The Bengals' pre-pandemic pre-season opener had been slated for the home of the Super Bowl champion Chiefs. Instead, it turned into Friday's intrasquad scrimmage that capped the first week of this truncated training camp.
A few takeaways:
GAME UNDER NEW MANAGEMENT: Joe Burrow certainly looks like the overall No. 1 pick (and several veterans will gladly confirm it for you with crooked smiles) as he keeps the whole Hollywood Heisman theatrics going. Who else steps into his first NFL scrimmage drive and sifts his first six passes for a touchdown? Give him a cigar.
But here's what is making the Bengals feel really good about him this weekend after he led the first team offense to touchdowns in all three of his drives during Friday's scrimmage, if you want to call it that. There was something called "live," periods and "thud,' periods and if you could tell the difference you should be in Canton. But it effectively broke them in without breaking any
Offensive coordinator Brian Callahan called it "semi-live," but it was very real in the sense it was the first time head coach Zac Taylor called plays into Burrow's helmet during a simulated game rather than off a pre-packaged practice script.
Forget the 13-for-18 passing, the two dimes he dropped on wide receiver Auden Tate for red-zone touchdowns and the hellacious frozen rope to Tate on third-and-15 with people in his face to keep the first drive alive. What Callahan came away with was how smoothly Burrow brought the thing down field.
"Just to see him operate in a manner moving the ball with unscripted plays. Just to go play football," Callahan said. "His first foray into running the offense. You'd have to say he's continuing his trend of stacking good practices."
There were still sloppy moments. Both guards each false started. Perimeter players flinched before the snap at least twice. But Callahan is content to let the unit get used to Burrow.
"Guys are excited. But no excuses," Callahan said. "Joe's doing a good job keeping (the defense) on edge with his cadence and those guys have to respond to that."
OK, here's what we can't do. We can't compare Burrow's 13 of 18 on Friday with Andy Dalton's real pre-season opener on Aug. 12, 2011 in Detroit: 11 of 15 for 69 yards, a pick and a field goal in four drives.
CHECK WITH ME: The first touchdown came on a classic red-zone fade to the 6-5, 230-pound Tate, a play that shows you how much freedom the Bengals are giving Burrow at the line of scrimmage. "Full authority," is what Callahan calls it. He also calls Tate "a catch-radius monster." So when Burrow glanced to his left and saw Tate lined up one-on-one against 6-0 Tony Brown, he checked into the play and put it only where Tate could get it.
It also shows you it isn't taking Burrow very long to get something going with a receiver. It's been pretty much only a week and he's yet to throw a pass in pads to three of his top four receivers. So he had been going to town with the lone available receiver of the Big Four, Tyler Boyd. When they iced Boyd for much of the day Friday like they did many of their veterans, Tate turned into Boyd as the go-to guy. And Mike Thomas, a career special teamer, had another big day.
"He understands what they do well and where he needs to put the ball to particular people," Callahan said. "He puts the ball where guys can catch it. The more he knows about his receivers the better prepared he is to make throws."
That's got the Bengals excited, too. During this century they've watched great quarterbacks like Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger and Aaron Rodgers go through receivers like socks. Now they've got a rookie quarterback dominating a training camp with back-up receivers.
And that's interesting.
CAN'T BEAT DEPTH: And that's no knock on Tate and Thomas. Like Callahan says, this is a two-prong deal. The quarterback is accurate, but he's also got some very good back-up receivers. And we haven't even talked about Alex Erickson, all over the place catching a TD pass from Ryan Finley, jumping over Brown for a great contested catch from Finley and hooking up with Burrow on the final drive.
"From a talent standpoint, Auden is one of the guys you can point to as a great representative of that because he comes about his job, he's professional every day," said head coach Zac Taylor. "He just needs to be told once what to do and he's going to be physical about it, he's going to be detailed about it, he's going to make the plays that come his way and that is what you are looking for in a football player."
And his 40 catches from last year? No fluke. The seventh-rounder has gone from being a find to found as he begins his third season.
"Anytime you get Tate one-on-one with the ball in the air," Callahan said, "he's proven in NFL gamers he'll win those matchups. Big body. Really strong hands. Large catch radius. He can go up and get balls not everybody can get."
JONAH SHOULD BE HEADLINE, NOT FOOTNOTE: There's another first-round pick in his first training camp playing well. But because he's playing in the shadow of the overall No. 1 and mans left tackle, Jonah Williams is getting a bit lost.
But the Bengals are thrilled with how he's responded in pass protection against Carl Lawson and his occasional gos with Carlos Dunlap and Sam Hubbard. And take a look at a couple of plays in the run game from Friday.
On the last drive behind that first line, veteran back-up running back Samaje Perine chewed up a bunch of yards and actually scored on about a 15-yard touchdown run on a sweep behind Williams and left guard Michael Jordan.
"Both of those guys are really athletic and they can run and move in space," Callahan said. "They get those plays on the corner and the DBs don't really want any part of that. I know Jonah had a nice finish on one and Mike had a nice finish on one or two.
"It's a nice start for guy that was out for a year," Callahan said of Williams. "He's showing what we thought he was."
YOUNG TURKS: The sense from people familiar with the coaches' thinking is that besides the play of Burrow, the emergence of the young linebackers is at their top of the lists of things they liked in the first week. Third-rounder Logan Wilson, fourth-rounder Akeem Davis-Gaither and seventh-rounder Markus Bailey have been rotating next two veterans, 10-year-man Josh Bynes and sophomore Germaine Pratt.
Those guys have all showed up as what they expected, fast and athletic. And a guy that has really seemed to be rejuvenated in his fourth season is Jordan Evans, who is playing some good ball.
The backers had a solid set against Burrow in Friday's two series from the defense's 30. They were both three-and-outs.