Story originally published on April 23, 2020
When the Bengals were back in Paul Brown Stadium on the night of Nov. 9 last year making final arrangements to play the Ravens the next day, Mike Potts, their college scouting director, already glimpsed the future and spied the draft room's big board that yielded Joe Burrow No. 1 to the Bengals in Thursday night's draft.
Usually, Potts, like most NFL scouts, would leave a Saturday night game in the second half to catch a plane to the next campus. But since this was Louisiana State at Alabama with maybe as many as five first-rounders on the field, Potts stayed until the end. Not only that, Burrow, LSU's always automatic quarterback, was finishing up another clinic, a 393-yarder while missing just eight passes to lead a 46-41 victory.
As he made the three-hour drive from Tuscaloosa to the airport in Atlanta, Potts, heading into his second decade of NFL scouting, rewound the night. How before the game down on the field during warmups he watched the ball whistle out of Burrow's hand. How in the press box through his binoculars during the TV timeouts he saw Burrow dialed into the huddle despite "Sweet Home Alabama," blaring at the top of the 1970s or the place going as dark as an eclipse with only strobe lights and the ravenous jackal-like din sensing the kill. Or when LSU didn't have the ball, Potts would train his glasses on the sideline and watch Burrow's magnetic personality either attract high-fives or command an are-we-on-the-same-page discussion.
"He was the No. 1 overall pick in my mind before I knew we had the No. 1 pick," Potts says. "In my opinion, he took the game over … The poise and composure on the sidelines between series and on the field between plays in the huddle and during the plays are among the best I've seen at that position.
"You could feel his presence," Potts says. "I think from that point on he was at the top of our draft board and in my opinion it was going to take something crazy to change that from early November."
They would all still do due diligence. The coaches were still two months away from getting involved. But it turned out not even a thing as crazy as a first-in-a-century pandemic that shut down the draft process for the final six weeks could alter that draft board. With their quarterback quarantined in his boyhood home in Athens, Ohio, Bengals offensive coordinator Brian Callahan and quarterbacks coach Dan Pitcher spent the last month Zooming more than fighter pilots. They X-ed and O-ed with Burrow three hours a week and the virtual draft turned out to be the same as the old draft. Pre-March of 2020.
It became clear as February sped into March and March steamrolled into April that coaches and scouts were getting on the same page when it came to Burrow. Bengals president Mike Brown, head coach Zac Taylor and director of player personnel Duke Tobin check in every day, so there were those conversations as well as conversations underneath them.
It all appeared to come together about the time Callahan made his own call in his head. A few weeks ago.
"I probably reached that conclusion in early April that Joe was the best of the quarterbacks," Callahan says. "Once I got a chance to talk a lot of football with him. My first impression of him at the combine was the right one. Then to be able to drill down into that specific knowledge. Anybody can BS a 15-minute meeting, but his ability to recall plays, even from the early season, it shows you his mind is wired the way you think it would be for a starting NFL quarterback."
Taylor had his Zooms with Burrow. But he had to be involved with so many other prospects and so many different aspects of the burgeoning crisis that it was basically Callahan and Pitcher communicating with Burrow as everybody worked out of their dueling basements or attics or dens.
"The NFL allotted us the time with him," Pitcher says, "and we used it all."
Callahan says he and Pitcher usually caught up with Burrow in his basement. If Burrow could see the walls of Callahan's office basement, he would have seen some awesome frames. One is a signed "Braveheart," poster by Mel Gibson, who starred in Callahan's favorite movie. It's a gift from Peyton Manning, the Hall-of-Fame quarterback Callahan coached in Denver. Also on the wall is a signed photo by Manning and all his receivers that participated in Manning's NFL-record 55 touchdown passes in the Broncos' 2013 season.
A good 22 years before Burrow and Callahan were at the top of this draft hoping to film a classic, Manning went No. 1 and after the Bengals season Callahan knew he was scouting three quarterbacks for the right to take with that same pick.
