Joey Franchise: Burrow's last-second heroics have Bengals dreaming big

·5-min read

Defenses craft levels upon levels of strategic assaults on young quarterbacks, intricate schemes and misdirection that borders on the mystical, but it really all boils down to this: overwhelm the kid and see what happens. A few young quarterbacks crumble. A few barely survive. 

And then there's Joey Franchise. He doesn't just survive pressure, he thrives on it.

The Cincinnati Bengals have won three games this season — three before October, really, it's true — and two of those are a direct result of Joe Burrow's quick-learning, adjust-on-the-fly mindset. 

Three weeks ago, Burrow faced a fourth-and-short against the Vikings in overtime. He audibled the Bengals out of a run play and into a pass, and hit a wide-open C.J. Uzomah to keep the drive alive and, eventually, win the game. 

Thursday night against the Jaguars, tied with barely a minute remaining in the game, again at midfield, Burrow surveyed the Jaguars defense and calculated that they were in a zero-blitz formation — a high-risk, high-reward scheme with an extra rusher and no safety. It's the kind of blitz that can terrify a young quarterback ... unless he sniffs it out ahead of time. 

"They showed some ‘zero’ on film," Burrow said after the game. "I knew I’d have to be ready for it in a big spot. I had C.J. out there, that’s not exactly the personnel we usually throw those jailbreak screens to, but he really took advantage of the opportunity. I had those plays in the back of my head expecting ‘zero,’ and I just got to it and didn’t really think about it."

"Zero-blitz, you better have an answer for zero-blitz,” coach Zac Taylor said. “Joe handled it well and calmly, got us in the right check and executed." Burrow audibled out of the existing play call and looked to Uzomah ... who was as surprised as anyone. 

“I’ll be honest, I [did a] double take on that one,” Uzomah said. “Tyler Boyd was looking at me, too, like ‘What did he just call?’ It was cover zero and we knew going in that [Cullen] was coming in from the Ravens and that’s what they like to do — run cover zero in critical situations — and Joey Franchise is just back there dealing dots out there knowing and understanding what the defense is doing. He called that play up and just made something happen."

Burrow found Uzomah on the right side, and 25 yards later, the Bengals were in field goal range. Seventeen seconds later, they won the game on a field goal. It's a long season, but the Bengals have wrapped the first quarter at 3-1, and Burrow deserves a world of credit. 

"He is the smartest person out there at all times," Uzomah said. "He’s just Joey Franchise."

The audible was a bit of improvisational brilliance, but Burrow was already changing the tenor of the game, the season, and maybe even the franchise. Cincinnati was down 14-0 at the half — to the winless Jaguars, enduring the boos of the home crowd — but that didn't bother Burrow. 

"There's no panic in the locker room," he said after the game, wearing a black ballcap, still in his shoulder pads, looking uncannily like Macaulay Culkin in "Home Alone." "We knew we didn't play great in the first half. It is what it is. I had all the faith in the world we would play great in the second half." 

They did exactly that, starting the half with a brilliant drive that included a 44-yard pass to Ja'Marr Chase and a 22-yard pass to Uzomah that halved Jacksonville's lead in just 100 seconds. Overall, Burrow completed 17 of 20 passes for 253 yards and two touchdowns in the second half, throwing against a defense that knew he'd be throwing. 

"It's just a different feel for this team," Taylor said. "The football character of this team is through the roof." 

This is nothing new for Burrow, who played his way to the No. 1 overall pick on a stellar run at LSU punctuated by exactly these kinds of at-the-line decisions. “He’s a Peyton Manning," then-LSU teammate Jonathan Giles said in 2018. "If he doesn’t like the call, he’s going to check it no matter what it is. He’s very smart."

It's a long way from where Burrow stands now to where Patrick Mahomes, Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers stand. Burrow may be "Joey Franchise," but that franchise has to win at least a playoff game — which it last did in 1991, six years before Burrow was born — for that nickname to mean anything outside Cincinnati.

The Bengals' next five games are a classic push-pull: Green Bay, at Detroit, at Baltimore, at the Jets, Cleveland. If Joey Franchise can pull a winning record out of that run, he'll be running well ahead of everyone's schedule but his own. 

CINCINNATI, OHIO - SEPTEMBER 30: Joe Burrow #9 of the Cincinnati Bengals celebrates after scoring a touchdown in the fourth quarter against the Jacksonville Jaguars at Paul Brown Stadium on September 30, 2021 in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)
CINCINNATI, OHIO - SEPTEMBER 30: Joe Burrow #9 of the Cincinnati Bengals celebrates after scoring a touchdown in the fourth quarter against the Jacksonville Jaguars at Paul Brown Stadium on September 30, 2021 in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)

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Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter at @jaybusbee or contact him at jay.busbee@yahoo.com. 

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