If Joe Burrow does it, I reckon we call it “The Burrow.”

“The Burrow” would be winning a Heisman Trophy, a national title and a Super Bowl. It’s the triple crown that, according to Matt Brown, no quarterback has ever accomplished. Even Peyton Manning and Tom Brady only did 1 of those things. The same with Joe Montana and Brett Favre. The only other active quarterback who can accomplish that feat is Jameis Winston, and I suppose Bryce Young technically counts, though he’s a year from even being draft eligible.

Burrow is at the Cam Newton level. He’s got the first 2 items checked off the list, and now he’s competing in a Super Bowl. Like Newton, Burrow’s pro-level success was preceded by him transferring and taking off at an SEC West program.

As is the case with any remarkable sports story, there are a few things that have maybe been blown out of proportion. Welcome to the narrative business.

As someone who has followed Burrow closely since he was at Ohio State, I felt the need to debunk some of the false narratives out there.

Burrow was a 4-star recruit who started getting bigger offers as a senior

This is worth remembering because sometimes the way the people talk about Burrow, you’d think the guy never picked up a football until he got to Ohio State. During the College Football Playoff National Championship at the end of the 2019 season, Kirk Herbstreit claimed that Burrow was a 2-star recruit.

Maybe Burrow was a 2-star recruit at one point in his high school career, but he signed with Ohio State as a 4-star recruit who was rated the No. 8 dual-threat quarterback in the country.

It’s true that Burrow’s only offer in his junior year was at his dad’s school, Ohio, where Jim Burrow was a longtime assistant (more on that in a bit). But make no mistake, Burrow was extremely prolific in high school. He threw for over 11,400 yards, he was a first-team All-State selection and he was Mr. Football in Ohio. No, Ohio isn’t Florida or California in terms of recruiting talent, but that’s still a huge deal in that state.

Burrow didn’t get that Elite 11 national invite — neither did Lamar Jackson in the 2015 class — but Urban Meyer compared him to former No. 1 overall pick Alex Smith before he ever arrived in Columbus. Burrow got his Ohio State offer before the start of his senior season and committed to the Buckeyes. He was a solid recruit.

He was behind Dwayne Haskins on the depth chart at Ohio State … not Tate Martell

Go back to spring 2018. Ohio State had to replace JT Barrett after he earned first-team All-Big Ten honors 3 times. That battle was between Burrow and Haskins, who excelled in relief of an injured Barrett in 2017. By the way, Burrow also broke his hand in 2017 so he wasn’t the full-time backup, which was why Haskins got those reps as a redshirt freshman.

You’ll notice that Martell was not part of that 2018 battle. At least not realistically.

Martell was coming off a freshman season and there was hope that there would be a red-zone package for the former Gatorade National Player of the Year. But Martell wasn’t higher than Burrow on the depth chart. Burrow was 2 years older than Martell, and he had waited behind Barrett for 3 years.

What did Burrow do? Put Martell in his place (this was in 2017 when Martell was a true freshman):

Goodness, we should’ve known then that things would play out the way that they did.

I wanted to make sure that was known because we’re about to dig into the Ohio State depth chart, and the last thing I need is someone telling me that Martell had a better chance at the starting job than Burrow.

Dwayne Haskins BALLED in 2018

The “how could Ohio State have picked Haskins over Burrow” narrative is the biggest example of lazy revisionist history with Burrow. Let’s not forget that Burrow and Haskins were engaged in a true quarterback battle. Burrow felt at the end of the spring that Haskins was going to win the job. In hindsight, he was probably right. All Ohio State did in 2018 with Haskins behind center was go 13-1 with the No. 8 offense in FBS. Haskins was No. 3 in the Heisman Trophy, and he finished the year with 50 (!) touchdown passes.

I mean, Haskins shattered the Big Ten single-season passing records for touchdowns and yards. There’s no denying whatsoever that Haskins was a better player than Burrow in the 2018 season. That’s why Haskins left school early and became a first-round pick.

Do not use Haskins’ shortcomings in the NFL as a way to mock Ohio State for letting Burrow transfer. Those are separate discussions.

The same people also try to bash Kirby Smart for starting Jake Fromm ahead of Justin Fields while conveniently leaving out the part where Fromm led Georgia to its first national championship berth since the Herschel Walker era … as a true freshman. Just because Fields turned out to be an excellent player at Ohio State doesn’t necessarily mean that Smart was, um, dumb (?) to start Fromm over true freshman Fields.

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In this era of the transfer portal, we’re better for understanding the nuance of the situation instead of lazily playing the results.