Burrow. Alabama's Tua Tagovailoa. Oregon's Justin Herbert. They had to work quickly. The Bengals had requested to coach the South team in the Jan. 25 Senior Bowl, a mere 27 days after the season, so they could work with Burrow. When Herbert wanted to play for the Bengals coaches to audition for No. 1, they had to prepare for both although Burrow chose not to attend after finishing a 15-0 championship season on only Jan. 14. The need to jump start the draft process early for the Senior Bowl put a lot of hay in the barn early and made everyone in the building confident of the pick that emerged Thursday night.
Images of the Bengals' 2020 first round pick, quarterback Joe Burrow from the NFL combine and his college career at LSU and Ohio State.
"That was no problem Joe didn't go to Mobile. We understood all that. LSU had a long season," Callahan says. "All three players are top 10 guys that are going to make an impact in the league quickly. We liked Herbert and we had the best evaluation you can get on a quarterback. We had him for a whole week, so you could see how fast he could learn an offense, how he could bring other guys along and how he responded in stressful situations. We left there feeling very positive about him."
As for Tagovailoa, Callahan jokes, "I don't have a medical degree," so he didn't have to worry about the hip injury. He could just sit back and enjoy the dynamism and versatility of a guy that had that No. 1 spot on many boards before the season started.
But Callahan's April turned out to be just like Potts' November. What Potts saw through the binoculars, Callahan saw and heard in Zoom.
"At the end of the day, Joe's a cut above for a number of reasons," Callahan says. "The things I liked about we're he always had to fight for his spot, whether he was at Ohio State or LSU. He performed well enough to potentially win the job. He transfers and he goes to a place very different from where he was and to win over that team in that short amount of time says a lot about his ability to relate to people and make people believe in him."
It turns out the Bengal who has spent the most time being less than six feet from Burrow is Pitcher, the club's do-it-all brainy offensive analyst that got his first quarterbacks coaching job a few days after they got back from the Senior Bowl.
One of his first thoughts when he heard he was replacing new Browns offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt? It would be nice to coach Burrow.
As February turned into March, he joined the roster of coaches working out the quarterbacks at the scouting combine, the NFL's last full event before everything shut down. Burrow didn't work out, but he was in the meetings, at the workouts and available for the formal 18-minute interviews.
Pitcher, who broke into the NFL with four years as a scout for the Colts, began his fifth season as a coach for the Bengals doing his own brand of due diligence that first night in the madness of Indianapolis' train station, where position coaches have to fight their way through other teams as well as prospects to say hello. He got Burrow for five minutes to basically congratulate him on his season, get a face to a face and tell him he'd see him later in the week. They were both gearing up for the formal interview in a few days, but Pitcher ended up spending his most time with Burrow on the Lucas Oil Stadium field during the workouts.
What he saw was not much different from what he saw from the games. Body language. When Burrow got rocked during the game on a hit in the pocket, he bounced up.
"The one thing I noticed that even though he was not participating from a physical standpoint," Pitcher says of the combine, "he was part of that group supporting the other guys, joking with them, working with them. From his demeanor, his interaction with them it was easy to see why he was able to rally that team."
Like all position coaches, Pitcher oversees putting together the clips of the plays the scouts and coaches wanted to hear and see the prospects break down in the formal interviews. He had already watched at least a couple of games for every quarterback at the combine, although there was no need for them to have a formal with Herbert.
As the college point man for Tobin, Potts chaired the interviews consisting of scouts, relevant coaches and often ownership. For the Burrow meeting, Bengals president Mike Brown sat in on his only interview of the week and neatly broke the ice.
Picking up on Burrow's observation to the media earlier in the week that if he went No. 1 to Cincinnati he could be home at Athens in time for dinner, Brown wondered how long it took Burrow to drive the 150 miles or so. He smiled at Burrow's answer and said something like that was a bit faster than he was known to do it.
"He told him to be careful driving. It was lighthearted and everybody got a laugh," Callahan says. "Mike's been around the game for so long and knows players, so it was all pretty natural."
But there was no time to keep it going. Potts was on a strict schedule. He wanted to make sure he had 10-12 minutes for Burrow to break down film, leaving only about eight minutes or so for other topics.
