The Remarkable Rise of Joe Burrow

In October 2018, I did something every human should do as long as they feel certain they will survive it: I went to Baton Rouge to tailgate all day for an LSU football game as an opposing fan. My Georgia Bulldogs were favored to beat LSU, in large part because we were considered to have a huge advantage at quarterback. We had Jake Fromm, who had just come this close to winning the national championship the year before, and they had some retread out of Ohio State, a goofy-looking guy with a big head, a guy who couldn’t even beat out Dwayne Haskins in Columbus. Drinking with a man who had painted his face purple and was wearing tiger whiskers he had glued to his face, I asked aloud who everybody thought would win. “You guys, definitely,” he said, whiskers quivering. “Burrow sucks.”

Just 40 months later, that big-headed guy, Joe Burrow, has won a Heisman Trophy, a national championship and has taken the Cincinnati Bengals—historically one of the most inept franchises in all of sports—to its first Super Bowl in more than three decades. It’s a remarkable, almost surreal rise; if he wins the Super Bowl in two weeks, he will become the first-ever quarterback to be a Heisman winner, national title winner and Super Bowl winner. We have spent the last four years talking about phenoms like Justin Fields and Kyler Murray and Josh Allen and Patrick Mahomes, not to mention legends like Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers. They’re all out of the playoffs now. Burrow is still here, doing something no one would have even considered possible. Again.

It didn’t look like it was going to turn out that way at first on Sunday. After all four divisional games came down to the final play last weekend—culminating in an all-timer of a Bills-Chiefs game that I suspect will lose a little historical luster with the Chiefs failing to reach the Super Bowl—the two conference championship games took a step backward by … merely being decided in the final seconds. The Bengals looked like they would be blown out in Kansas City, falling behind 21-3 and seeming for all the world like a team that was here maybe a year or two early. But Burrow kept his preternatural poise under an unrelenting pass rush and a sieve of an offensive line, while the underappreciated Bengals defense, in perhaps the biggest surprise of the weekend, thoroughly rattled Patrick Mahomes in the second half. Mahomes was making his fourth consecutive AFC title game appearance, but this was unquestionably his worst: He looked as uncertain as we have seen him. On the weekend that the actual Brady (probably) retired, Burrow looked more fitted for the crown. It turns out: Burrow does not suck. Never trust a purple man with whiskers.

The Los Angeles Rams are an excellent team, and the heavy favorites in the Super Bowl, but they increasingly look like they are living a charmed life this postseason. They have faced: an Arizona Cardinals team that might have been the worst in the playoffs; a Tampa Bay team that couldn’t protect its 44-year-old Hall of Fame quarterback; and a San Francisco team whose quarterback had the intestinal fortitude to reach a Super Bowl but clearly not the talent. (Garoppolo’s final interception was the punctuation mark on his 49ers career that everyone saw coming.) And now in the Super Bowl they get a No. 4 seed with a breakthrough quarterback but also an offensive line that might get that QB killed. The Rams famously constructed their roster in a way that maximized their chances to win the Super Bowl this specific season. It couldn’t have worked out better for them. The Rams are favored by 3.5 points in the Super Bowl, but I’d expect that line to rise considerably over the next two weeks. If it gets above five, and I bet it does, it will be the widest Super Bowl spread since 2008.

Of all the NFL-related clips shuffling across your social media feeds over the weekend, from the career retrospective videos of Tom Brady to the potential game-clinching interception 49ers cornerback Jaquiski Tartt dropped late against the Rams to the sartorially aggressive ensemble Burrow wore pregame to Arrowhead Stadium, the one that the most people watched, the one you couldn’t miss, featured a guy who left the game almost six years ago. Remember when you thought Peyton Manning retiring from football would make him less ubiquitous on your television?


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Manning’s impressively detailed riff on “Emily in Paris”—my favorite bit is when he seems legitimately elated to see an updated take on modern feminism—was clever, though his emphatic-TelePrompter-reading delivery still needs work. But it is a telling sign of just how much of a roll the NFL is on right now that the point of the segment, the ostensible news peg, was simply “these games are so awesome.” In the season opener of 2014, SNL’s cold opening was exclusively about how NFL players wouldn’t stop beating up women; later that year, Woody Harrelson was at the center of a gag entirely about concussions; more recently, it was kneeling players and Trump. But almost the only thing to say about the NFL right now is: This is as good as this gets.

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At halftime of the AFC Championship Game between the Kansas City Chiefs and the Cincinnati Bengals, CBS analysts James Brown, Bill Cowher, Boomer Esiason, Phil Simms and Nate Burleson all attempted to break down what happened so far. The problem was that the Chiefs had set up a halftime show involving country star Walker Hayes and his hit “Fancy Like” that blasted through the stadium where the quintet had set up their stage just off the sideline. Millions and millions of people enthralled by the game and eager to hear it discussed instead heard Hayes and his band (or whatever was making those sounds) overpowering the analyst mumblings of, apparently, the adults in a Charlie Brown cartoon.

My favorite part is that each analyst cannot hear what the other analysts are saying, which is to say, now they couldn’t even pretend they were listening. It is worth noting that this unintelligible halftime broadcast featured exactly as many insights as every other one has.

Will Leitch is a contributing editor at New York Magazine, co-host of “The Long Game With LZ and Leitch” podcast, a writer for MLB and Medium and the founder of Deadspin. Subscribe to his free weekly newsletter and buy his novel “How Lucky,” out from Harper Books now.

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