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How Joe Burrow Has Turned Improbable Off-Platform Throws Into A Record-Setting Stage

Joe Burrow (left) and Dan Pitcher (right) at work.
Joe Burrow (left) and Dan Pitcher (right) at work.

This is what the Bengals saw when they eviscerated Joe Burrow's LSU tape in the months after he won the Heisman Trophy and before they took him with the NFL's first draft pick of the 2020s.

Jaw dropping is what Bengals head coach Zac Taylor calls it.

From last Sunday's first pass to the 46th and last.

It started right away on the game's first snap. The 10-yarder after Burrow's invisibility cloaked in No. 9 rescued him from the arms of Ravens 305-pound defensive tackle Broderick Washington. All the way to the first play after the two-minute warning on the 52-yarder Burrow flicked with seemingly both feet off the ground as he ran to his right out of the pocket and toward running back Joe Mixon. It was the ball that made him the fourth most prolific single-game NFL passer of all-time with 525 yards.

And that doesn't even count the touchdown pass that didn't count to wide receiver Tyler Boyd. The one just after he disappeared behind two large white jerseys and then re-appeared just before Washington dove and grabbed his right cleat as Burrow shot-putted it 32 yards into the end zone.

"That was the magic you saw on his college tape," says Taylor, who once threw for 431 yards against Iowa State when he was at Nebraska. "A lot of things separated him from the crowd. But I think what left your jaw drop was the plays he made when a defensive lineman contacted him in the pocket and he pulled out of it with great ball security and then get an explosive play down the field. That's special."

Burrow isn't nearly as decorated or as accomplished as this week's opponent. But when Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes comes to Paul Brown Stadium Sunday (1 p.m.- Cincinnati's Local 12) trying to dunk the Bengals AFC North-clinching party, it does turn into a showcase for two of the NFL's most creative young artists.

Burrow's Houdini Escape Acts vs. Mahomes' Man of 1,000 Arm Slots.

"He does a good job practicing those throws," says Bengals quarterbacks coach Dan Pitcher. "We try to simulate situations when we're going through all of our progressions on air throwing to stationary targets. So much of it is his natural ability, his instincts and it's a lot of fun to watch."

Pitcher, the former Cortland State quarterback who once accounted for seven touchdowns against Brockport State running and passing, sets the stage for Burrow and the other quarterbacks, back-up Brandon Allen and practice squadder Jake Browning. On one snap he may tell them the pocket is skewed to the right. Or, on this snap he instructs them to climb the pocket and burst to the line of scrimmage. Or, he may simulate a jail break blitz coming from the left.

And since last month's bye, about the time Burrow began saying he was making moves on his new ACL that he couldn't have made at the beginning of the season and the defensive looks started changing, he began to bob and weave.

"We've seen coverage structures recently where teams are devoting more players to coverage," Pitcher says. "So, there are times there's a three-man rush or a delayed four-man rush and he's able to avoid a guy in the pocket, get on the edge, look for our guys to react or potentially run it himself. Any time you can make a play like that off-schedule, those are huge plays in games."

Former Bengals quarterback Jordan Palmer, a quarterback guru who worked with both Burrow and Mahomes before they were drafted and counsels Burrow from time to time, says the amazing lies in the basic hard work of Burrow's rehab.

"For any quarterback, any of those (off-script) throws, you have to have mobility through your mid-section to be able to turn and rotate your trunk," says Palmer, who once threw for 455 yards for Texas-El Paso against Alabama-Birmingham.

"Without stability in your lower body, there is no mobility. You have to have an anchor on the ground. You have to have stability with your lower half. Once you understand that concept, you can make any throw once you have stability. When Mahomes leans to his side and throws it sidearm accurately, that's not a trick shot. He has stability with his lower body. And the further my arm gets away from my body, the harder it is to control. That's where your core strength comes in. So when somebody throws one sidearm accurately, I think that has more to do with the strength in their core than in their arm."

Palmer watched Burrow go from one offseason as a college quarterback sheltered in place in his parents' basement with virtually no strength and conditioning program to the next being exposed to NFL and professional help at every level. He was in ACL rehab last year, yes, but Palmer knew it was the same seasoned regimen Carson Palmer went through with Bengals rehab chief Nick Cosgray 15 years before.

"Nick went through it with my brother and countless others and he's good and you knew Joe was certainly going to get stronger in his lower body," Palmer says. "He had a chance to address his body like it's never been addressed before. You take this guy who is already a killer and a winner and you put him in this position physically and he probably feels like he can do anything."

This isn't the time of year to do anything. Pitcher says the regular season is so chalk full of game plan specific practices and mental-rep periods that it's hard to get in drills used in the spring and training camp, such as the off-script stuff.

But Pitcher knows how to work it in with the help of his predecessor.

An all-around offensive assistant for the Bengals, Pitcher got the job about the same time he got Burrow last year. He replaced Alex Van Pelt as the Bengals quarterbacks coach when Van Pelt took the offensive coordinator job in Cleveland just as the Bengals amped up the scouting of Burrow in late January with the addition of the coaches.

Pitcher has incorporated some of the drills Van Pelt used for off-platform throws, an area where Andy Dalton improved under his tutelage .

"He worked a bunch of bag drills where he tried to separate your lower half from your upper half. That was kind of how he phrased it," Pitcher says. "Because a lot of times when you're out there it's not perfect and you have to be able to recruit enough strength to drive the ball when you're not sitting there just throwing on air. We try to get it in as best we can during the season."

The incompletion to Boyd in the last five minute reflects exactly what Pitcher is coaching on air. It was a five-step drop out of the shotgun. Burrow saw his first progression was taken, had to avoid nose tackle Isaiah Mack and edge Odafe Oweh, made sure he tucked the ball while climbing through a crease in the pocket and threw it as he was running to the line of scrimmage.

"It's always good when the play gets extended you can play downhill, you can play moving toward the defense," Pitcher says. "It really makes you a threat with both your legs and your am because he does such a good job keeping his eyes downfield and being a passer until the last possible second."

That one play shows you not only how Burrow threw for the fourth most yards of all-time with a few improvisations, but it shows you how he approaches everything else in football.

"If you introduce a philosophy or a tweak or an adjustment, he's the type of guy that will take it, expand it and make it his own," Palmer says. "He makes it make sense to him."

It certainly makes plenty of sense to the Bengals.

"You see how dedicated he is taking care of his body. He's built strength as part of the rehab process and after," Pitcher says. "It's not a surprise when he's able to make some of those plays. It's kind of just who he is."