The Great One, Part 2: Like Gretzky, Joe Burrow Sees Game Differently

This isn’t an original thought. This is not John Nash in “A Beautiful Mind.” This is not something no one else is out there talking about, because we’re all admiring what Joe Burrow is doing in Cincinnati … and all trying to dissect how he’s getting it done and if we’ve seen this anywhere before.

For my money, I’m seeing a compilation of multiple quarterbacks with this young man, who is all of 26. I know a lot of people want to compare him to Tom Brady. I understand that makes sense with the attributes Burrow carries. But to me, it’s almost like astrology. You know, when you’re born within three days on either side of the date of that specific sign, that’s called being born on the cusp. And you get both attributes of those signs.

I feel like that’s what Burrow is. Sure, there’s plenty of Tom Brady, there’s no question about it. And it becomes more like Brady when he adds championships, when he wins the Super Bowl.
But how about Joe Montana? I really think we’re overlooking that aspect of him. “Joe Cool” himself, with four Super Bowl wins. But it’s not just the championship pedigree, but how he played the game, too.

The way I look at it with Joe Burrow, he’s a flat-out assassin. This guy comes in, he wants to just take you out and go on home. And there’s never a change of expression. Go out and do the hit, come back and have dinner with his family. No worries. Blood pressure never goes up.

We saw that in Buffalo. How about how he came out in the first quarter on the road in the snow? The Bengals jump out to a 14-0 lead. He’s 10-of-13 for 118 yards passing with two touchdowns in the first quarter. He sets the tone.

Like The Great One did.

Seeing Game Differently

Yes, I actually went outside of Burrow’s sport to compare him to Wayne Gretzky. I grew up a huge hockey fan, and that may surprise people, but growing up in New York, you get the Rangers and the Islanders and the Devils in New Jersey. And of course, you get all the original teams that are involved.

I remember Gretzky hit the scene with Edmonton in the early 1980s. I was captivated by how they played and how fast they were. They were kind of like a spread offense in football when they hit the scene.

In reading more about Gretzky, I found out his father, Walter, had told him — because he was not the most physically dominant player (6-foot, 185 pounds) — “You have to be quicker and smarter than your opponents. You have to see things before they happen.”

Walter would take him to the rink and take out a puck. He’d send it into different parts of the rink and tell Wayne to go get it. And what he was trying to teach him was that the puck was not going to end up where it was going originally. In other words, see the movement of the puck, see the bounces, see the change and see where it’s going to end up. Play the angles. Then you can be there first and make a better play.

I think that’s what I see with Joe Burrow, the way he surveys the defense, the way he reacts when the defense changes on the fly. He’s seeing the game two or three steps ahead and arriving there before the defense can get there, and making every play possible. That’s the reason I come back to the Gretzky comparison.

Again, Burrow, like Gretzky, is not physically dominant, though big enough (6-4, 215) to play quarterback. But he’s not a monster like Josh Allen (6-5, 237). He’s not a big guy like that. But this guy uses his mind, sees the game ahead of everyone else and gets it done.

Best of New-Age Quarterbacking

In this season, Burrow threw for 28 touchdowns and had 12 interceptions. Four of those interceptions came in the first game of the season against Pittsburgh when Burrow was coming off an appendectomy. When the Bengals got things in order, well, they haven’t lost since Halloween.

I think he represents the best of what I call the new-age quarterback. I know that for most, the new-age quarterback involves being mobile. Well, this kid is still doing everything old-style … with a little bit of mobility added. And that’s why I think he’s representing what is the best of the new-age quarterback.

And this guy has enough movement and running ability to help the Bengals win when that is necessary. We saw that in Buffalo on Sunday and throughout the entire season when he had 75 rushing attempts for 257 yards, five touchdowns and 27 rushing first downs.

You hear quarterback coaches talk all the time, asking, “Can you get me a first down or two each game with your feet?” Joe Burrow is capable of doing that.

You want to get him outside the pocket? We know Patrick Mahomes is unbelievable outside the pocket. I think Burrow is underrated in that area. He was first in the league with a 122.2 passer rating, six touchdowns, and zero interceptions outside the pocket.

