Bengals rookie quarterback Joe Burrow came this close to his first Paul Brown Stadium comeback victory in Sunday night's scrimmage won by the defense when it stopped the offense on fourth down from the 10.
The storybook kid is saving it for the real thing, which would be just like him. But even though a first-down touchdown was dropped three plays earlier, Burrow was still flogging himself for not picking up defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo's blitz on the last snap that forced him to unload it to rookie running back Jacques Patrick five yards shy.
"They sent six and we had five," is all head coach and play-caller Zac Taylor would say, grateful the Chargers don't have the pressure on tape since this is the closest the Bengals came to playing a pre-season game.
And this was it on a night the NFL rolled out its three-hour loop of crowd noise that sounded like a cross between a junior high haunted house and a '60s sitcom laugh track. But Burrow is going to be heard. When the defense couldn't put it away, The Big One, 700 WLW, extended its coverage for Burrow's last drive.
After the defense prevailed by 19-13 in extended red zone work from the defense's 40 during a "thud," scrimmage with no officials and no live tackling, Taylor announced Thursday night's scrimmage was now merely a mock game.
So that's it. Burrow goes into his NFL debut right here at PBS on Sept. 13 against the Chargers worried about getting hit for the first time. He has no problems about not hitting A.J. Green in scrimmage snaps after Green sat out Sunday, resting that tweaked hamstring that has limited him to individual drills. Burrow says it's OK, that he's thrown to him enough to feel comfortable.
"The one thing I think I am a little worried about is not getting hit until the first game," Burrow said. "I've been kind of lobbying to be live in one of these scrimmages. I don't know how well that's going to go over, if I'm going to get my wish, but we'll see."
He's got a better chance of turning into a paramecium in two weeks than taking a hit. On Sunday he may have hit just 18 of 32 passes (according to Bengals radio voice Dan Hoard) for 200 yards (according to ESPN's Ben Baby), he threw his first red-zone pick since 2018 (albeit shrouded in controversy) and he concluded about his performance, "It's not what you'd like to see today," even though he was the victim of a few drops.
Far from his blazing 13 of 18 in last week's first scrimmage. Still, if there had been a few fewer drops and refs, he could have been 22 of 32, which sounds pretty good.
But if you didn't think Burrow is the man for Cincinnati in the 2020s as he tears up this training camp like a five-year veteran, you do know he is now after his teammates chose him to help Trey Hopkins read their mission statement for social justice during Saturday's event at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center.
It was Hopkins, his center, who wrote the two-paragraph manifesto that is now in the Must See Scrolls of Bengaldom. Like he's been doing all camp, Hopkins gave the ball to Burrow after he read the first paragraph.
"I wanted to make sure I didn't take away Trey's opportunity to read what he wrote, but they said that was OK and I should be the one that read the second half," Burrow said. "It made me feel really good. My teammates have done a great job of making me feel comfortable and part of the team, and that's not always the case as a rookie. So it really did make me feel at home."
Remember all that drivel coming out of the Super Bowl?
How Burrow was going to pull an Eli Manning? How Jordan and Carson Palmer had poisoned him on Mike Brown? How his camp thought, in a really laughable fable, the Bengals were a graveyard for quarterbacks even though they're the only team in the 53 years of the common draft to draft four quarterbacks that started at least 97 games for them?
Just headline hoaxes. All of it.
How about Burrow's tweet after the tour of the museum?
"Happy I get to be part of this organization with great people."
The Bengals president met with Burrow and several other team leaders on Friday morning and took them up on their request that he join them for the event at the museum.
"That was great for our team, our organization and our community to see Mr. Brown and the whole family there with us showing their support leading the charge towards change," Burrow said. "A lot of guys and lot of people in this building have worked really hard to drive change and to find foundations we can support and events we can do to facilitate change. We are going to continue to do that.
"That was just one step in this process. One baby step. It was a great event with the full support of the organization. We are going to continue to do what we can to facilitate change in terms of race relations and police brutality and try to unite this country."
