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Joe Burrow finally returned to the Cincinnati Bengals huddle this week and, yes, he seemed pretty much his old self.
Burrow, missing from practice for a month, greeted everyone in his trademark understated fashion.
“That’s how he walks into the huddle,” receiver J’Marr Chase said. “Hey guys. All the time. Hey guys.”
And with that Joe Burrow was back at work on Wednesday and, more importantly, back again on Thursday after suffering no setback from the strained calf he’s been nursing for nearly five weeks.
Joe Burrow Was A Preseason Spectator
The Bengals celebrated the return of their franchise quarterback with what coach Zac Taylor called an “energetic” practice. So all seems well and on course for the start of the 2023 season.
Taylor said Burrow will be systematically integrated into practice. But Taylor was making no promises about the Sept. 10 opener against the Cleveland Browns.
“We’re just taking it day to day right now,” Taylor said.
Zac Taylor Won’t Commit To Burrow In Opener
Let me fast forward on Taylor’s behalf: Burrow is playing against the Browns. The Bengals have a timeline for the quarterback’s return from his calf injury and that regular-season opener has always been the target at the end of the line.
Burrow, a 68.2 percent passer, fully intends to hit the timeline.
But there is another issue just as important to the Bengals’ chances of winning as whether Burrow plays. It’s about how well he plays.
The fact is, the last two seasons Burrow has taken a minute to get going. He has been better the second part of the season than the first part.
It hasn’t been night and day. More like morning and afternoon.
But the statistics bear out a difference.
Burrow Typically Warms Up During Bengals Seasons
In 2021, Burrow had a higher quarterback rating in the second half (108.5) of the season than the first half (107.2). He threw for more yards and fewer interceptions in the second half.
Last season Burrow threw one more TD pass the second half of the season than the first half with the same amount of interceptions.
The point is Burrow got slightly sharper toward the end of the season. And that no doubt played a factor in Cincinnati’s Super Bowl run in 2021, and the 10-game win streak at the end of 2022 that ended in the AFC Championship game.
So what might produce the late-season runs and slightly better play from Burrow later in the year?
He thinks it may have something to do with the fact he wasn’t totally himself early in the season after not being 100 percent during training camp.
Missing Bengals Training Camp Not Optimal
In 2021, Burrow was working his way back from ACL repair surgery. He was cleared. He practiced. But he wasn’t, well, 100 percent.
And last year, Burrow suffered a bout of appendicitis just before training camp.
The day training camp opened this year, Burrow celebrated the fact he finally was healthy. He said he was looking forward to productive practices to hone his skills.
“This time last year I was sitting in a hospital bed post-surgery,” Burrow said when camp opened this year. “Anytime you get more reps, the better you’re going to be. You have four weeks of training camp, you’re going to be four weeks better than if you didn’t get those reps.”
Burrow called training camp practices a “pursuit of constant improvement” and added that not having those days was akin to “wasting your time.”
The next day Burrow strained his calf. That was July 27.
Burrow didn’t practice again until Wednesday. That was Aug. 30.
Bengals Might Have To Wait For QB’s Best
Starting his fourth season, Burrow has played only one preseason game. He didn’t play any in 2020 because they were all canceled amid the pandemic. He played one in 2021, then none last year and none this year.
It wouldn’t be so notable except Burrow thinks it is. He came into this training camp hoping to play “a series or two,” calling it “beneficial.”
“I don’t want to waste any of these days,” Burrow said. “I’ve wasted enough days the last two years with injuries and appendicitis and COVID the year before that. I don’t want to get out of camp wishing I had seven more days to have gotten better.
“I need these days to be my best.”
Burrow probably will have to cram a bit to be fully up to speed on the 10th. It doesn’t mean he won’t be good right away.
But he just might be better later in the season once he’s had more work.