I mentioned how cold-blooded this kid is. He is absolutely unbelievable. How about these career postseason stats: 5-1 record, 68 percent completions and more than 1,500 yards passing. That’s nearly 260 per game. And Burrow has eight passing touchdowns in the playoffs with two interceptions and a 98.4 passer rating.

And now he’s going back to another AFC championship game … in just his third NFL season.

Another ‘Joe Cool’

In last year’s AFC Championship Game at Arrowhead Stadium, remember how the Bengals were down big, 21-3, in the first half? He helped bring them back. They won, 27-24. He was 23-of-38 for 250 yards, with two TDs and an interception. And now, Mahomes’ team is hosting its fifth straight AFC Championship Game. I don’t think that will faze Joe Burrow.

Why not?

Because Joe Burrow and Cincinnati are 3-0 against Kansas City, including the playoffs. He’s completed 72 percent of his passes for 982 yards in the three games, with eight passing touchdowns, one interception and a 121.0 passer rating.

So let’s sum it all up. What we’re seeing in this new age of quarterbacking, where mobility rules the day, is that you still need to be able to deliver from the pocket and win pre- and post-snap. And doing it where your demeanor never changes; the blood pressure never changes whether you’re up or down on the scoreboard.

Is that Tom Brady? Absolutely. Joe Montana and Warren Moon did it that way as well.

And don’t forget about Wayne Gretzky.

Because that’s Joe Burrow. This kid is special. He is something to watch.

Charles Davis is an NFL analyst for CBS and NFL Network. He joined the sports media world after playing safety at the University of Tennessee.


How Eagles Have Perfected the ‘Tush Push’, and Why Some Want it Banned

It was late in the second quarter of the Philadelphia Eagles’ 29-21 Week 4 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars. The game was tied, 14-14, and the Eagles had a fourth-and-1 at the Jacksonville 12-yard line.

The fact that coach Nick Sirianni decided to go for it rather than let Jake Elliott kick a “gimme” go-ahead field goal wasn’t a surprise. Sirianni is one of the league’s more aggressive coaches, and his team had the fourth most fourth-down attempts (32) in the league this season.

The fact that they ran a quarterback sneak with Jalen Hurts on the fourth-and-1 wasn’t a surprise either. Hurts is a quarterback in a fullback’s body with a fullback’s strength.

However, what caught everyone’s attention was the assist Hurts got from tight end Dallas Goedert on the play. Goedert lined up on the right side in a three-tight end set, then came in motion across the formation. Just as the ball was snapped, he cut toward Hurts, put his hands on the quarterback’s butt, and pushed him forward for a 2-yard gain and a first down. Two plays later, running back Kenny Gainwell scored on a 10-yard run up the middle.

The first reaction of many people watching the play was, Can he do that?  The answer was yes. Yes, he can.

Pushing the runner to advance him forward has been legal in the NFL since 2005 and the college game since 2013.

“Until they say that we can’t do it, it’s legal [and we’re going to keep doing it],” Eagles offensive coordinator Shane Steichen said. “We’re always going to do everything we can to put our guys in a position to succeed.”

Legal Play Since 2005

Until Steichen and Sirianni turned the Tush Push into an art form this season, teams didn’t really take advantage of the ’05 rule change. Occasionally, you’d see a running back give the quarterback a little nudge on a sneak or an offensive lineman give a runner a helpful shove forward downfield if defenders were holding him up and the whistle hadn’t blown. But that was about it.

Most teams, fearful of their quarterback getting hurt, weren’t even running sneaks on short-yardage and goal-line situations. In the four years from 2017 through 2020, just 13 teams ran 10 or more quarterback sneaks in a season, according to data provided to The 33rd Team by Sports Info Solutions. Only one of those 11 – the 2020 Patriots – ran more than 15 (22).

“Until they say that we can’t do it, it’s legal [and we’re going to keep doing it]. We’re always going to do everything we can to put our guys in a position to succeed.” — Shane Steichen

Last year, the number of teams that ran 10-plus quarterback sneaks increased to 10, though none ran more than 19 (Patriots again). This year, it has risen to 12, including five teams with more than 15.

