Joe Burrow is in a nice, comfy place right now, the kind of place where he doesn’t have to worry about a talk-show host worrying about how he wears his hat.
Burrow is the Cincinnati Bengals' starting quarterback, and he was the No. 1 pick in this year’s NFL draft after putting together, for LSU, what might have been the greatest season any college quarterback ever had: a 76.3 completion percentage, 60 touchdown passes, six interceptions, the Heisman Trophy, and the national championship.
Now, Cincinnati hasn’t often been a comfy place for a young quarterback over the last quarter-century, and usually, when a top-pick QB enters the league after a career or performance like Burrow’s, the hype surrounding him can be suffocating. But these circumstances are a bit different.
The Bengals are 21-34-1 since the start of the 2015 season and, depending on the year and the length of Gardner Minshew’s mustache, vie for the title of Most Irrelevant NFL Franchise. Plus, because the COVID pandemic erased the entire NFL preseason and limited the media’s accessibility to each team’s training camp, the anticipation and buildup that customarily accompany a season’s beginning have been muted. Suddenly, teams just started playing games that counted. Oh, hey, Joe Burrow! Forgot Cincy had him.
All of that is to say that Burrow might be facing a bit less pressure compared with other recent highly drafted quarterbacks, and he’s certainly facing less pressure than his counterpart Sunday, Carson Wentz. That’s the blessing of being just two games into your NFL career, as Burrow is.
Sure, the Bengals are 0-2, but everyone would have been surprised if they weren’t 0-2, and for Cincinnati, the silver lining of those two losses is that Burrow hasn’t appeared overwhelmed by or unsuited for the NFL. He was particularly impressive in his last game, a 35-30 loss to the Browns in Cleveland, in which he racked up 316 yards and three touchdowns and attempted 61 passes without throwing an interception.
“He’s taken some hits these first couple of weeks and really bounced up,” Eagles coach Doug Pederson said. “Right now, nothing has really fazed him. He’s mentally tough, physically tough. He’s a good athlete. He throws a really good football, an accurate football, a catchable football, and those are all great things that he, being a young quarterback, can possess with the team that has the weapons and firepower they have on offense.”
Pretty high praise there, and yes, Burrow has the look of a guy who has a long, terrific career ahead of him. (His preternatural ability to deliver pinpoint throws while he’s on the move – rolling right or left or stepping up in the pocket – really is something to see.) But again, we’re talking about two games here, and it’s worth noting how much the public perception of a prospective franchise quarterback shifts over time. Sometimes, it can even shift with the outcome of one game.
It did for Wentz. Think back to his rookie season, 2016. He was solid through his first two games, victories over what turned out to be a one-win Browns team and a three-win Chicago Bears team. But his third game was a marvel, the first full-fledged indication that the Eagles might have something special in him: 23-for-31, 301 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions, and no sacks in a 34-3 rout of the Pittsburgh Steelers, who finished 11-5.
In that instant, all the expectations around Wentz changed. He was no longer what Burrow still is: a neophyte who was still something of a mystery to his opponents and even to his own team. Now Wentz was a bona fide NFL quarterback of a team that was 3-0 and had bona fide playoff aspirations.
That’s how people have viewed and measured him since. There’s nothing wrong with it; it comes with the job and with success in the job. If Burrow holds the ball too long or chucks the football toward a blanketed receiver, the mistake is easily written off: He’s a rookie. When Wentz does it, everyone understandably searches for an explanation because he’s a five-year veteran and presumably should be past committing such an error.
But there are other things that come with that experience and that success, too, such as harsher, sometimes sillier, criticism whenever he doesn’t meet those expectations.
Take this past week. As everyone with even the slightest interest in the Eagles knows, Wentz has not been at his best this season, but Fox’s Colin Cowherd apparently believes that the problems with Wentz go even deeper than his play on the field. Cowherd noticed that, during his Zoom call with the media Wednesday, Wentz was wearing a baseball cap backward.
“That’s not what you’re supposed to look like,” Cowherd said. “And I like that kid. I’m a Carson Wentz defender. But Howie Roseman, the GM, needs to go and have a sit-down.”
Cowherd’s brain-melting plea for attention and Twitter chatter, of course, came on the heels of Fox’s playing simulated boos during its telecast of the Eagles' 37-19 loss to the Rams – another example of the kind of derision that Wentz, at this stage of his career, has to deal with and Burrow, at his, doesn’t. Not yet.