Joe Burrow’s last playoff loss was a thriller
When it’s time to win or go home, Joe Burrow’s teams seem to win.
LSU did this twice en route to the 2019 national championship, winning two college football playoff games for a total of 52 points. Now Burrows Cincinnati Bengals are 3-0 this postseason as they prepare to face the Los Angeles Rams in Super Bowl LVI, staggeringly imperfect in every game but unflinching and technically unbeatable.
Everything flows so naturally through Burrow. Those who have known him longest speak of the same intrinsic calm he displayed during that playoff run, where his 842 yards, four touchdowns and two interceptions belie a competitive stubbornness — a refusal to surrender to football’s chaotic downpours to bow that spread like an antidote to his crews. The odds pile up, and somehow Burrow just believes more.
“I think he just understands, what’s the point of getting upset about all this stuff?” said former high school teammate Ryan Luehrman, who has been friends with Burrow since second grade. “Because it won’t help you.”
However, there was one case where Burrow was worked up when he did lose as a starting quarterback in the playoffs. “The worst day of my life,” he immediately called Athens High School’s 56-52 loss in the 2014 Ohio Division III State Championship Game.
“Oh man, I think about this game all the time,” Burrow said Wednesday. “We were so close up until this point and played with a group of friends throughout our childhood. It was kind of the culmination of a lot of hard work and time we put in together and we just didn’t make it. So I still think about it all the time.”
Was there some kind of unquenchable fire in him? Or maybe pour gasoline on the already existing fire?
“It definitely brought something,” said former Athens High head coach Ryan Adams. “There’s no doubt that it affected him. It hit us all. I have no doubt that loss put a whole lot of fuel in his tank to work extremely hard not to feel like that again.”
So far he hasn’t.
What happened the last time Joe Burrow lost a playoff game?
In the 2014 State Semifinals, Burrows defeated Athens Bulldogs Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary (yes, LeBron James’ alma mater). Immediately after Toledo Central Catholic won the other state’s semifinals, head coach Greg Dempsey reached out to SVSM staff for their impressions of Athens, which Dempsey had never seen live and would be competing at Ohio State’s Horseshoe the following Thursday .
They called right back.
“You have to stop their quarterback,” Dempsey said, “and that’s a lot easier said than done.”
Burrow was named Mr. Football the night before the Ohio state title game. He completed 72.3% of his passes for 4,445 yards, a hair under 300 per game, and 63 touchdowns against just two interceptions. “Video Game Numbers” feels like a disservice to its performance since video games actually exist.
Athens had never won a playoff game in nearly a century of footballing before Burrow. The son of Jim Burrow, a former NFL defenseman who served 14 years as defense coordinator under Frank Solich at Ohio University in Athens, he also led the Bulldogs to the state quarterfinals in his sophomore and junior campaigns. So in a way, his senior year was paying off the potential that had built up since he joined the varsity program.
“It sounds silly, but from the first week I knew he was unlike anyone I’ve ever coached,” said current Athens head coach Nathan White, who previously served as attacking coordinator. “He was 15 years old, couldn’t drive and by the end of that summer he was our leader. And that at juniors and seniors and only with his mastery of what we did offensively.
It has been transferred. The same resolute certainty that Burrow brought to the Bengalis existed during his formative years. Especially at halftime against SVSM when Burrow, Luehrman and other veterans roared the team down 17-7 in the dressing room.
“I’ll be honest,” said former defense coordinator John Rogers. “As a coach, I think, ‘These guys are more confident than me.'”
Burrow still has reason to be confident late in the season to this day.
“I feel like I’m getting better as the year goes on just because you have more reruns and more film under your belt,” he said this week. “You’ve corrected any mistakes you made, and I’m good at remembering things like that. And when you get to the end of the year, you just have all those people on the bench.”
Athens beat SVSM 34-31 and set up the state finals with Toledo Central Catholic who put on an impressive charge led by University of Cincinnati’s Michael Warren.
Burrow had guns of his own, including Luehrman and his twin brother Adam, both of whom were All-State wide receivers who later played at Ohio University, and future Northwestern wildcat Trae Williams, who played running back.
Most importantly, Burrow had his easygoing manner.
“In the pregame, it felt like another game,” Rogers said. “During those five games in the playoffs, it never felt like there wasn’t another week.”