No one has run more sneaks this season than the Eagles, who have attempted a league-high 33, which is the most by an NFL team since at least 1990. The Browns are a distant second with 20.

Hurts, who has run 31 of those 33 sneaks (backup quarterback Gardner Minshew ran the other two), has converted all but three of them.

Sneaky Play-Calling

The 12 teams to run 10-plus quarterback sneaks this season:

Team Made/Att. Pct. Team Made/Att. Pct.
Eagles 29/33 87.9% Chargers 11/12 91.7%
Browns 17/20 85.0% Jaguars 10/12 83.3%
Steelers 17/19 89.5% Bills 10/10 100%
Bengals 15/18 83.3% Giants 9/10 90.0%
49ers 13/16 81.3% Bears 9/10 90.0%
Cowboys 11/13 84.6% Broncos 9/10 90.0%

“It’s been a successful play for us,” said Steichen. “Our guys are really good at operating the play.”

“We really just trust those guys in that scenario,” Sirianni told reporters. “The confidence starts with those three guys up front (center Jason Kelce and guards Landon Dickerson and Isaac Seumalo. Then it’s the quarterback and then there are a lot of different elements to it. So, we have a lot of confidence in that play.”

Primarily because of Kelce, a five-time first-team All-Pro, the Eagles have been good at quarterback sneaks for quite a while now. They were 11-for-11 on sneaks in 2017 when they won the Super Bowl, converting 8 of 9 in 2018, 13 of 15 in 2019 and 10 of 13 in 2020.

“Kelce’s usually lining up across from guys that are 320, 330, 340,” said former Eagles wide receiver Mike Quick, the team’s longtime radio analyst. “He’s maybe 290. But it’s about technique. It’s about quickness. It’s about leverage. It’s about getting off the snap and taking the fight to them before they can take it to you. If he’s quicker on the punch than the defensive guy and he’s in a good leverage position, that’s where he wins.”

“Let’s not underestimate Kelce’s lower-body strength,” said Marty Mornhinweg, an analyst for The 33rd Team who was an offensive coordinator with four different teams, including the Eagles, and worked with Hurts in 2020 as a senior offensive consultant for Sirianni. “There’s a couple of things that come into play with that lower-body strength – leverage and angles. Kelce is really, really smart that way. He will use leverage and angles to get a little bit of movement there.”

“It’s about quickness. It’s about leverage. It’s about getting off the snap and taking the fight to them before they can take it to you.” — Mike Quick

Hurts also has unusual lower-body strength for a quarterback. The guy can squat more than 600 pounds. Last year, his first full year as the starter, the Eagles converted 13 of 14 quarterback sneaks, including 11 of 12 by Hurts. This year, with the incorporation of the Tush Push, they’ve been next to unstoppable in and-one situations.

Last year, the Eagles had 33 and-one plays on third and fourth downs. They ran the ball on 29 of them, but only nine (31.0%) were by Hurts. This year, they’ve had 45 and-ones on third and fourth downs. They’ve run the ball on 42 of them. Twenty-nine of those 42 runs (69.0%) have been by Hurts.

In their 20-17 Week 5 win over the Arizona Cardinals, Hurts, whose 67 rushing first downs were the third most in the league this season behind only the Raiders’ Josh Jacobs (93) and the Browns’ Nick Chubb (69), ran a season-high seven quarterback sneaks. He converted six of them. On every one of them, he got a little help from his friends.

A couple of times, it was Goedert, either lining up a couple of feet behind him or going in motion first and then pushing him forward as he did against Jacksonville. Several other times, the Eagles lined up in an elongated “I” formation, with one of their running backs and two of their wide receivers lined up behind Hurts. At the snap, the running back pushed the quarterback, while the wideouts were responsible for cutting off any unblocked penetration off the edges.

A Copycat League

“My first thought after I saw Nick do it early in the year was, why isn’t everybody doing this?” said NFL Network analyst Brian Baldinger, who spent 11 years in the league as an offensive lineman. “I put it on one of my (Twitter) breakdowns and said, why isn’t every team doing this in short-yardage and goal-line? All these teams that can’t gain a stinking yard when they need a yard just do what the Eagles are doing. It’s out there for everybody to do.”

