The Bengals had just finished their first NFL practice of the decade in pads and the imperturbable Joe Burrow didn't even know what day it was after some rough sledding in the red zone. Which is one of the many reasons they hope he takes their No. 1 quarterback snaps for the rest of the days of the Zooming '20s decade.
"What day is it? Tuesday? Monday?" Burrow wondered when he was asked what his goals were for Friday's scrimmage. "Whatever day it is, I'm worried about tomorrow. We're going to watch this film and then I'm going to go out and get better tomorrow. Then I'm going to get better the next day and then, I don't know what day it is but however many days we have until Friday, I'm going to get better every single day and then focus on that."
For the record, it was Tuesday and Burrow had an un-Heisman-like day after two really good ones. No surprise, really. It was the first time he had thrown with pads since smoking the national championship cigar in New Orleans, three of his top four wide receivers weren't on the field and the offense took all of its snaps inside the 20.
"It's difficult down there because you have the end line, so defenses are going to sit on the routes more," Burrow said. "You can't go deep, so you really have to drill that in practice. It's not just going to happen on game day."
But this guy made it look connect-the-dots easy last year when he completed 71 percent of his red-zone passes with a Roy Hobbsian 34 touchdowns and no picks at LSU.
Yet on Tuesday he completed about three passes in team work, one going for a touchdown to tight end Drew Sample, and he completed half of his dozen throws in seven-on-seven a day after he didn't miss. Let it be known his first NFL pass in shoulder pads was touched only by cornerback William Jackson III on a pass defensed.
"Defenses are a little different. The routes are different. The timing is different," Burrow said. "So first red zone day, there's always little kinks to work out. We'll work those out and we'll get better."
It wasn't there in 11-on-11, when he had running back Joe Mixon open coming out of the backfield at about the 3, but the pass fell short in front of him.
It wasn't there in 11-on-11 when Burrow went looking for tight end C.J. Uzomah over the middle, but old college buddy Sam Hubbard batted the pass at the line of scrimmage and the other end, Carlos Dunlap, made a diving catch for that red-zone pick Clemson or Alabama never got.
It literally rained on his parade when the sky opened up for his last two or so plays of the day. One snap slid through his hands and the last one he handed to Mixon.
So it does rain in Joe World. But the confidence didn't get rusted when he was asked about his nerves for an NFL opener suddenly less than a month away.
"I'm excited more so than nervous, I would say," said Burrow, who could only laugh when asked if that surprised him. "Absolutely not. You ever heard anything else about me about being nervous?"
But Burrow did find time Tuesday to flash what made him so good in a college red zone. He had an ability to turn water into wine when it all looked to be on the rocks, knowing when to vacate the pocket and being able to throw a bullet while on the dead run.
On Tuesday, Bengals radio analyst Dave Lapham asked Burrow to estimate how many times in the red zone last season he made something out of nothing. A quarter of them, maybe a little more, he said.
That's what he did to wide receiver Tyler Boyd for one of their three touchdowns Tuesday, finding nobody open and then rolling to his right before watching Boyd get his patented leverage in the middle of the end zone.
"In the red zone, a lot of touchdowns come outside the structure of the offense," Burrow said. "You dial a play up to a certain coverage in the red zone and you don't get it and there's not a lot of room to improvise outside of it, so you have to get outside the pocket, you have to extend plays, you have to allow guys to find the windows and get open. That's something I've always taken pride in and I know our coaches are putting a big emphasis on it."
So Burrow and Taylor are a good match after a season the Bengals saw so many drives go to die inside the 20. They were the third worst in the league in red zone touchdown percentage and 28 quarterbacks had more red-zone touchdown passes than Andy Dalton's 10 on a 52 completion percentage.
"We were awful in the red zone. We did improve later in the season. But overall, we were awful at the end of the year when you look at our red zone (numbers)," Taylor said. "A lot of it was on third downs. Our third-down completion percentage down there was not very good. That's been a big point of emphasis this entire offseason."
Boyd has been Burrow's go-to guy during the first week on the field for one simple reason. Don't look now, but Burrow hasn't had his top four receivers at his disposal at the same time. A.J. Green was terrific until he tweaked a hamstring on Monday and didn't practice Tuesday. John Ross has been in California for a week tending to Covid in his family. At about the same time rookie Tee Higgins pulled a hammy.
Higgins returned to individuals Tuesday, but look for only Boyd to be in the scrimmage. Tough break after the lock-down spring and sporadic summer Burrow virtually had zero time compiling timing with receivers spread all over
"Right now I'm focused on getting better every single day. We don't need those guys today, we need them in (26) days," Burrow said. "So they need to do what they need to do to get healthy and we're going to continue to get better."
It sounds like he doesn't need to practice patience. There didn't appear to be a route longer than intermediate on Tuesday, a bit surprising when profootballfocus.com had Burrow throwing the sweetest deep ball in the nation. But Taylor has walked him through the drill. He's not looking to blow out any more hammies and Burrow needs time to find out what he can get away with on the deep ball. Rest assured, Taylor says, the deep shots are coming.
"It's the first week of real practice, so we're not blowing our guys out, running 50 yards down the field," Burrow said. "We want to kind of build them up to it, but for me individually in practice, I think it's important for me in my first real live situations to see what I can get away with, make some throws I maybe wouldn't make in the game and see, 'Hey, this is what you can do. This is what you can't do. This is what I did last year, maybe I can't do that now.'""
If it sounds like they're in veteran hands even after an un-Heisman-like day, it's because they are. That's probably how he won the Heisman.
Taylor knows these are the days he needs those intangibles.
"Critical," Taylor said.