Losing Burrow was a brutal blow for Ohio State before he ever took a snap at LSU

Contrary to Colin Cowherd saying Ohio State “got rid of” Burrow, losing him was considered a crushing blow to the program. I remember going to Big Ten Media Days in 2018. That was shortly after Burrow announced his decision to transfer to LSU, so I asked Buckeye players and Meyer about what LSU was getting with their new signal-caller.

From Meyer:

“Do I wish he was still with us? I do. I love Joe Burrow. I love his family and have great respect for him. And that’s not going to stop. That relationship will continue for many years.”

“Joe Burrow was a made player. He came in and had a lot of work to do and he did it. He knows that, I know that. He’s ready to go play college football. He’s ready to go play. He’s earned that right. That’s why I think LSU fans should be very excited. He’s got a lot of tools. The most important tool is competitive spirit and toughness and that he can get the ball out. He’s worked so hard on his release and arm strength. He’s mobile enough to keep them honest. He’s certainly not a J.T. (Barrett), but he can run. He’s a leader.”

That last part — “he’s a leader” — is cliché to a certain extent.

But the more you read the comments from other Ohio State players, the more you realized that Burrow was on a different level with commanding respect.

From former Ohio State receiver Parris Campbell:

“LSU fans should be excited because they’re getting a warrior. A true warrior. Many people didn’t get to see Joe before at the highest level, but we’ve seen Joe go to work every single day. He’s a guy who didn’t say a whole lot, but is just a down and dirty competitor. Just a warrior. He’s gonna have a successful season at LSU. There’s no doubt about it.”

From former Ohio State defensive lineman Dre’Mont Jones:

“Believe me when I say this because he was my roommate for two years. You’re getting a dog in Joe. Joe’s no slouch. He’s a leader. He’s gonna take over that huddle.”

Fellow 2015 classmate Isaiah Prince said that LSU was “extremely blessed” to have a player like Burrow.

Yeah, that’s fair.

Burrow was significantly better than what his 2018 numbers indicated

Back in 2018, I did weekly SEC quarterback rankings. I kept having to defend ranking Burrow in the top half of the league because honestly, the numbers weren’t there. The guy started all 13 games and finished with just 16 touchdown passes, none of which came in the month of October. He added an additional 399 rushing yards, but there wasn’t really an argument for Burrow to even earn all-conference honors with Tua Tagovailoa and Drew Lock both putting up video game numbers.

But context is everything.

Burrow went to LSU, which had 1 offensive player drafted in 2019 (tight end Foster Moreau). On top of that, LSU really didn’t have much of a backup after it lost 2 quarterbacks to transfer and Myles Brennan was dealing with injuries throughout 2018. That limited the playbook for Steve Ensminger after Burrow enrolled in the summer and had extremely limited reps with the first-teamers in the preseason. On top of that, LSU couldn’t stay healthy on the offensive line.

All Burrow did was become the first LSU quarterback to gain 3,000 scrimmage yards in a season since JaMarcus Russell while also leading the Tigers to their first New Year’s 6 bowl of the Playoff era. Not bad for a team that was picked to finish 5th in its own division. Burrow also took 35 sacks, which hurt those rushing numbers. Oh, and he never missed a start. Brennan only played in 1 game that season even though Burrow took some licks.

Let’s also not overlook that LSU had a gauntlet in 2018. Burrow faced 6 top-20 defenses and went 4-2 against them with 3 wins by 16 points or more. The lone victory that wasn’t by 16 points in that group came on the road against top-10 Auburn, which flipped when Burrow threw an absolute dime to fuel the late comeback:

The only interception Burrow threw against a non-top 20 defense that year was the famous pick-6 against UCF.

Speaking of that …

I’d argue Burrow’s coming out party came in the game before the UCF hit

By now, you’ve seen a tweet like this:

I get it because there was a comeback in that specific game. Of course, Burrow didn’t lose a college game after that.

But I’d actually argue that Burrow’s true defining moment in his career came in that 7-overtime loss to Texas A&M. Go back and watch that game. He was brilliant. He took a gassed team and put it entirely on his back.

Burrow had 29 (!) rushing attempts and 6 total touchdowns (3 passing, 3 rushing). There was something in him that clicked in the 4th quarter of that game. The fearless mindset that we saw earlier in the season against Auburn and Miami came out in an even bigger way in front of 100,000-plus on the road. It was the first time we truly saw LSU unleash the full skill set with a month to rest and a New Year’s 6 bowl berth all but locked up.

Unfortunately, Burrow couldn’t play linebacker, so he didn’t have a say in LSU failing to get stops. Also, if 2 extremely borderline calls (at best) hadn’t worked against LSU in the 4th quarter and in overtime, Burrow would’ve won that game and the legend would’ve taken off on that long night in College Station.

