CINCINNATI — Even with the door closed and his voice muffled, it was clear what Joe Burrow was doing in the basement of his family home.
The words were not discernible, but the sound was unmistakable. The Cincinnati Bengals rookie quarterback was staring at a screen, listening to his coaches on a video conference call and barking out to teammates loud enough for his father, Jimmy, to hear him upstairs.
It might have been an audible. It could have been a protection call to his offensive linemen at the virtual line of scrimmage. Whatever Burrow said, it was one of the most important parts of the 23-year-old’s preparation for the task of a lifetime.
Even though Burrow begins his NFL career amid unprecedented circumstances due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the task at hand doesn’t change for the top overall draft pick. No matter the location — his family home’s basement, alone in a room at Paul Brown Stadium or on the practice fields off the banks of the Ohio River — Burrow spent the past several months preparing to be the Bengals’ next starting quarterback and face of the franchise.
And his work is starting to pay off.
“His preparation habits are at such a high level that he knows everything whenever he needs to know it,” Bengals offensive coordinator Brian Callahan told ESPN. “Everything comes to him quickly, primarily because he works really hard at understanding it all. For a kid that hasn’t played NFL football, he has a great feel for the game.”
Burrow hasn’t let the unusual offseason prevent him from preparing for the Bengals’ season opener on Sept. 13, when he will likely make his NFL debut against the Los Angeles Chargers. While he hasn’t officially been named the starter, Burrow has taken all the first-team reps at quarterback in training camp.
To add another degree of difficulty, Burrow’s first NFL snap will come in that Week 1 game. With no preseason games this year, Burrow’s August training regimen before the opener against the Chargers consists solely of drills against his teammates. The Bengals have spaced out their scrimmages to try to replicate the exhibition games as best as they can.
The lack of preseason prep hasn’t kept Bengals coach Zac Taylor from having high expectations for his rookie quarterback.
“Everything I have seen about him and know about him, he has high expectations for himself,” Taylor said. “He’s going to do everything he can to put himself in position to be successful. I trust that.”
Burrow spent hours in the basement of The Plains, Ohio, home he grew up in getting to know his teammates in virtual meetings. And he worked with the coaching staff on simple things such as relaying playcalls from Taylor to the rest of his teammates.
Occasionally, Jimmy descended into the basement to read plays to Burrow, who then tried to recite them back. After not being in a huddle during his final year at LSU, Burrow wanted to make sure he had the conviction in his voice required to convey confidence to his teammates.
Football wasn’t the only sport Burrow worked on this offseason. He bought himself a set of golf clubs and got his dad one as well for Father’s Day. It was the first time he golfed extensively since his father was an assistant football coach at North Dakota State 15 years ago.
In May, Burrow spoke at length with former Colts and Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning, a former No. 1 pick himself. For about an hour, the two quarterbacks talked about the various aspects of handling the pressure that comes with being a franchise cornerstone.
“I felt like we were in very similar situations coming in and he felt the same,” Burrow said in July. “He just gave me a lot of different advice when it came to marketing, how to handle the huddle, how to handle coaches, how assertive to be in your first year and how you build upon that.”
Burrow moved from southeast Ohio to Cincinnati as the start of camp got closer. A few days before rookies reported, he helped organize an unofficial team workout at a nearby high school, according to rookie wide receiver Scotty Washington. For about an hour, 10 to 12 players worked with each other, including second-year quarterback Ryan Finley, who led the throwing sessions one day earlier.
Burrow and Washington had a few pre-draft training sessions together in Southern California. Washington recalled that even before the Bengals selected Burrow, who signed a four-year deal worth $36 million and a $23.9 million signing bonus, the quarterback was focused when he was on the field.
“He was always the first one there,” Washington said. “He just wanted to come in, get his work in and go about his day.”
That level of preparation has been consistent throughout the Bengals’ training camp, even if the setup is a bit unusual. Burrow and each of the other three quarterbacks are doing virtual meetings in separate rooms to limit the possibility of contracting COVID-19.
It sounds unorthodox, but when the franchise quarterback is getting ready for the opener, every necessary precaution is essential.
And because of how long the team has been using Zoom to conduct its meetings, the transition to doing them at Paul Brown Stadium instead of at home was pretty seamless, according to Callahan. While he misses everyone physically being in the same room, they’ve learned how to replicate that camaraderie among the group.
“As everyone in the world has figured out, it’s not too hard to convey and tell stories and have a good time and laugh over Zoom just the same as if you were in a room,” Callahan said.
Whether it’s been on the field or on camera, the coaching staff has taken notice of Burrow’s work habits. On Tuesday, Taylor said Burrow has shown a sense of urgency since he was drafted. But Taylor was quick to point out that he’s a rookie still learning on the job.
“He’s done a lot of impressive things, but it’s important to realize he has not yet arrived,” Taylor said. “There’s still a lot of work to put in and a lot of things he hasn’t seen yet that will be thrown at him later in training camp or as the games get underway. But he has the right attitude, and he knows that.”
One of Burrow’s rookie mistakes is a prime example. During one practice, linebacker Josh Bynes intercepted Burrow. After practice ended, Burrow approached Bynes to talk about the play. With his helmet tucked under his left arm, Burrow and Bynes walked toward the edge of the practice field and he gestured with his free arm as he talked to the 10-year veteran.
Bynes told reporters afterward he couldn’t recall any rookies doing that at any point during his career. To him, it was a sign that Burrow was eager to learn and get better.
“I think everybody is knowing that, especially on offense,” Bynes said. “They’re gravitating towards him because right now he has to lead the way for this offense and we’re looking forward to it.”
Whether in a basement, a secluded room or around his teammates, Burrow has made the most of the unorthodox offseason. And that hasn’t been lost on his teammates.
“He’s the leader of this locker room,” safety Jessie Bates said. “He’s going to be the face of this franchise for many years to come.”