Skip to main content

Game Within The Game: Quick Decision, Quicker Throw Defines Joe Burrow's Rise

QB Joe Burrow celebrates after the Bengals beat the 49ers, 31-17, in week 8 of the 2023 season.
QB Joe Burrow celebrates after the Bengals beat the 49ers, 31-17, in week 8 of the 2023 season.

The throw didn't make his three most improbable completions of the game. It didn't make the Bengals-49ers highlights. He got more raves for briefly donning an alien mask as he boarded the charter that knew the way to San Jose. 

And the Bengals' brain trust couldn't even agree on his most impressive throw of his most impressive Sunday in Greater San Francisco, a day he did something Johnny Unitas didn't and almost what Ken Anderson did. 

But that 11-yard memo to the rest of the AFC zipped through a window tighter than the AFC North and flagged by slot receiver Tyler Boyd in the last minute of the first half?  That's what makes Joe Burrow the most accurate passer in the history of the sport as he heads into Sunday night's game (8:20-Cincinnati's Channel 5) at Paycor Stadium against the Bills as the NFL's hottest quarterback.

That will happen when you pierce the 49ers' estimable defense with 28 darts on 32 tries. 

"That just shows you the fine line of playing quarterback," says Bengals head coach Zac Taylor of The Throw. "It's milliseconds where people think you're the greatest or the worst and you've got to be willing to live with the consequences and still have the confidence to keep pulling the trigger." 

By the time the Bengals reached the San Fran 30 with 1:03 left in the first half, Burrow's confidence oozed like a science fiction blob. He was working on 15 straight completions on his way to a personal-best 19, one shy of Anderson's club record. And he had already feathered two touchdown passes to give him 91 in his 49th game, one better than the iconic Unitas. 

Burrow's stance on the existence of aliens is "Jury's out." But if you ask a pair of 49ers veteran defensive backs who have played more than 230 NFL games combined, they may very well claim that Burrow wasn't wearing a mask after his extraterrestrial laser of a throw seemed to go right through them. 

Offensive coordinator Brian Callahan calls it "a seam bender." Quarterbacks coach Dan Pitchers calls it "a seam route." Taylor says it's like the 15-yard touchdown pass Burrow sifted to a surprised Ja'Marr Chase against Cleveland at Paycor last year.

Chase, Velcroed between cornerback Denzel Ward and safety John Johnson, barely got his head around in time to catch it. But he was able to reach out and show the disbelieving Ward and Johnson the ball.

"Very similar timing and accuracy. "There was not a window," Taylor says. "The only inch he could throw it to. You learn to take it for granted. That's probably not a great thing. But I know the anticipation and the accuracy required to make that throw.

"It's usually a great Cover Two throw with the safety having more depth and you can clear that nickel (cornerback) more. But he did it against a quarters-coverage. He took a window that is normally further down the field because of a deeper safety. But now it's a condensed coverage and he still pumped it in there."

The Bengals were in no-huddle on first-and-10 from the 49rs 30 with a half minute left in the half and had all three timeouts left. They went four wides with Burrow in shotgun and running back Trayveon Williams behind him.

Pitcher and Burrow both saw a two-safety zone. But the safety, 12-year vet Tashaun Gipson, didn't drop at the snap. He had turned a Cover Two into quarters, taking away the middle Boyd had annexed earlier. As Burrow surveyed the field post-snap, it was now a different coverage. Isaiah Oliver, the sixth-year nickel back who just came over from the Falcons, was all over Boyd, too.

"I was a little bit surprised (he threw it)," Callahan says.

"But he's got so much confidence that TB (Boyd) is going to cross the safety's face. The guy had his back turned. It was an unbelievable catch. The degree of difficulty of that catch was high. He just fit it in. He throws that type of ball to TB all the time. He's got a ton of confidence that TB is going to win and that he's supposed to be able to put that ball in a spot and he did."

It was an 11-yarder over the middle Boyd owns. Left tackle Orlando Brown, who owned Nick Bosa's $180 million Sunday, gave just enough ground so Burrow could, as Pitcher says, let 'er rip. Even though it wasn't what he saw pre-snap.

"I trusted TB to wrap across the safety's face. We've thrown that a million times in practice," Burrow says. "We both saw it and I threw it on time with accuracy and he made a great catch in traffic. So those are the kinds of plays that we're expected to make."

The throw almost has to be quicker than the decision.

"He just made his mind up so quickly that he was going to have that throw when it ended up being quarters instead of Cover Two," Pitcher says. "He was playing with such anticipation and with such confidence at that point, ultimately, it didn't matter. It just meant the window was going to be much smaller. When you see a bang-bang play like that, you just hope your guy comes up with it."

After Burrow celebrated Halloween with a Houdini-like move (The Great Houdini died on Halloween) to disappear from the 49ers pass rush, Taylor said he has taught himself not to say, 'Oh no,' when he watches Burrow about to perform the outrageous.

Call them the Inspector Gadget moves. But Taylor says he only winces on the scrambles. On those fastballs, there is no time to react.

Tayor did say he had time to appreciate it once he saw the video when the Bengals caught the last plane from the Coast. Here's the dirty little secret. The quarterback, as great as he is, can't control everything.

"You don't have the luxury of all the time being totally sure when the ball leaves your hand," Pitcher says. "There's a little bit of educated guess and then you can help correct some of that with the kind of ball you throw and that's really what he did there."

Callahan says Sunday's his best throw wasn't that one. It came on the last drive, the 20-yard slingshot to Chase running an out he completed with a soft shoe tap as he went out of bounds. No coincidence the two best throws of the day were also the two best catches.

"That was the best throw. That was a ridiculous throw on a day of ridiculous throws," Callahan says. "Right where it had to be. You don't complete almost 90 percent of your passes for nothing."

They don't use radar guns like they do in baseball. Pitcher says the only time he's ever heard of them in football is at the NFL scouting combine. Burrow didn't throw at his combine, so case closed.

But how fast was that heater to Boyd?

"I don't even know what a good or bad speed would be," Pitcher says. "That throw is a great example of Joe can throw it as hard as he needs to throw it on every single throw and he'll throw it with as much touch as he needs to throw it. I think that's what makes him who he is. You might watch a game and, oh, the big-time-eye-popping-lasers that you see some other guys throw, maybe aren't there every time.

"But when he needs to get it in there, he has it."

That's pretty much how Burrow sees it. He's of a world where a window might as well be the sky.

"That's NFL football," says Burrow without the mask. "That's the kind of throws you've got to make to move the offense down the field."

Related Content