However, a high-scoring affair felt so inevitable that when TCC led 21-19 at the break, the game seemed tame compared to expectations. It didn’t last.
Athens and TCC combined for 68 second-half points and traded 10 touchdowns when they did averaged 23.4 yards per pop. Burrow’s ability to work comfortably at this pace is something that has stuck with Adams.
“You just feel so confident when he’s in that mode, and the whole team is trapped in the same mode,” Adams said. “Needless to say, all of us as coaches and staff sat in the headphones and felt like whoever had the ball last is going to matter. Unfortunately, that ended up becoming central Catholic.”
TCC quarterback Marcus Winters scored on an 8-yard rush with 15 seconds left in what proved to be the defining moment.
Meanwhile, Kevin Wiseman, covering the game for the Athens Messenger newspaper, points to the one blemish on Burrow’s day of 446 yards and six touchdowns: an interception he threw right after the defense missed a field goal late in the third quarter had forced.
“It was shocking because you sat up there and you just expected, ‘Okay, Athens will take control,'” Wiseman said. “That’s the moment I remember in the second half because after that I didn’t think anyone was going to stop the rest of the game.”
Burrow and the Bulldogs also failed to convert two two-point tries after their first two second-half touchdowns … and lost by four points. It wasn’t much, but along with interceptions, they were isolated winks in a game where anyone could prove costly.
White said the children were devastated. Luehrman said he didn’t sleep for a week and barely slept for the next week. Even Dempsey, whose TCC team lost in the state title game the following season, sympathized with the pain of the Athens defeat.
“Nothing matters but this loss,” Burrow told Messenger at the time.
Ask others and they will tell a different story.
Joe Burrow raises all boats
In a way, it’s not surprising that Burrow is helping lead an Ohio team to the brink of a title without much championship history. The Bengalis are just the new Athens.
“When he’s on the field, he exudes so much confidence in his game,” said Adam Luehrman. “He gives the city an identity, and it’s been a while since Cincinnati had a sports star like this.”
There’s an old economic aphorism that says “a rising tide lifts all boats”. Apparently so does Joe Burrow.
When asked what he remembers most from the 2014 state title game, Adam Luehrman notes the support from the fans at the Shoe. Just Monday, the Bengals held a fan rally at Paul Brown Stadium, where “MVP” chants drowned out Burrow when he tried to speak.
Communities are not afraid to let Burrow know what he means to them. Maybe because he’s not shy about what they mean to him.
“I wouldn’t be here without all the people who supported me in Athens,” Burrow said this week. “And I’m still in touch with a lot of those people and trying to, you know, help the area in any way I can. And I hope I make everyone proud.”
During his 2019 Heisman Trophy acceptance speech, Burrow used some of his time to raise awareness of widespread starvation in southeastern Ohio. Two days later, donations to the local pantry totaled hundreds of thousands of dollars.
It stems in part from an empathy Burrow possesses – Rogers calls him a “chameleon” – that extends to his football teams.
“We have a pretty diverse group of people,” said Adams, who still lives and teaches in Athens. “You’re five minutes out of town and everyone’s kind of the same, but there’s a nice cross section of different types of people in Athens.
“And what really struck me was how willing and able Joey was to reach out to all these different types of people and have good, positive interactions with all of them.”
Burrow’s crossover appeal has bubbled to the surface these playoffs. It was easy enough to cheer for Burrow after the ugly cruciate ligament tear he sustained as a promising rookie. Now he even has opponents like fellow LSU Odell Beckham Jr. shouting at his cool.
It’s innate. It’s also, in a way, a by-product of winning. Good vibes breed good vibes, but there’s no denying that Burrow’s legend has grown exponentially based on the postseason performances of his teams.
On Sunday he gets the chance to add the ultimate honor to that ledger. Don’t expect him to be anything but his calm, confident self. Somewhere deep inside, he’ll likely embrace the frustration of that last playoff loss in 2014.
There’s reason to believe he’ll win the Super Bowl. And it starts with being open to the idea that football doesn’t always cooperate.
“I plan to eventually win the Super Bowl. We plan to do it this week. If it’s not this week, we plan to do it at some point,” Burrow said. “And that this state championship in high school is going to be one that has eluded me.”