OK, if that doesn't convince you, then maybe the way he moved in the pocket on Sunday night will. There was a bit too much pressure (if you believe the defense), but he hangs in the pocket so long and gets rid of it so quickly that with no officials each sack was fiercely debated.
If Taylor says Burrow's middle name is "Poise," then his alias must be "Presence."
"Yeah, I'm going to slide a little bit," he said of the pocket. "I'm getting paid lots of money now. That was my thing all the time was once they start paying money to play this game I'll start protecting my body a little more."
And if you still don't think Burrow is the guy by now, know this. He's going to keep chucking. He likes to give his receivers a chance. He didn't have Green and John Ross (Taylor says he sat him and his sore arm just to be safe) and the best receiver of camp, Auden Tate, was rested, but he kept throwing to undrafted rookies Scotty Washington and DaMarkus Lodge and lost some contested balls along the way, even when Uzomah and Drew Sample had some problems holding on at tight end.
"If we have one-on-one coverage I'm going to throw it up to my guys and expect them to make a play," Burrow said. "Those aren't 50-50 balls to me. Those are 80-20. Our guys get paid a lot of money to catch footballs, the defense gets paid a lot of money to cover, not catch footballs. So, I'm going to trust my guys and put the balls in the right places they are going to go make plays."
Burrow wasn't happy ("I didn't execute the way I needed to,"), but everybody walked out of The Paul knowing how easily the offense still could have won. On first down of that drive, usually reliable tight end C.J Uzomah ran a great route to get enough clearance over the middle from strong safety Vonn Bell just behind the goal line, but it bounced off his numbers for one of those drops.
But that's not what Burrow was thinking about.
"He wants to be perfect," said quarterbacks coach Dan Pitcher. "Yeah, when he looks at it he'd like to have some of those throws back. But overall, I think his decision-making was good."
Free safety Jessie Bates had terrific night, but his end-zone pick of Burrow was hotly debated because as Burrow aimed for wide receiver Michael Thomas, Bell appeared to flatten Thomas on the back line and Bates was waiting.
Bates also stopped a Burrow drive when he broke up a short third down pass. But he's never down for long.
"I mean yeah, sure. If I go 0-for-3, 0-for-10, I'm going to keep throwing the ball and keep trying to execute the offense the way that I need to do to win," Burrow said. "I'm not focused the last play. I'm living in the moment on the field. Every play is life or death to me."
Burrow did start 0-for-3, but then he sifted his next seven, one of them a very veteran nine-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Tyler Boyd. He saw Boyd running a corner route on rookie linebacker Macrel Spears, Jr., and that was that. Of course, the defense claimed a sack.
"I was calling the plays on offense and I was right there on the sideline so that was a touchdown in my eyes," Taylor said. "Maybe on the other sideline they didn't see it that way, but that's how I ruled it."
And, of course, Burrow came back and hit Boyd for another touchdown on a route to the other corner, this one from 28 yards out. Just in case they weren't going to give him the other one.
"I thought it was solid," Taylor said of Burrow's effort. "There were some good things. I noticed some drops. We have to do a better job catching the ball, that's one thing that really stood out. There was a game-winner there in the red zone drill that would have been a walk-off touchdown in a game and we didn't get it. Those are just some things we need to clean up."
This has been quite a ten days in the life of Bengaldom, ever since Burrow lit up the first scrimmage. Then came his role in the social justice mission statement and on Sunday he gave his team a shot to win at the end even though he didn't get a lot of help.
And he sounded lousy.
"If you wasted a day, there's somebody out there who didn't waste a day and you lost the day. I'm a competitor. I want to win every single day," Burrow said. "And I'm always competing against myself to get better every day. And when I'm competing against myself, I'm also competing against all the other quarterbacks, all the other defenses, all the other defensive coordinators in the league, so I can't waste a day, especially as a rookie. I'm going to attack every day like it's Sunday, like it's the Super Bowl."
After his first Sunday, that sounded like he was reading the script the Bengals wrote when they drafted him.