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Revisiting Joe Burrow and Nebraska

Joe Burrow wanted to be a Husker, but for multiple reasons, it didn’t happen. And almost certainly in his favor.

AFC Championship - Cincinnati Bengals v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock the last three seasons, you’ve probably heard the story about how Joe Burrow, the son and brother of former Huskers, wanted to play for Nebraska.

And Nebraska wasn’t terribly interested. TWICE.

In hindsight, it seems incredibly brainless. Hindsight is, of course, 20/20. But back at the time, it actually made a little sense. (And if we’re truly honest, quite a bit of sense at the time.)

Nebraska’s first chance to grab Burrow was out of high school. Tim Beck and Bo Pelini weren’t completely sold on Burrow’s arm, and wanted to see it in person. So did a lot of other schools; Burrow wasn’t getting a lot of big-time scholarship offers before his senior year. Plus, Nebraska had their eyes on Lamar Jackson, who would go on to win a Heisman Trophy at Louisville. And rather than wait on Nebraska, Burrow committed to his home-state school instead.

But after three seasons with only mop-up playing time at Ohio State, Burrow realized he was buried behind Dwayne Haskins on the depth chart and announced his plans to transfer. A second shot for Burrow to sign with his dream school?

Scott Frost squashed that speculation after the 2018 spring game with this now-infamous quote:

“You think he’s [Burrow] better than what we got?”

That quote will continue to echo around the internet, haunting Frost until Burrow finally hangs up his cleats. The thing is... Frost wasn’t wrong in 2018. (2019, absolutely...but nobody, and I mean NOBODY, saw that coming.)

The stats tell the story:

Adrian Martinez, 65% completion percentage, 17 touchdowns, 8 interceptions, 139.5 passer rating (#46 nationally), 2,617 yards passing, 629 yards rushing, 8 rushing touchdowns.

Joe Burrow: 58% completion percentage, 16 touchdowns, 5 interceptions, 133.2 passer rating (#65 nationally), 2,894 yards passing, 399 yards rushing, 7 rushing touchdowns.

In the summer of 2019, the talk was that Martinez was a Heisman candidate after an impressive true freshman season. Nobody, and I mean NOBODY was second guessing Frost’s decision. In fact, go back to what Frost said next in the spring of 2018.

“We think, if we can get by with what we have, it’s cleaner than muddying up the situation.”

That situation was, of course, Adrian Martinez and Tristan Gebbia as Nebraska’s top two quarterbacks. (Gebbia, of course, would transfer to Oregon State at the last possible minute.) But if you look at the stats from 2018, who probably would have seen the vast majority of the snaps at quarterback? Almost certainly, it would have been Adrian Martinez, not Joe Burrow.

So Burrow went to LSU, and had a solid, though unspectacular junior season. But something else happened at LSU: Ed Orgeron hired Joe Brady from the New Orleans Saints to be LSU’s passing game coordinator and assist Mickey Joseph (remember that name?) with coaching receivers. And did things ever change.

In 2019, Burrow completed 76% of his passes for SIXTY touchdowns, winning the national championship and the Heisman Trophy.

The difference between the 2018 and 2019 versions of Joe Burrow is unbelievably wide, so what changed? Was it Joe Brady? To a large extent, yes. Was it Ja’Marr Chase, who exploded as his playing time increased? Probably as well. Was it Burrow finally getting the hang of playing at this level? Probably as well.

Bottom line to me is that most of those factors that turned an OK SEC quarterback (eighth best in the SEC in 2018) into Joe Freakin’ Burrow probably weren’t going to be repeated at Nebraska. Heck, there’s a good chance that Burrow wouldn’t have seen a lot of playing time behind Martinez. Bottom line, I’m not sure the Joe Burrow we saw emerge at LSU two years ago, the Super Bowl Joe Burrow we’ll see next week, would even exist if he had become Husker Joe Burrow, sad to say. Whatever lit that spark was likely related to Baton Rouge.

And before anybody sees this as an indictment of Scott Frost, you could make the same indictment of Urban Meyer.

Urban Meyer earns his own criticism for off-the-field garbage, but if the argument is that Meyer is a failure for not recognizing Joe Freakin’ Burrow as one of the all time greats...well, that evidence was in short supply pre-2019.

Give Joe Burrow all of the credit in the world for exploding between his junior and senior seasons. Give LSU’s coaches (like Joe Brady) for turning Burrow into a six-star Hall of Fame quarterback.

But don’t rag on Scott Frost and Urban Meyer for not recognizing that prior to 2019, because frankly, pretty much nobody did. This isn’t an epic failure by those two coaches; this is simply a great accomplishment by Joe Burrow, who deserves every bit of credit for becoming a national champion and Super Bowl quarterback.