Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Where Burrow Stands Among All-Time Greats

By Steve Brenna

The dust has settled on the 2019-2020 college football season, and as many saw coming, the LSU Tigers tied a bow on their perfect season by besting Clemson in the Battle of Big Cat Supremacy. I suppose some people were also referring to it as the CFP National Championship.

Much like they did to opponents all season long, LSU's aerial attack was too much for the defending champions, who were gashed for 631 yards of total offense, including 463 yards, and 5 touchdown passes from near unanimous Heisman Trophy winner Joe Burrow. With another phenomenal performance that included several throws that could only be described as "dimes" in the highest sense of the term, Burrow cemented his 2019 campaign as one of the greatest single seasons by a quarterback in FBS history.

The numbers were staggering, to say the least. Burrow's 5,671 yards passing was the most in FBS since Houston's Case Keenum oddly passed for the exact same total in 2009. The two are now tied for the third-most yards in a single season behind two Mike Leach Air-Raid era quarterbacks at Texas Tech, B.J. Symons (5,833) and Graham Harrell (5,705). Burrow's 76.3 completion percentage was the highest since Colt McCoy set the national record at 76.7 in 2008, with Burrow now second all-time.

The Tigers' quarterback passing efficiency rating of 202 was the highest ever recorded (dating back to 1956), as he became the first passer to eclipse the 200 plateau. Oh yes, there's also the matter of his new single-season record 60 touchdown passes, which nearly quadrupled his total from a season ago.

In terms of prolific passing seasons, Burrow joins the ranks of Symons, Harrell, Keenum, and former Hawaii QB and Redskins legend Colt Brennan when it comes to sheer numbers. None of those quarterbacks, however, put up their historic numbers while leading their teams to an undefeated national championship season. And let's be honest, the Conference USA defenses Keenum torched, or those from the now-defunct (as far as football goes) WAC that Colt Brennan dominated don't quite stack up to the SEC West.

So considering the fact LSU went 15-0 while facing seven teams ranked in the top 10, dominated both the SEC title game and the Peach Bowl and were only mildly challenged by Clemson in the title game, does Burrow's Heisman campaign from nowhere stand out as the most impressive season by a quarterback of all-time?

It's hard to argue otherwise if we're talking about the combination of individual numbers coupled with extraordinary team success. Everything came together for Burrow and the Tigers this season. But it is a different era, and while I was comparing Burrow's numbers to those put up by some of the players mentioned above, it essentially was a comparison of quarterbacks who all played within the past 15 years. 5,000 yard passing seasons were virtually unheard of prior to Leach's Red Raiders revolutionizing the passing game, leading to gaudy quarterback numbers on a regular basis.

Prior to this season, LSU was seemingly stuck in the past when it came to throwing the football, as evidenced by the night and day comparison of Joe Burrow's statistics last year versus this year. He threw 60 touchdown passes this season. LSU quarterbacks had 59 TD passes combined in the previous four seasons, including a measly 16 by Burrow himself in 2018. New co-offensive coordinator Joe Brady joined LSU from the ranks of the New Orleans Saints, and completely flipped the script in less than 12 months.

Does that make Burrow's storybook season a fluke? After personally watching him throw with laser-like precision throughout the regular season and CFP, including in situations where his receivers were well-covered, I'd have to say fluke is too strong a word. Repeatable? Probably not, but he'll be heading to the NFL, so perhaps his successor at LSU will help us determine whether it was the system, or the quarterback that led to the dominant season.

One thing I noticed as I scanned the list of national passing leaders over the past 25 years was the almost complete lack of NFL success among quarterbacks who put up insane numbers in college. Your Tim Rattays, Chris Weinkes, and Brandon Doughtys of the world. Over the past 25 years, the only QBs who led the nation in passing that one could argue went on to any degree of NFL success is Keenum and Derek Carr. And no one is jumping out of their chairs calling either of those guys world-beaters.

So Burrow will more than likely be on his way to Cincinnati with one (albeit a helluva' one) successful college season under his belt over the course of four years. He started 13 games and wasn't awful in 2018, but to go from an unknown to the consensus No. 1 pick in a year is quite a leap. Will the former Ohio Mr. Football that left the Buckeyes behind make his triumphant return to his home state, and lead the long-suffering Bengals to the promised land?

I sort of doubt it, mostly because the Bengals do Bengal things. But Burrow seems like a good kid, and there's no denying the tenacity and the arm. So I'll be rooting for him.

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