Joe Cooler: How Burrow gets people to buy in like Brady with a crossover appeal he could never match
"If you look up 'cool' in the dictionary there’s a picture of him in some Cartier shades. This guy’s smooth. You can’t help but like this guy, he’s going to be one of the greats I feel like. I truly believe that.
“Joe Burrow, yes, definitely cool, fo' sho',” Odell Beckham Jr. said Monday during Super Bowl LVI’s Opening Night.
Beckham ain’t never lied.
Burrow is preternaturally cool. Cool under pressure. Cool at the podium. Cool when he’s celebrating with a victory cigar. Cool when he’s rocking a massive diamond pendant with his own initials over a black turtleneck, cocooned in a heart-printed jacket. Cool walking on the tarmac in a windowpane suit with a SpongeBob Squarepants pocket square.
“Swag” has become overused, but damn if Burrow doesn’t have swag. On some people, it seems forced. On Burrow it seems effortless.
The truth is, you can’t be an effective leader and be fake. People see through it.
Given what the Cincinnati Bengals have done in 29 games with 2020’s No. 1 draft pick on the roster, you’d be hard-pressed to doubt that what we see isn’t him.
It’s colossally unfair to put Burrow in the same sentence with Tom Brady, but I had a front-row seat to Brady with the Patriots for a decade. This all feels familiar.
Their paths to the NFL were similar, Brady at one point was buried on the quarterback depth chart at Michigan, and Burrow transferred from Ohio State to LSU to get his chance to start. Their arrivals to the pros, however, were very different. The recently retired Brady was taken 199th overall in his draft — or 198 spots behind Burrow.
That’s immaterial here. We’re talking about it. The intangible, hard to describe, you-know-it-when-you-feel-it thing that some people have that draws people to them, that allows them to connect with anyone, that makes people want to follow them, that gives them the belief that they can achieve just about anything, obstacles be damned.
Brady has it. Burrow does too.
When Brady took over as New England’s quarterback early in the 2001 season, it was for a perpetually mediocre franchise. In a city that had seen incredible success from the Celtics and incredible heartbreak from the Red Sox, the Patriots were third fiddle. Maybe fourth if the Bruins were playing well. And the Patriots didn’t even play in the city; they played 20 miles southwest of it, in a terrible old stadium with metal bleacher seating.
There were signs of life on occasion: the “Squish the Fish” squad from 1985 that was embarrassed by Chicago in Super Bowl XX, the Bill Parcells team in 1996 that was humbled by the Packers in Super Bowl XXXI. But overall there weren’t a lot of high points.
And then Brady started playing and everything started to change, and there’s an entire generation of Patriots fans who don’t remember anything but conference championships and Super Bowl wins. Brady's fashion choices were also frequent fodder, though his straight-from-GQ aesthetic is a little different than Burrow's, who clearly embraces Black culture and style.
This isn’t to say Burrow is going to carry Cincinnati to nine Super Bowls as Brady did in New England. What it is to say, to borrow from “A Knight’s Tale,” is that a man can change his stars. Or the stars of a football franchise.
“He’s got ice in his veins,” Bengals tight end C.J. Uzomah said Monday. “The utmost confidence. We have him in the huddle, we have his mind and his ability to analyze defenses and just be a leader. Just a presence. Ice-cold-blooded killer out there dissecting defenses. It’s great.
“It’s why I call him ‘Franchise’ — he is a franchise player, he can turn an organization around. It’s not one person, it’s a team game, but he is a vital part of why we are where we are. He’s the man, dude. I love Joe.”
“He’s built for this stage,” Cincinnati coach Zac Taylor said. “He’s played for state championships, national championship, now he’s playing for a Super Bowl. I think that’s been his expectation all along. He’s not surprised by it; he rises to these occasions.”
It probably helps that while the stages get bigger and the stakes higher, Burrow's approach remains the same.
"Obviously the players get better and the scheme gets better but at the end of the day your mindset stays the same," he said Monday. "When I played in the state championship in high school, it feels the same as playing in the Super Bowl does now. At that moment in my life that was the biggest game I had ever played in. Everything feels the same, but I have more reps in those situations now so I'm probably even a little calmer."
Like Brady, Burrow is quick to compliment the team. At turns on Monday, he credited the Bengals' organization for drafting and signing the best players to fit into the locker room, the coaching staff, and his teammates for the team getting to this point. Knowing the defense will pick him up if he makes a mistake allows him to play freely, he said, and the defense knows the offense will be there if it has a slip-up.
They're young, he said, and never talk about the historical significance of what they're doing for the franchise and the city they represent. They're just out there playing football and getting better.
For a stretch, the Bengals were asking “why not us?” when it came to having playoff success, and Burrow wanted everyone to quit.
It is us, he insisted.
"Anytime that you’ve got a quarterback that can take you to these heights ... when you believe that your quarterback can take you the distance, it allows everybody to play that one percent better because they know on the other side that trigger man is capable of doing some really special things," Taylor said.
"We have a lot of confidence in him, he has a lot of confidence in himself. It’s special to be part of."
Burrow admits he's always been confident as a player, though it waned at times. It might be higher than it's ever been now.
"I feel like I've proven to myself that I can play at a high level, at this level of football," he said. "At Ohio State I was confident, but not as confident maybe as I had been in the past and would be in the future. I wasn't playing and those are the times you really learn a lot about yourself as a player and a person, and keeping confidence high in those situations is tough.
"As a quarterback, it's really important to exude that confidence not only in yourself but in all of your teammates and I think the quarterback sets the tone for the culture in the locker room and I try to be that person for everybody here."
Over the past few weeks, as he has led the Bengals further than they've been in decades, other Ohio-bred stars have reached out, from LeBron James to musician Kid Cudi, one of Burrow's idols. That's the thing that's "crazy" to him, not the football success.
If he does the once-seemingly impossible — bring a Super Bowl title to Cincinnati — everything will get crazy for Burrow.
That picture of cool, the one of Burrow in some Cartier shades, will be celebrated and copied everywhere.