Despite late trade rumors and early speculation book-ending a canceled pro day and virtual reality, the Bengals did Thursday night what everybody said they were going to do for the past four months when they took LSU quarterback Joe Burrow with the first pick in the NFL's first-ever remote draft.
Using their first overall No. 1 selection in 17 years, the Bengals continued to revamp their franchise with a quarterback coming off the best statistical college year of all-time during an undefeated national championship season Burrow fired 60 touchdown passes against just six interceptions with a blistering 80 completion percentage.
He joins Archie Griffin and Carson Palmer as the Bengals' only Heisman Trophy winners and a roster that has already undergone a massive facelift this offseason with the addition of six starters in free agency.
Burrow, a product of Athens, Ohio, where he won the state's Mr. Football while leading the Bulldogs to their only Division III state championship game, may be as popular a pick as Ohio State's Griffin, the Columbus, Ohio native and only winner of two Heismans. His state-wide charisma may have been as important as his laser shows when the Bengals blunted any attempts from the Dolphins to trade up from No. 5 to draft Burrow
Who-Dey Nation is hoping the Ohio-bred and Ohio State transfer is a composite of their best quarterbacks ever by combining Ken Anderson's uncanny accuracy, Boomer Esiason's swaggering leadership, Andy Dalton's agile acumen and Palmer's overall No. 1 pedigree. He stands to become the fourth Bengals rookie quarterback to make an Opening Day start with Dalton, Dewey Warren and Greg Cook.
"One of the most impressive things to me was his production last season never dipped," said Bengals offensive coordinator Brian Callahan. "I was waiting to see the flaw, waiting to see the hole. The reality is, he only got better as the season went on. Against the best teams, he played his best."
The fit of player and team seems never better. The always underdog Bengals were formed with a chip on their shoulder in expansion when Paul Brown came to Cincinnati to start a franchise after he was fired in Cleveland from the team named after him. Burrow won a national championship and Heisman Trophy answering questions all the way and famously used his locker-room cigar as an exclamation point to celebrate LSU's hardware.
The two chips collided early in the draft process when there was speculation Burrow would lobby for a trade out of Cincinnati because it was allegedly a dead end for quarterbacks.
So the narrative went. But the Bengals, off a $150 million spree in free agency, ignored the buzz and went to work re-building a franchise that just four years ago had been to the playoffs six out of eight years.
The only team since the 1970 merger to draft four quarterbacks that started at least 97 games for the team that drafted them (according to Elias), the Bengals have set it up so Burrow has some weapons. If Burrow takes the field in the opener with wide receivers A.J. Green and Tyler Boyd and running back Joe Mixon, according to Elias he'll be the first rookie quarterback selected in the top five since 1967 to start a game with at least two players with multiple 1,000-yard receiving seasons and one player with multiple 1,000-yard rushing seasons.
"I love it when I hear people challenging Joe like that," said Athens High School head coach Nathan White, Burrow's offensive coordinator back in the day. "There aren't a lot of Division I players from this area and that was the always the knock on him. That he didn't have the competition. Then when he went to LSU and it was he couldn't play down there and I'm just wondering when it's ever going to stop. So I just love it when I hear that stuff about him and the Bengals."
Images of the Bengals' 2020 first round pick, quarterback Joe Burrow from the NFL combine and his college career at LSU and Ohio State.
Former Bengals secondary coach Kevin Coyle, a 15-year NFL veteran, is LSU's defensive analyst and he heartily endorsed Burrow to his old team.
"He's a special guy. He can do so many things and his combination of mental and physical attributes put him in the category that he can be a great player at the next level," Coyle said. "The more he played, the better he got. Great decision-making. Great pocket presence and awareness. A lot of the plays we got into were just a direct result of him understanding the scheme so well, understanding how to get in the right play and right read. That will serve him well in the NFL.
"He's very, very sharp. He's very accurate, able to throw somebody open. Extend plays. He's very tough mentally. He believes in himself and he transfers that to his teammates … He's got what Drew Brees, Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers have. That ability to throw it a split-second faster."
Coyle remembers during the week of the Peach Bowl as the Tigers prepared to play Oklahoma. As if it were a harbinger of Thursday's selection, the teams staged a remote three-point shooting contest at their respective hotels. Burrow, an all-state point guard at Athens, was the Tigers' last man to shoot and he needed to hit some for LSU to virtually pull it out.
"He gets up there and he's like Larry Bird. Bang. Bang. Bang. And we win," Coyle said. "I think he wears (the chip) more in his heart and in his mind than he does on his sleeve. Deep down he's just a fierce competitor. A real alpha dog. A competitive guy."
On this night, anyway, the underdogs were top cats.