Bengals QB Joe Burrow’s growth since three-pick day at Soldier Field should give Bears hope
That Burrow was able to tame the roller coaster in Year 2 and become one of the best quarterbacks in football the last two months has to give the Bears optimism about their own quarterback, Justin Fields, as he enters his second season.
Quarterback Joe Burrow had thrown 199 consecutive passes without an interception — the longest active streak in the NFL and almost halfway to Packers star Aaron Rodgers’ league record of 402 — when he dropped back on third-and-three four minutes into the fourth quarter of the Bengals’ game against the Bears in Week 2 at Soldier Field.
He didn’t see linebacker Roquan Smith lurking underneath. Smith jumped Burrow’s pass to receiver Tyler Boyd, intercepted it and sprinted down the left sideline for a 53-yard pick-six.
The Bears intercepted Burrow’s next pass, too, the first pick of second-year cornerback Jaylon Johnson’s career. Amazingly, the Bears picked off Burrow’s next throw after that, with linebacker Alec Ogletree blitzing and hitting his arm as he threw, allowing the ball to flutter into the arms of defensive tackle Angelo Blackson.
Burrow had thrown three interceptions on three passes. He didn’t throw three picks in a game for the rest of his magical season, which will culminate in the Super Bowl on Sunday against the Rams.
After the game, Burrow said he tried to force too many throws, given how good his own defense was playing.
It would be trite to say he learned a lesson that day, however. As hard as it might be to believe, given how out of his mind Burrow has played since December, he struggled earlier in the season, riding the roller coaster of a second-year quarterback.
That he was able to tame the roller coaster in Year 2 and become one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL has to give the Bears optimism about their own quarterback, Justin Fields, as he enters his second season.
In his first nine games, Burrow beat the Jaguars by three and lost to the Jets by three. The former had the worst record in 2020 and the latter had the second-worst. He beat the Ravens by 24 and lost to the Browns by 25. And, of course, he lost to the Bears 20-17 on Sept. 19 at Soldier Field.
‘‘Early in the year, we weren’t super-consistent,’’ Burrow said Monday. ‘‘We had big wins and bad losses. As a young team, sometimes you’re gonna go through that. We came out the other side, and we’ve been playing our best football when it matters most.’’
Coach Zac Taylor said the Bengals played ‘‘some really good defenses early in the season’’ but indicated Burrow’s development had more to do with his recovery from surgery in December 2020 to repair two torn ligaments in his left knee. In the name of safety, the Bengals held him out of preseason games, with the exception of one pass attempt.
‘‘He’s human,’’ Taylor said. ‘‘He was coming off major surgery there. First time he’s ever experienced it. So there’s a lot of unknowns there. I think he did a good job battling that through training camp. . . .
‘‘As he got more comfortable closer to the [midseason] bye, we started to see, ‘OK, he looks like he’s back to 100%.’ ’’
Burrow’s comfort level went beyond his knee, though. He grew more at ease with each start. In the last four games of the regular season, he had passer ratings of 125.6, 103.8, 143.2 and 148. In three playoff games, he has averaged 96.2.
Burrow and Fields started 10 games as rookies, each winning two. Burrow’s rookie season in 2020 was ended prematurely by a knee injury; Fields’ rookie season was hampered by injuries to his ribs and ankle, a coronavirus diagnosis and then-coach Matt Nagy’s refusal to let him compete for the starting job during training camp.
Burrow left his home state’s college powerhouse, Ohio State, to go to LSU, where he won a national championship. Fields transferred from his home state’s college powerhouse, Georgia, to play at Ohio State a year after Burrow left and lost a national-title game.
The comparisons, however, stop there. Burrow, the No. 1 pick in 2020, threw for 2,688 yards with 13 touchdowns, five interceptions and an 89.8 passer rating as a rookie. Fields, the No. 11 pick in 2021, threw for 1,870 yards with seven touchdowns, 10 interceptions and a 73.2 passer rating.
Burrow was the can’t-miss NFL prospect who didn’t. There are many more questions about Fields, and they only have been exacerbated by the Bears botching his playing time as a rookie.
Each start this season added to Burrow’s mental database, which had only 10 NFL games on it before 2021.
‘‘The reps are accumulating, so I’m feeling more and more comfortable out there against different defenses,’’ he said.
The Bears only can hope to say the same about Fields someday.