With apologies to The Boston Globe's Alex Speier, you don't have to be Stat Masterson to know Joe Burrow's rookie long ball last season didn't compute to the numbers that dominated the college game in 2019.
But you got the sense watching Tuesday's voluntary workout on the Paul Brown Stadium practice fields that it is an urgent item on head coach Zac Taylor's spring agenda. For the first time this year, Burrow threw consistently long routes to his receivers for much of the practice after a spring the quarterbacks have been throwing their deep balls largely to stationary receivers.
"We've been here two weeks now going into this week, and you don't necessarily know what shape all these guys are in when they show up," Taylor said. "And so the first week you don't want them just hauling it and running 45-yard go routes all the time and have them strain. That was part of our process, was week three, let's start pushing the ball down the field a little more. Same goes with Joe. I didn't know coming into where Burrow was going to be at. Now we've gotten a feel for everybody."
It was part of a workout where Taylor amped it up a little bit in what up to now has been pretty much a series of walk-throughs spiced with robust individual drills. But on Tuesday he let Burrow carefully execute his first play-action passes and practice ended with the fastest seven-on-seven session yet.
"I tell the backs to cheat out more as if they were in empty (backfield)," said Taylor, still keeping Burrow from under center and anywhere else people are found. "But you are in the backfield a little bit, so fortunately we have some mature backs who understand what I am asking them to do. It's being able to ask Joe. He's comfortable. We check with the trainers first before we do anything. He's getting some good work done."
As he has done every inch of this spring, Burrow's knee passed the test. To be sure, it was clear that this was the first time he was trying to connect to his receivers on routes consisting of 40 and 50 yards. Some were overthrown and some the receiver had to wait on.
But he also threw enough in stride to rookie wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase to send the Big Chill down the spine of any LSU fan and show the grind to the Sept. 12 opener is alive and well. His footwork and arm strength again were smooth for throws that had, for the most part, zip and accuracy.
"I think he can throw it probably 90 yards right now," said Taylor with a laugh. "I don't know how far he can throw it. But it's exciting. He looks really good. I know a lot's been made about the arm strength and velocity and all that, but he's throwing the ball on time where it needs to go and that's what I'm pleased about. "
Taylor doesn't like to hear the 2020 excuse why 2020 was so short on long plays. A rookie quarterback throwing to his receivers for the first time in Tuesday's structure didn't happen last year until early August and that made for rusty timing for much of the season. There were other reasons, of course, (protection, reading the defense, use of the wide receivers, few winning jump balls) and Taylor plans to go after them all.
For instance, Tee Higgins was a rookie, too, last year and he felt like he didn't take advantage of some of his opportunities in the long game. He's working on showing his hands to the defense later in the play and high-pointing the throw.
"Last year I didn't capitalize for the most part on deep balls," Higgins said. "This year I'm really focusing on capitalizing on those deep balls because they're key plays in games. Today it felt great going out there and catching those deep balls. And hopefully we can keep it going for the season."
When Taylor, offensive coordinator Brian Callahan quarterbacks coach Dan Pitcher and receiver coaches Troy Walters and Brad Kragthorpe sat down Tuesday afternoon to break down the film, they also had to put themselves in an October mode since they were watching routes thrown mostly against air and not defenders.
What may looked like such a nice 50-yard bomb to Chase running past a stationary assistant coach, may have been a disaster on Sunday with the Ravens Pro Bowl cornerbacks lurking. What may have been a flat route on Tuesday has to be a wider route in the Thursday night game against high-priced Jaguars cornerback Shaquill Griffin and rookie Tyson Campbell, the player taken with the Higgins pick this year at the top of the second round.
"This week we wanted to get some of the timing and the landmarks down a little bit better," Taylor said. "It's one of the things we weren't good enough at last year during the season. We didn't connect on them all today, but you get a chance now to go back and watch the tape, talk about the landmarks, talk about the tempo, talk about the timing and make those corrections for later this week, next week."
But now they've got what they didn't have last year. Time.
Burrow dropped a dime on running back Joe Mixon down the right sideline on Tuesday, something he'll do next week again in the mandatory mini.
"It's good tape to teach off of when you come back to training camp." said Taylor of tape they didn't have in 2020.