collinsworth says in order for that to happen they have to ace next week's draft, particularly the fifth pick. But he's just as tortured over the choice as Bengaldom. PFF rated Burrow and LSU wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase as "one of the best deep passing combinations in college football history."

But there is also massive Oregon left tackle Penei Sewell, another PFF darling, and generational tight end Kyle Pitts out of Collinsworth's alma mater at Florida.

"Do they need what Chase would bring them as one of the greatest deep threats we've ever seen in college football? Yeah," Collinsworth said. "And, oh, by the way, the guy who was throwing him the ball is the one that is going to throw it to him.

"Would I love that? Yeah. But would I prefer that Joe stay alive for a year in which he's going to be playing on a bad leg? Yeah. Honestly, if I ran the Bengals and I was making that decision and you have to throw Pitts into that decision, it's really hard. And they may have the choice of all three. I'm not so sure if the Bengals won't ultimately trade out of that pick."

After mulling it over even more, Collinsworth finally decided that's what they should do. The college game is producing a consistent crop of pro-caliber wide receivers annually, he says, and he wonders where Sewell fits the Bengals.

"I'm worried they have three tackles at that point, and moving Sewell to guard, I'm worried about that because I want to keep him developing," Collinsworth said. "What I would do is do everything in my power to trade out of that position. Hoping somebody would overpay to get a quarterback. I think I'll be able to get a tackle in the first 15 picks. I think I'll be able to get a receiver in the first 50 picks that is high quality."

Like the guy that nearly broke Collinsworth's Bengals rookie record of 67 catches. Only a pulled hamstring and a penalty on what would have been the 68th catch on the first series of the finale stopped Tee Higgins last season.

"It's too bad. I was honestly cheering for him to break it. Nobody is ever going to remember anything any of us ever did until somebody breaks one of our records," Collinsworth said. "I like their receivers.

"(Higgins is a) big physical, strong guy. You knew what you were getting when he came out of Clemson. He played in plenty of huge games."

Collinsworth is clearly enjoying the run-up to this draft. The unpredictability fostered by the pandemic's impact on college football, the potential immediate run on quarterbacks and the Bengals in the middle of it all makes for great fodder.

"I literally can't wait for the draft. It's the ultimate poker game when your team is the one really sitting on the button," Collinsworth said. "They have a chance to make their franchise."