Rob Ninkovich does his best Rob Gronkowski impression, while Domonique Foxworth explains why Gronk and others want to play with Joe Burrow. (1:43)
CINCINNATI — During one practice this season, something didn’t feel right between Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow and wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase.
A couple of passes missed the mark. So, the two stayed after for four or five extra throws. Chase instructed Burrow where to put the ball, and Burrow, the most accurate passer in the NFL this season, obliged. The next ball hit Chase right in the hands.
“That’s the throw,” Chase said. “That’s the one.”
The connection between Burrow and Chase, which goes back to their days at LSU, has been the backbone to Cincinnati’s run to Super Bowl LVI. The pairing has lifted the Bengals to their best season in 33 years. Years of work have formed one of the most unique quarterback-receiver partnerships in NFL history.
In two seasons at LSU and one in Cincinnati, Burrow and Chase have combined for 206 catches for 3,801 yards and 37 touchdowns. The combination has already led to one championship: LSU’s 2019 national title.
On Sunday against the Los Angeles Rams (6:30 p.m. ET, NBC), the two will have a chance to win another.
“Everything’s an opportunity,” Chase said after the Bengals secured their first Super Bowl appearance since 1989. “We keep having opportunities in front of us and we keep taking advantage of them. We have one more chance.”
THE BOND BETWEEN Chase and Burrow was forged in the Louisiana humidity with few people watching.
When LSU acquired the two players in 2018 — Chase as a true freshman, Burrow an Ohio State graduate transfer — the coaching staff knew it had two players willing to work on their craft.
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That was evident during the summer of 2019. After a 2018 season filled with dropped passes, Burrow and his receivers threw and caught an estimated 10,000 balls to prepare for what would be a historic 2019 campaign in which the offense broke a number of national, conference and College Football Playoff records. Former LSU co-offensive coordinator Steve Ensminger often found Burrow working with Chase and other receivers on Saturdays in the summer or after practices if things didn’t look right.
Eventually, those reps led to a supreme confidence Burrow had in his top receivers, especially Chase. At one point, even when Burrow wasn’t directed to throw the ball to Chase on a run-pass option, he did it anyway. During one film session, Ensminger asked Burrow why.
“If you don’t want me to throw it, don’t call it,” Burrow said.
“You got it, big boy,” Ensminger said.
The 2019 LSU offense featured several future NFL players, including wide receivers Justin Jefferson and Terrace Marshall, and running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire. But if Burrow saw a favorable matchup and a patch of grass for Chase to run toward, Ensminger knew where Burrow would throw it.
And Burrow knew what was going to happen when the ball came down. Burrow and Chase combined for 1,780 yards and 20 touchdowns during their championship season. Burrow won the Heisman and Chase won the Biletnikoff Award given to the nation’s best receiver.
“Joe just knew he was going to go up and get the football,” Ensminger said. “Whether it was a back shoulder [throw], whether it was out in front of him, whether it was a contested catch.
“Guys around the offense laughed about the 50-50 ball. They said, ‘Hey, in this room, with Ja’Marr and Joe, it’s an 80-20 ball.'”
There’s a reason the percentages were tilted in their favor. When the two reunited in Cincinnati, the Bengals’ coaching staff quickly saw the byproduct of their time together at LSU.
Offensive coordinator Brian Callahan said the pair is always discussing what routes should look like, ball placement and when the pass should be thrown — all the things that have enabled Cincinnati’s offense to be successful.
“They got such a great sense for each other,” Callahan said. “A lot of it is because they communicate so easily.”
FOR THE BENGALS to go from the NFL’s worst team to the Super Bowl in two seasons, the front office needed to get the big decisions right. None was bigger than reuniting Chase with Burrow with the fifth overall pick in the 2021 draft.
There were other options for the Bengals to take besides Chase, including Oregon tackle Penei Sewell. But Cincinnati wanted a playmaker.
“We needed to be more explosive, and you always want to put more pressure on the defenses,” Bengals coach Zac Taylor said.