That’s exactly what happened. The NFL is a copycat league. Since the Eagles’ early success with the Tush Push, almost every team has used it to a certain degree. Why it took 17 years for it to happen is anybody’s guess.

“I think the reason nobody has really been doing it before this is because it feels illegal,” said Charles Davis, an analyst for The 33rd Team and NFL broadcasts on CBS. “Middle of the night, you keep the notepad close to the bed in case an idea hits you. You wake up and say, ‘Oh, I’ve got it.’ Then you go, ‘No, we can’t do that. It’s illegal,’ and go back to sleep. Then you find out it’s legal, and you’re like, ‘Are you sure?’

“Personally, I want it to be illegal. I don’t like it. I don’t like the idea that you can run behind your guy and push him. I want to see the whole thing outlawed. I know I sound like one of those get-off-my-lawn people. But it just doesn’t seem right to me. I mean, why don’t we just go back to Pudge Heffelfinger and put straps on the quarterback and throw him over the line of scrimmage like they did back in the good old days? But give the Eagles credit. I may not like it, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t run it. It’s on the books. It’s legal. And they’re very successful with it.”

Mornhinweg said he would occasionally tell his running back to give his quarterback a little nudge on sneaks if the opportunity arose. But he never spent practice time on it like the Eagles do.

“I didn’t emphasize it a ton,” he said. “But if there was a running back behind the quarterback, I’d tell him to put his right shoulder on the quarterback’s left buttocks and give him a little help if he could.

“The key is to allow the quarterback to make his decision first. Let him get his momentum going. Then help the ball carrier move forward.”

“Just a pure quarterback sneak, I don’t know that we’re going to see it anymore. Until the rule gets changed — if it gets changed. I’ll be the one leading the charge to get it changed.” — Charles Davis

Mornhinweg said many teams were reluctant to use their quarterback on sneaks for fear of getting him hurt.

“If a quarterback was banged up – ribs, shoulder, that kind of thing – we probably weren’t going to sneak it unless it was a game-winning situation,” Mornhinweg said.

The Eagles weren’t at all reluctant to use Hurts on a quarterback sneak in their final regular-season game against the Giants, even though he was playing with a sprained shoulder. And after going 1-for-5 in the red zone in that game, they likely won’t be reluctant to let Hurts run or sneak on Saturday when the two teams meet for the third time this season in the divisional round of the playoffs.

“It’s been pretty impressive,” Davis said. “What they’ve done, they’ve almost made [the sneak] automatic. And they do it with various counters to everything they’ve done. They’ll say, ‘OK, we did it this way the last time. Now, we’re going to slide Hurts through the guard and tackle gap.’ They read things. They do things. And now, everybody is picking up on it and doing it too.

“Teams are putting the tight end in motion and having him jump in behind center and take the snap. They’re bringing other people around and having them come behind the quarterback and give him a push like the Eagles have been doing.

“I’d be surprised if, out of the next 100 quarterback sneaks, 99 of them don’t have some form of someone pushing the quarterback. Just a pure quarterback sneak, I don’t know that we’re going to see it anymore. Until the rule gets changed — if it gets changed. I’ll be the one leading the charge to get it changed. But I don’t know if anyone’s listening to me.”

The Tush Push has created enough of a stir that it will almost certainly be discussed at the March owners meeting. But whether there’s enough sentiment around the league to outlaw it, given how popular it’s become, remains to be seen.

“When I first saw it, it looked like something from a rugby playbook where you get into a big scrum and start pushing people forward,” Quick said. “Or something we did when we played in the playground as kids.

“But until they change the rules, you have to take advantage of the rules as they are. If you’re not doing that, you’re not giving yourself the best chance to win. And the rules state that you can … tush-push. As long as it’s successful and legal, they should continue to tush-push.”

Paul Domowitch covered the Eagles and the NFL for the Philadelphia Inquirer for four decades. You can follow him on Twitter at @pdomo.

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