It was a random moment in the days leading up to the 2020 College Football Playoff national championship game when an LSU in-house reporter approached quarterback Joe Burrow, holding a photo of him at five or six years of age, and asked, “Does this look like a Heisman Trophy winner?”
Burrow had just won the Heisman Trophy but looked more like Macaulay Culkin in the first Home Alone movie in that photo. Still, he didn’t miss a beat when the reporter showed the photo to the camera and pressed him with the question again.
“Looks like a national champion,” Burrow said with a grin.
Burrow would soon lead LSU to the national championship.
So, welcome to the Joe Burrow experience. It’s been a thrill ride to Super Bowl LVI, thanks in no small part to Burrow’s great ability to play quarterback, his outstanding leadership, and his intelligence to learn from his mistakes and retain solutions to problems, even play to play.
But none of that is Joe Burrow’s super power. Not his good arm or his instincts or the threat to run.
The thing that several NFL scouts recently told OutKick they put prominently on their report when Burrow was coming out for the 2020 draft was one word: confidence.
“That’s a special quality to have and to have that predates my time with him, I can promise you that,” Bengals coach Zac Taylor said Monday as the team prepared to leave for Southern California and their meeting with the Los Angeles Rams on Sunday.
“I think that’s something that he gets from his dad and his mom or something he’s always had innately. I don’t know that anyone else deserves credit for that other than Joe Burrow. It’s what makes him special.”
Consider those words because his coach believes it’s not Burrow’s excellent work ethic or quick processing or dissecting of defenses that makes him special.
It’s Burrow’s confidence. We’ve seen it when, for example, the Baltimore Ravens blitzed him time and again and he roasted them and then exclaimed, “Can’t zero me!” — meaning a zero blitz was bound to fail.
“He’s able to elevate his teammates and his coaches around him to believe that special things are possible,” Taylor said. “And, again, he’s just done a tremendous job leading this football team and helping us score points, and when the moments are big, he plays really big as well. These are stages he’s built for, and so I’m excited to watch him play next Sunday.”
We’re treading dangerous territory here. There’s a line between being confident and pompous or conceited. And sometimes Burrow straddles that line.
“There’s great players at every position in the NFL, but only a few affect the game in a drastic way, and quarterback is the one position that can affect the game every single play,” Burrow said. “I like having the ball in my hands every play and be able to win or lose with me.”
Yeah, kind of close to the line.
But Burrow’s never quite over it because, well, the kid’s cool. He’s respectful of teammates and coaches and reporters and fans. He works relentlessly and knows it doesn’t come easy.
And all that is likeable.
Those traits combined with that elite confidence have helped make Burrow a great leader — even at age 25.
“Joe’s always been very confident because he’s earned that confidence,” Taylor said. “He puts in the work. He’s got a very high football IQ and a very high work ethic. So he sets the standard for this team. They rally around him.
“He’s built for this stage. He’s played state championships, he’s played for national championships, now he’s playing for the Super Bowl. I think that’s been his expectation all along. He’s not surprised by it. He rises to these occasions.”
Burrow isn’t shy about saying things he thinks. He’s not afraid of public relations shadows or a coach’s rebuke.
So this Super Bowl? Huge, right? Respect the game, right?
It actually kind of reminds Burrow of that time he played for the state championship in Ohio, except he’s less nervous.
“Obviously, the players get better and the schemes get better but, honestly, my mindset stays the same,” he said. “When I played in the state championship in high school, it feels the same as the Super Bowl does now. At that moment in my life, that was the biggest game I’d ever played in. So everything kind of feels the same, but I’ve had more reps in those situations, so I’m probably even a little calmer.”
Burrow doesn’t just talk and play confidently. He wears it. Literally.
No, he’s not Joe Namath in a mink quite yet. But the diamond encrusted JB9 necklace he wore after the AFC Championship Game? And the sunglasses he wore the week before?
You got to have swag to wear that stuff.
“I couldn’t pull it off the things he wears,” said Taylor, who is all of 38 years old. “There’s no way I’m hip enough to do that, but Joe Burrow could do it.
“He’s made a statement on our youth around this city and probably around the country. There’s going to be a lot of kids emulating him, and I would imagine nine, 10 months from now, there’s going to be a lot of young babies around this league named Joe as well.”
It hasn’t always been like this. Burrow lost not one but two quarterback competitions to J.T. Barrett and Dwayne Haskins at Ohio State, so he left that program with a lot less confidence than he had when he arrived.
“At Ohio State, I was confident but not as confident as I had been in the past and would be in the future,” Burrow said. “Those are times you really learn a lot about yourself as a player and a person, and keeping confidence high in those situations is tough.
“And I think, as a quarterback, it’s important to exude that confidence, not only in yourself but all your teammates. And I think the quarterback sets the tone for the culture in the locker room, and I try to be that kind of player and person for everybody here.”
Burrow arrived at LSU in 2018 without much of a footprint. There were no diamond chains then.
“When I first met Joe, he wasn’t a very social person because he was around new people, I’m assuming,” Bengals receiver and friend Ja’Marr Chase said. “You know, as practice went by, I seen how tough he was when Devin White used to talk to him.
“I think his confidence grew as we started winning, as he started playing again, and as he got on the field, his confidence started growing. That’s when his swag just started to take off. You know what I’m saying? That’s all with your confidence, and he started doing that once we started winning.”
Burrow rides a runaway locomotive of confidence now. He’s needed it playing for the upstart Bengals, and he’ll need it in the Super Bowl against the favored Rams.
“I’ve kind of always been a confident player, probably more so now than I ever have been before because I feel like I’ve proven to myself that I can play at a high level at this level of football,” he said.
And all this confidence is contagious.
“When you believe your quarterback can take you the distance, it allows everybody to play that one percent better because they know on the other side, that triggerman is capable of doing some really special things,” Taylor said. “So I think he’s helped take us to these heights.
“We have a lot of confidence in him. He has a lot of confidence in himself. It’s fun to be a part of it.”
Follow on Twitter: @ArmandoSalguero