It wasn’t just the brace protecting his surgically repaired left knee. Or the orange practice jerseys that are part of the uniforms for the upcoming season.
The ball looked faster coming out of his hand. Receivers struggled to haul in passes arriving quicker than expected. And one even put his gloves back on during the middle of drills.
“Hands was out there stinging a little bit,” Bengals wideout Tyler Boyd said.
That extra zip was the culmination of months of hard work for Burrow, who had dedicated the offseason to two primary goals -- rehabbing multiple torn ligaments after the knee injury ended his rookie season in November, and improving his stance and throwing motion. The latter led to an increase in velocity that will help Cincinnati unlock its deep passing game.
Burrow attacked both with the same relentlessness that transformed him from a college quarterback looking to make his mark, to a national champion, Heisman winner and No. 1 overall pick in the 2020 draft.
Now, heading into the Bengals’ season opener against the Minnesota Vikings (1 p.m. ET Sunday, Fox), his knee is fully healed and the added life on his throws could be the catalyst that transforms Cincinnati from a floundering franchise into a potential postseason contender in 2021.
“When you get a player who increases velocity, velocity is not the only byproduct,” said Jordan Palmer, a private quarterback coach who works with Burrow and several other NFL starters. “Confidence starts getting affected. Certain types of throws that they can make now start to get affected.”
When his 2020 season ended, Burrow ranked second in the NFL in completions and attempts, trailing only Tom Brady. But when it came to throws of more than 20 yards, Burrow was historically ineffective.
On attempts of 20 air yards or more, Burrow’s completion percentage was 21% -- third-worst among 33 qualified quarterbacks over the past decade, according to ESPN Stats and Information.
There were a few reasons for the Bengals’ lack of explosive plays last season. Burrow and veteran wide receiver A.J. Green failed to build a solid rapport. Rookie Tee Higgins, a second-round pick, didn’t round into form until the middle of the season. And Cincinnati’s passing game tended to use a lot of quick throws to offset the team’s over-matched offensive line.
“It was all open to us last year. I just didn't hit the deep ones that I needed to,” Burrow said in July. “I had the arm strength last year to hit those. I just upped it this year.”
Building a better arm
Understanding Burrow’s offseason requires an understanding of who he is as a person and player.
“Joe’s a machine,” Palmer said. “I think that all of his talents, all of his abilities, all of his relationships are all centered on him being great at this. It’s actually not true for everybody.”
When Burrow prepared to visit Los Angeles for an offseason check-up with the surgeon who repaired his knee, he booked a couple of days to work with Palmer, who lives in nearby Orange County. Palmer said Burrow didn’t set out to increase his velocity. Instead, Palmer asked Burrow to pull up some clips where things didn’t feel right. They quickly found out why.
Burrow had a tendency of throwing from his toes, and slightly lifting his feet off the ground. So, he worked with Palmer to keep his cleats planted, which, Burrow said, allows him to generate more torque and power through his core, which eventually travels upward to the arm on throws.
Palmer used his array of biometric testing equipment to quantify the impact. He said Burrow’s throwing velocity, just days after being cleared to throw, went from 48.5 miles per hour to 54 -- a number he believes has increased as Burrow continued his rehab in Cincinnati.
There, Bengals head coach Zac Taylor, offensive coordinator Brian Callahan and assistant Dan Pitcher all worked with Burrow to continue his progress. They collectively broke down tape of Burrow’s throws, evaluating his makes and misses, watching his feet and seeing how the ball came out of his hand.
“That’s a wiring in his brain somewhere that is much different than anybody else,” Callahan said. “As a coach, that’s what gets you excited because he’s going to do everything possible to be great.”
'It's always been a knock on me'
Burrow has had to answer questions about his arm throughout his football career.
Even as a recruit out of southeast Ohio, some wondered if Burrow had the necessary arm strength to play high-level college football. The discussion continued after he signed with Ohio State and has persisted to this day.
“It's always been a knock on me for some reason, no matter how I played,” Burrow said.
Eventually in college, Burrow eradicated most of the doubters.
He transferred to LSU in 2018. And although his first season in Baton Rouge was pedestrian, Burrow, with a new offense built around him, produced one of the finest individual seasons in college football history in 2019 -- winning the Heisman Trophy and leading the Tigers to a national title.
In his two years at LSU, Burrow’s father, Jimmy, said questions about his arm strength never came up.
“There was never, to my knowledge, that anybody was just alarmed that he didn’t have it,” Jimmy Burrow said. “But it was brought up to him at times over the years.
“Believe me, he knows who those people were that brought it up.”
During the pre-draft process, the Bengals weren’t one of them.
“There’s nothing I’ve seen from any of these top quarterbacks in this draft that make you think they don’t have the arm to play in the NFL,” Taylor said at the NFL scouting combine in February of 2020.
The extra zip Burrow acquired this offseason could help Cincinnati unlock the big plays the offense has previously been lacking.
Burrow has always possessed elite levels of timing and accuracy -- two of the traits the Bengals valued most when they drafted him. Not only will those aspects be accentuated, but the added velocity means he can hold the ball a split-second longer and fit passes into tighter windows.
“If you’re always anticipating and you’re not necessarily trying to drive a ball into a (throwing) window every now and again, (now) it allows for a little bit more ability to create explosive plays,” Callahan said.
To help Burrow and the offense, the Bengals drafted his former LSU teammate, wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase, with the fifth overall pick in 2021. During LSU’s run to the 2019 national title, Chase led the Football Bowl Subdivision in receiving yards and receiving touchdowns.
Cincinnati also bolstered its offensive line by signing tackle Riley Reiff and rehiring offensive line coach Frank Pollack, which should give Burrow more time to find open targets.
“We want to be able to make plays anywhere on the field,” Taylor said after the team drafted Chase. “We want to be where we don’t have to drive the ball 10, 12 plays. We want to be able to score in one or two plays.”
'It's gotta show up in the game'
All of Burrow’s offseason work will be tested starting Sunday, when the Bengals host the Vikings.
As he wears the protective knee brace and prepares to be tackled for the first time since his injury, Burrow will get an opportunity to see how his offseason throwing tweaks translate to results. Burrow and the Bengals will have to contend with a secondary led by former All-Pro safety Harrison Smith. However, in 2020, Minnesota surrendered the most completions on throws of 20 or more yards, according to NFL Next Gen.
Throughout OTAs and the preseason, Burrow’s velocity was a big talking point among the wide receivers. But the second-year quarterback knows those improvements have to show up when it counts.
“If it shows up right now,” Burrow said back in June, “it doesn’t matter. It’s gotta show up in the game. I’m looking forward to that.”
Last year, NFL defensive coordinators wanted to know if Burrow could handle the blitzes and pressures at football’s highest level. In 2021, expect them to see if he can make some of the throws he couldn’t complete as a rookie.
“I’m looking very much forward to somebody testing that,” Callahan said. “Because I think it’s going to be fun to watch.”