The No1 overall pick has shown he has the potential to be great. But Andrew Luck is a cautionary tale of what happens when quarterbacks are not protected
At what point does the Cincinnati Bengals’ lack of protection for the crown jewel of this year’s draft, No 1 overall pick Joe Burrow, become malpractice?
The quarterback has taken a serious amount of punishment in his five weeks as an NFL starter. He has been sacked 22 times, hit 50 times and pressured 65 times. He “leads” the NFL in all three of those categories. And these aren’t pack-up-and-fold, mid-career Peyton Manning-type sacks. These are vicious, are-they-still-allowed-to-hit-like-that shots.
Burrow faced his toughest test yet when he faced the Baltimore Ravens last weekend, and it could not have gone much worse. Burrow was hit 14 times and sacked seven times during the 27-3 loss. There were at least three moments when it was fair to wonder if a) Burrow would get up and b) whether the punishment he was taking was worth it, for Burrow or the franchise.
Some quarterbacks’ careers are over before they begin. They get hit, slammed, dropped and rocked. They join bad teams, with bad owners, bad coaches, and a roster lacking in talent. They get hit and hit and then hit some more. Before they realise it, the league has beaten the natural playmaking instincts out of a quarterback.
David Carr is perhaps the most infamous example. He had a great arm and not so great decision-making ability, and was selected first overall by the expansion Houston Texans franchise back in 2002. They then hung him out to dry during his rookie year behind an offensive line that we will, for the sake of politeness, describe as awful.
Carr was the one punished for the franchises’ failings. He took big shot after big shot, and in doing so developed the quarterback yips: instead of looking for his receivers downfield, he started staring down at the rush. By the end, you could almost smell his fear through the TV screen. And he was right to be scared; he was unsafe behind such an overmatched group. The 76 sacks Carr took during his rookie season remain an NFL record.
The examples roll on and on: Blaine Gabbert, David Klingler, Jimmy Clausen, Tim Couch. Even Andrew Luck took so much punishment during the first few years of his Colts career that by the time Indy rounded the corner, with a solid, sustainable base, a good offensive line and an innovative coach, Luck’s body had given out. The beatings had withered away some of his love of the game.
“I haven’t been able to live the life I want to live,” Luck said when he retired last year at the age of 29. As a young player, the league was all fun and adrenaline. Luck thanked players for big hits – they were being good competitors. By the time the team around him had risen to his level, injuries from those grueling years continued to throb and poke and taunt. It was too much. “I was scared, scared in my core, in my insides,” Luck later told the Indy Star. “There was a time I was very scared about football, and about my place in football.”
Make no mistake, some of the names mentioned above wouldn’t have made it even if they had landed on good teams. Some players flame out because they were over-drafted, lack talent, or don’t have the mental edge needed. But some are victims of circumstance. They land in the wrong place, and by the time they’re up and running with all that the NFL requires mentally or find the right supporting cast, their body or mind is too broken.
You can already see the makings of this with Sam Darnold, who, thanks to the general Jets-ness of the Jets, has wasted the early part of his career playing on a weak roster for a befuddled coach. Darnold is not immune from blame – the best eventually rise above schematic and personnel flaws – but a woeful supporting cast, from ownership on down, has stunted his growth.
And there should be a palpable fear of the same thing happening in Cincinnati. Burrow isn’t taking normal, welcome-to-the-NFL type punishment. He is absorbing Carr-like amounts of pressure, Luck-like amounts of punishment, all in a bid to bail out the errors of his employers.
In college, Burrow was at his best under pressure. It’s what elevated him from a pitch-and-catch chucker posting big numbers in LSU’s offense into a player worthy of the first overall pick: he torched defenses on the easy plays and turned bad plays into positive yards and scores. Few players in the history of college football have been better off-script.
Improvisation was the name of the game. In fact, ProFootballFocus charted his passing grade under pressure in 2019 as better than 84 college quarterbacks’ passer rating from a clean pocket, far and away the highest total since PFF started tracking the data in 2006.
That has carried over into the NFL. Heading into that game against Baltimore, Burrow was performing at a top-10-quarterback level despite the pressure he was under. That’s not a situation where a rookie ever succeeds. Only the special players, the future MVP candidates, are able to navigate the rhythm of the pro game under pressure right off the bat. And remember, because of the Covid-19 pandemic, Burrow wasn’t able to enjoy a traditional preseason or practice schedule before he took his first snap in the league.
But Burrow’s creativity should be an addition to the offense. It should not be the offense. Burrow will not be able to slide through this season unscathed (physically or mentally) while he is pressured on 51% of his dropbacks and sacked on 10% of the Bengals’ offensive plays.
This is the curse of being the first overall pick. In fact, in the Super Bowl era only five quarterbacks drafted first overall have won the Super Bowl with the team that drafted them: Troy Aikman, Terry Bradshaw, John Elway, Peyton Manning, and Eli Manning. (Eli Manning was technically drafted by the Chargers but was picked on the understanding of a trade deal to the Giants.)
There is a reason teams pick first overall. They are bad. They are losers. Changing that culture takes time and talent, and as history proves, adding a star quarterback can only do so much. Young quarterbacks like Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson are setting the NFL alight with their otherworldly, but they were drafted on to well-run teams that were set up for success.
Cincinnati strategically sitting Burrow would be smart. Burrow is good, maybe one day he’ll be great. For stretches, he has looked like a superstar. There is little reason to continue risking him while the rest of the roster is so far below the competitive standard.
And starting your career on the bench can help. Aaron Rodgers sat. Mahomes sat. Both were back-ups for strategic purposes, to recraft their mechanics, so that they could get up to speed with the NFL game – its verbiage and its nuances – and so the team could squeeze the last drops out of a veteran before the understudy was ready.
Cincinnati should view their situation as the inverse: Burrow is ready to win now, the rest of the roster is not. Why waste those precious reps on a team that is going nowhere this season?
Cincy should think long-term and protect Burrow from his own instincts. Burrow welcomes contact, thrives in chaos. But to avoid a Carr or Luck type situation, the Bengals should keep Burrow on the sideline until he has a competent core around him.