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Arguably no connection in the NFL has stressed defenses like Burrow and Chase, specifically on go routes. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, vertical routes between the two yielded 542 yards and seven touchdowns, both of which led the NFL on any individual route by one receiver.
The most notable of those plays came during Chase’s 266-yard performance in the Week 17 win over the Kansas City Chiefs, when Burrow hit Chase for a 30-yard completion to help set up the game-winning field goal.
Burrow had warned opposing defenses all season about the perils of guarding Chase one-on-one. And after the game, Burrow cracked a joke about his mindset on the play.
“Everyone knows that meme, ‘F— it, Ja’Marr’s down there somewhere,'” Burrow said. “I’m gonna just throw it up to him and he’s gonna make a play.”
But the play that best exemplified their link came earlier in the first quarter. With the Bengals trailing 14-0 and at risk of getting blown out at home, Chase ran upfield and cut toward the sideline. But instead of going further to his left, he stopped. Had he continued running, he risked an interception.
Chase knew when to stop. Burrow threw it at exactly the right moment and Chase did the rest — catching the ball, cutting against the grain and racing through the heart of the defense for a 72-yard score.
“He knows exactly where the ball is gonna be, depending on the look the corner is presenting,” Burrow said.
JA’MARR CHASE 72-YARD TD! #RuleTheJungle
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WATCH BURROW AND Chase close enough and the connection seems telepathic.
Often, Burrow will anticipate when Chase will break off the top of the route. By the time he turns around, the ball is where it needs to be.
It’s a result of a practice standard that requires everything to be done perfectly before the offense leaves the field.
Take a routine, 17-yard completion against the Raiders in the AFC wild-card game, for example. On the play, Chase got a one-on-one matchup, and faked inside before breaking toward the sideline to catch Burrow’s pass. It looked easy.
But three days before the game, it didn’t feel quite right at practice. Burrow and Chase took a few extra reps afterward to perfect the timing and work the play to each side of the field.
“The one thing about it, if Joe doesn’t feel good about it going into a game, then we’re not going to call it,” Bengals wide receivers coach Troy Walters said.
That explains why Burrow and Chase have often made things look so effortless. The same work ethic and chemistry they exhibited at LSU has translated to the NFL. And because of their familiarity with each other, there wasn’t any guesswork about how Chase ran routes or where Burrow placed his passes.
“We had already that coming in and we already knew how to talk about the routes that we missed and we would get it corrected very quickly,” Burrow said on Monday. “It’s a big advantage when you already have a relationship with a new receiver that you have.”
It’s a bond that Walters has never seen before.
“They came into this thing being on the same page understanding each other,” Walters said. “Joe knows exactly what Ja’Marr is going to do in terms of his release, where to throw the ball. Ja’Marr understands where Joe is going to put the ball. It’s just uncanny.”
THE DEPTH OF the understanding between Burrow and Chase is evident by how little they say to each other when working through things at practice.
Whenever they go off to the side to work on routes and timing, the bulk of the communication comes via physical cues or brief phrases.
“Their conversations are very short,” Callahan said. “Their feedback is very direct.”
At LSU, Burrow was the one who first stressed the value of watching tape and studying defenses. Now, Chase earns praise for his detailed film study.
On draft night, Burrow texted Chase and told him to pack his bags for Cincinnati for a reunion that was weeks in the making. And while they might not spend a lot of time together off the field, there’s no question how they view each other.
“He’s very different,” Chase said after the AFC Championship Game. “He’s very confident. He’s someone you want to be around. He’s growing as a person. I want to grow as myself.
“I just stay with him, ask him questions. I just lean on him like he’s my older brother, basically.”
On Jan. 13, 2020, Burrow and Chase helped their team win the College Football Playoff championship. A little over two years later, they have a chance to win the Super Bowl.
After the Bengals beat Kansas City to secure this week’s trip to Los Angeles, Burrow reminded Chase, who opted out of the 2020 college football season, that he has played for a title in each of his past two seasons.
Chase told him that was funny before it hit him.
“They were with you, too.”