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The Joe Burrow Combine Interview: How Easy Small Talk And A Throwaway Translated To No. 1

Bengals quarterbacks coach Dan Pitcher talks about his first meeting with Joe Burrow.
Bengals quarterbacks coach Dan Pitcher talks about his first meeting with Joe Burrow.

It's never too early for a Joe Burrow retrospective.

With all the timing of a 40-yard dash, this week is as good as any with the Bengals scouts and coaches headed to the scouting combine in Indianapolis. As Burrow sits as the NFL's all-time completion percentage leader, this past Sunday marked the third anniversary of their first meeting with him in a Lucas Oil Stadium suite that all but guaranteed the Bengals were taking him No. 1 overall two months later in the Pandemic Draft of 2020.

From his easy small talk with Bengals president Mike Brown to his lunar landing breakdown of an innocuous incomplete pass during quarterbacks coach Dan Pitcher's 15-play cut-up video from his Heisman Trophy season at LSU, Burrow had turned that combine-mandated 18-minute window that was supposed to be an initial meet-and-greet with the organization into a what-more-do-we-want fait accompli.

"That was kind of the sense that was in the room," says Pitcher, the then 33-year-old assistant who had been handed the No. 1 pick only the month before when he was promoted to position coach. "Obviously there's a lot that can happen between now and the draft. But we had the first pick. I think we all felt like he was the best player and I think he felt like he was the best player. Put two-and-two together and there was a pretty good chance Cincinnati would be home to him.

"It's like life in general, right? First impressions are important."

Zac Taylor's notetaking is legendary, but he has virtually none when it comes to the drafting of a Bengals legend. Which tells you all you need to know.

"He might be the player I have the least amount (of notes) because I knew we were taking him," Taylor says. "I wasn't looking at things I would have to reference on draft day, which is the primary reason I take the notes.

"Burrow might be the only one I didn't (take notes on) just because I knew we were going to be meeting with this guy endlessly before the draft. First pick in the draft we had an idea who we're taking and I'm going to spend a lot of time with this guy, so it wasn't going to be necessary to reference those notes."

Taylor says, "it wasn't a major meeting by any means," but it was the first and, like any combine interview nowadays, it was important. Set up much like the Bengals are going to conduct interviews this week, each team is allowed to meet with 45 prospects in a session led by Mike Potts, the club's director of college scouting.

All Bengals interviews have representatives of ownership, every scout from director of player personnel Duke Tobin's department, Taylor, the relevant coordinator, and the position coach, as well as director of player relations Eric Ball and director of security Mark Herren. Potts carries the first part of the interview, using questions to guide the group through the prospect's self-scouting report, injury history, support system, as well as other topics in what he hopes is a conversational rather than robotic dialogue.

Look at the Bengals' combine interview list from the past and you'll see some familiar names. Last year, first-rounder Dax Hill and third-rounder Zach Carter sat for the panel.

"We've tweaked it over the years to get as much as we can out of it," Potts says. "And there's a chance that one of those guys we draft, those are the only 18 minutes we'll have with him face-to-face before the draft . At least with a lot of people in the room. There may be a scout or a coach that goes to a pro day and has another interaction with him, but if we don't have him in for a visit, that's it in front of the room."

This week the playoffs start for the scouts (the draft is the Super Bowl) and they already have most of the information. After leading off the decade with the Burrow pick, the Bengals draft room is drawing raves for parlaying three straight classes into a total of 13 starters and regulars for the two-time AFC finalists.

After spending a year grilling those close to the prospect in college during as many as 20-25 interviews (coaches, trainers, equipment managers, support staff), Potts says there are times it almost feels like the scouts know the player as much as he knows himself.

After more than a decade of NFL scouting, Potts, a former William and Mary quarterback who specializes in the SEC, doesn't need long to tell an elite football mind.

"Two, three, four questions and you know," says Potts, who knew Burrow was his No. 1 pick as early as Nov. 9, 2019, as he drove from Tuscaloosa to the Atlanta airport after watching Burrow miss just eight passes in the 46-41 win over Alabama.

"Sharp. Good conversation. Very bright. Came off as professional, serious. The kind of guy you would want leading your organization."

The interviews help the club plot the rest of the draft season. Maybe the interview checks enough boxes so the Bengals don't have to bring the prospect into Paycor Stadium for one of the 30 visits they're allowed before the draft and they can use it on someone else. Or maybe there's more work to be done. And maybe another name keeps cropping up that makes them take a second look. Two of Potts' standard questions are what teammate would you take with you to the NFL and which opponent impressed you the most.

Knowing Burrow's brains and his national title cast, Potts smiles.

"We probably asked Joe for one or two names on both sides of the ball," Potts says.

Taylor loves to hear those answers and if a name pops up multiple times.