Instead, the narrative is that Burrow took that cheap shot against UCF in the Fiesta Bowl and turned into a new player when LSU rallied back from the early 14-3 deficit. Maybe I’m in the minority with that take, but I’ll still point to A&M as his coming-of-age moment.

Having said that, no, Joe Burrow wouldn’t have skyrocketed without LSU’s offensive makeover in 2019 … nor would he have in the pre-Ryan Day offense at Ohio State

Do I think that Burrow would’ve been an excellent quarterback had LSU decided to run it back with the 2018 offense? Absolutely. Justin Jefferson was emerging into a go-to star, the offensive line was healthier and more experienced and Burrow would’ve gotten an entire offseason to work with the first-teamers. Let’s also not forget that LSU would’ve had more depth behind Burrow, meaning he could’ve been used as a runner like he was down the stretch.

There’s no doubt in my mind that Burrow absolutely could’ve had an All-SEC season running the same offense with Ensminger. Of course, there’s no way that he would’ve rewritten the record books like he did with Joe Brady’s principles. And we wouldn’t have seen Ja’Marr Chase turn into a historically prolific receiver. LSU would’ve been more conservative, and there would’ve been a bit more run-pass balance than what we saw in 2019.

Burrow could’ve been a mid-round draft pick and LSU would’ve repeated as a New Year’s 6 Bowl invitee with a defense that took a slight step back in the post-Devin White era (but played out of its mind down the stretch).

What’s interesting to think about is how Burrow would’ve developed had he played in the offense that he signed up for at Ohio State. Don’t forget that Day overhauled things in 2018 once Barrett moved on. Ohio State became much better at attacking teams downfield. Day was much better than Meyer at scheming receivers open.

Look at Ohio State’s passing plays of 50 yards pre-Day vs. with Day (excluding shortened 2020 season):

  • 2015 — 2, T-90 in FBS
  • 2016 — 2, T-97 in FBS
  • 2017 (Day arrives) — 8, T-15 in FBS
  • 2018 — 7, T-22 in FBS
  • 2019 — 6, T-37 in FBS
  • 2021 — 12, T-2 in FBS

It’s crazy to think that scheme could’ve prevented Burrow from taking off at Ohio State. As much as the quarterback in Columbus is one of the most high-profile positions in the sport, think about this. Before the 2021 season, here was the leaderboard for Ohio State quarterbacks and touchdown passes thrown in the NFL:

  • 1. Mike Tomczak, 88
  • 2. Kent Graham, 39
  • T3. Dwayne Haskins, 12
  • T3. Tom Tupa (the punter)

For this argument, we’re excluding Burrow from that list. If we were including him, he’d already be No. 2 on that list and more than halfway to overtaking Tomczak for that highly coveted top spot. But Ohio State doesn’t get to claim Burrow — the athletics department hasn’t, though some Buckeye fans have — so that’s a moot point.

The valid point is that Burrow was by no means a guarantee to take off. It took a system that spread defenses out and gave him prolific pass-catching options who understood route-running and how to work back to the quarterback when the play broke down. Without that, Burrow would probably be on an NFL roster somewhere but perhaps holding a clipboard instead of an AFC Championship trophy.

And the Nebraska thing …

It’ll never not be baffling that Nebraska whiffed on Burrow twice. That’s a tough look for a program that’s been so brutal the past 5 years, especially at the quarterback position.

But let’s add some context to it. Yes, Burrow had the family connections as a Husker legacy after both his dad and brother played for Nebraska. He made it known that he wanted to play there, and never got the offer. Burrow has since talked about that slight:

It’s worth remembering that while Burrow was considered good enough for Ohio State, there were plenty of other programs that didn’t offer him out of high school. Programs that struggled at quarterback in the next few years. Places like Auburn, Florida, Michigan, Michigan State, Oregon and Texas, to name a few. Oh, and what about LSU? The Tigers got a chance to right their wrong, but they weren’t exactly buying Burrow’s stock out of high school, either.

Nebraska gets the heat because he was there for the taking … twice. Two separate coaching staffs overlooked Burrow. The quote that keeps being brought up was Scott Frost saying “is (Burrow) better than what we’ve got?” That was basically considered as Frost scoffing at the notion that Burrow was better than 2018 true freshman Adrian Martinez.

Again, context is needed here. Frost was indeed misinformed, but he was more curious than defiant:

I think that should at least change the conversation a touch with Burrow and the Nebraska thing. Frost legitimately didn’t know. He wasn’t part of that recruitment process back in 2014. Of course, it’s now viewed as one of his and Nebraska’s biggest demerits to date.

After all, the narrative is everything with Burrow.