"We wanted to know about his time at Ohio State, how the transfer all went down, we talked about close he was to going to UC (the University of Cincinnati)," Potts says. "How he thought he would have tested at the combine. Hear him talk through the differences between his 2018 and 2019 seasons and what his plans were for his pro day. You've got to remember, everything was still on at this point."
The sense was that Burrow felt confident about how he played at Ohio State and he talked openly of the challenges of his transition to LSU and the time it took. So he impressed them even before he got to the tape, where he blew them away. Callahan remembers his knowledge of protections was highly advanced and both he and Pitcher were impressed with his formidable recall.
"In terms of football IQ, his abilities to articulate his responsibilities and his teammates' responsibilities were really impressive," Pitcher says. "To me, what I really thought he had was an ability to see the big picture and where he fit into it."
The formal interview with Burrow had a gym rat theme to it. There were a lot of guys that enjoy grinding tape in there. A lot of guys that are the sons of coaches with Brown and Burrow leading the way. But Taylor and Callahan are also coach's sons and Pitcher's grandfather in Upstate New York coached five sports before becoming his high school's athletic director.
"There's definitely a commonality to growing up that way," says Callahan, whose dad is now the Browns offensive line coach. "Joe's dad had a great run at Ohio (University), so he didn't move around a lot, but there's always that potential and pressure every year. There's a certain lifestyle. You're going to cheer on your dad each week. It means something to you."
Pitcher had a pretty good idea going to the combine that Burrow was the guy, but there would still be about a month until the draft meetings started the first week of April, when he would formally present the prospects in front of Brown, Tobin and the scouts.
By then, the new world had arrived. The meetings were being done virtually and Burrow's Pro Day in Baton Rouge had been wiped out. So the game tape and connections in the college game moved front and center and Potts already had a lot to go on when it came to Burrow.
Potts, a former William and Mary quarterback, used to throw passes to LSU offensive analyst DJ Mangas in Williamsburg and even though he graduated before LSU passing game coordinator Joe Brady arrived at William and Mary as a wide receiver, the two developed a bond through Potts's frequent scouting trips and the alma mater tie to the Tribe.
By the time Brady and Mangas left for Carolina and the NFL back in January, Potts had enough Burrow intel to teach a graduate course in Bayou legends and it was one of those deals where it had him looking harder for flaws.
"You've scouted so many guys over your career and you can think of only a handful of guys that there's been so much effusive praise," Potts says. "People just raving about the guy. When you scout a place like LSU that has had so many first-round picks, Pro Bowlers, All-Pros and guys are comparing this guy to some great players, when it comes from so many sources you've trusted over the years, you have to take that into consideration.
"When you come across a prospect like that, almost too good to be true, that's when you start looking for holes."
And that's what they were doing in March and April. Because of no pro days and stadium visits, this draft truly became a "tale of the tape." Videotape. Not the tape measure. Plus Zooms. They were disappointed they couldn't see Burrow throw the slightly fatter NFL football in person, but there was the tape. Plus, Callahan says Burrow told them he likes the feel of the pro ball.
So the draft process came down to the way it started ten days after the season. Potts, Pitcher and Callahan watching tape. Before he even went to the combine, Callahan watched all of Burrow's 2019 snaps and he figures since he's watched several of his game three times.
Callahan circles Burrow's movement in the pocket and his accuracy as the top two elements that jump off the tape.
"He's got an innate feel in the pocket. He knows when to move and where and he never takes his eyes off down the field and he hangs in there for the dagger," Callahan says. "He understands how to throw the ball so guys can catch it. He never takes away anyone's athleticism. They never have to turn or jump. He puts it where they can run after catch or throws it into tight coverage. That's what separates quarterbacks. Accuracy, but accuracy under duress."
It's funny. Here, they were scouting the quarterback that had just posted the best statistical season of all-time and numbers just didn't seem to be the biggest part of the story at all.
"The stats are great," says Callahan as Peyton looks on, "but a lot of guys have great stats."