"Some of those meetings with those guys and their recall has helped," Taylor says. "Rarely do you say, 'Damn, we're taking this guy because of this meeting and rarely do you say, 'We can't have this guy.' Usually, it's, 'We need a lot more information about this guy,' or he was as advertised from the scouting reports and we feel like we have enough information. It's a good starting point."

But with Mike Brown in the room, everyone knew Burrow wasn't the typical interview. It was a rare appearance for him and yet the 84-year-old owner and the 23-year-old Heisman winner talked easily before the clock started.

Since everyone knew Burrow was getting drafted early, he maybe had one other interview scheduled, so he showed up in the Bengals suite a tad early. Brown asked Burrow how long it took him to drive home to Athens from Cincinnati. Brown smiled at his answer and kidded Burrow he did it a lot faster than Brown.

Two Ohio football guys.

"Mr. Brown has seen a lot of football and he's seen a lot of players. That's his element," Pitcher says. "And Joe was the Joe we know now."

After Potts talked Burrow through his decision to transfer from Ohio State to LSU ("no surprises"), the rest of the 10-12 minutes or so went to Pitcher. The position coach always handles the football details of the combine interview, coming in with a bunch of college clips for the prospect to break down.

But these clips weren't typical, either. As Pitcher says, they were from the greatest college season of all-time.

Not only that, "It was the first thing I ever did as the Bengals quarterbacks coach, so it was big for me, too," Pitcher says of the interview.

But Pitcher knew his way around the combine. He broke into the league as a scout for the Colts.

Taylor doesn't remember anything remarkable about Pitcher's presentation, which is a good thing. He remembers his own first combine interview all too well. And so do some jokesters who keep reminding him. It was in 2012, Taylor's first year as the Dolphins quarterbacks coach and record-breaking Boise State quarterback Kellen Moore, the current Chargers offensive coordinator, was across from him.

"It was a disaster," says Taylor, who still took good enough notes that said he'd hire Moore as an offensive coordinator if he could hire. "The fact nothing stands out and nobody says anything to him about it now must mean (Pitcher) did a good job."

But Taylor and Pitcher both remember the same play out of the 15 Burrow broke down in that combine interview, that throw-away pass way back in the second game of a 15-0 season. Against Texas. Third quarter. Third-and-five from the Texas 18.

Usually, Pitcher has to run the play a few times to jar the prospect's memory. But before Pitcher asked about this particular play, all Burrow needed to see was the formation from a snap in a mothball of months during a season LSU would win it all.

"Oh yeah, I remember this play. I brought him back in," Burrow told Pitcher as he watched LSU running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire begin the play splitting out wide to the left. "We thought it was going to be man coverage. So I sent the protection to the right. I was hot off the linebacker. Pressure. So I had to get rid of the ball."

The play ended badly with Burrow hurrying an incompletion to Edwards-Helaire in the other flat. But for Pitcher, it was quarterback gold.

"I knew from the way he played he had to have that kind of recall," Pitcher says. "But to hear him and have him go through it and for him to know exactly what play it was before I even talked about it … that was really impressive."

Three years later, Pitcher excitedly punched the play through. No. 46 for Texas, a linebacker who would end up becoming a third-round pick for the Bengals two years later, Joseph Ossai, went out to cover Edwards-Helaire in the No. 1 position. That would indicate man coverage. But it was a false indicator. When Burrow motioned Edwards-Helaire back into the backfield, Ossai didn't follow him and, instead, lined up in the middle and blitzed.

Pitcher could recall Burrow's recall:

"What this shows, 'OK, I'm hot, they got us. I don't have a great answer. Maybe if I had a slant, get rid of the ball right now.' Nothing presented fast enough. But he knew, 'I'm in field-goal range. I'm not going to take this sack.' He's basically throwing this thing away to fight another day.

"This is what you want to talk to guys about," Pitcher says. "You want to understand. 'Why did you do this? Why did you put the half back out there? What were you looking for? What are you checking right now? Why did you send the line in a four-man slide to the right? Well, I thought No. 46 was covering him in man coverage. How did that fool you? Well, they disguised it, they brought him back into the box and they pressured. They got us. Instead of making a bad play worse I took my lumps and moved on.' Having him talk through that play can tell me as much, if not more, if I put up ten touchdown passes. I just want to hear his process."

After that clip, the Bengals probably could have sent the pick in. The month before they had spent a week with Justin Herbert coaching him at the Senior Bowl. They also talked to Tua Tagovailoa in Indy. But it seems like after those 18 combine minutes with Burrow, it was all due diligence after that.


"Just hearing him talk through everything," Pitcher says, " you got the overwhelming sense this was a guy already used to doing things we were going to need him to do. You saw the evidence. That's pretty powerful."

Three years later it still is as another combine begins.

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