In the name of Paul Brown, Hang on Sloopy, Archie Griffin, Carmen Ohio, and Wayne Woodrow Hayes, never has there been a football game played in the state of Ohio quite like the one unfolding Sunday (1 pm-Cincinnati’s Local 12) at Paycor Stadium.
Not when the Bengals’ Joe Burrow, the NFL’s hottest quarterback and all-time completion percentage leader, opposes the Texans’ CJ Stroud, coming off the greatest game a rookie quarterback ever had in one of the greatest seasons from an NFL rookie. It is, it would seem, the first meeting between the two greatest quarterbacks to ever pass through the portals of Ohio State as Stroud returns to make his first NFL appearance in the state in his ninth NFL game.
This is not Art Schlichter vs. Mike Tomczak or Kent Graham vs. Bobby Hoying or even Burrow vs. Justin Fields, which happened in 2021 but only when old friend Andy Dalton got hurt and Fields finished a Bears victory.
Burrow (2,272) and Stroud (2,270) are two of five quarterbacks in history who passed for at least 2,250 as rookies during their first eight NFL starts. Stroud has averaged the second most passing yards per game by a rookie with 283.8. Burrow is fourth at 268.8. At 0.4, Stroud has the rookie’s best interception percentage. Burrow is third at 1.2.
So make it the first NFL game started by the two best quarterbacks who went to school at Ohio State. As every school kid from Athens to Zanesville knows, Burrow played just ten games for the Buckeyes before transferring to college football immortality at LSU.
“You’ll have to ask them,” said Burrow after Wednesday’s practice, asked if Ohio State claims him. “I always say ‘I went to school at Ohio State, and I played football at LSU.’ That’s how I think about it.”
Ohio State head coach Ryan Day, who coached both of them, thinks about it like this:
“He’s proud to be a Buckeye,” said Day on Tuesday night, breaking away from his preparation for Saturday night’s game at The Shoe against Michigan State. “And we’re proud that he did so well at LSU and now in the NFL.”
Day, the Buckeyes co-offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach in Burrow’s final Ohio State season of 2017, agrees both Burrow and Stroud have “IT,” whatever “IT,” is. This is how Day defines IT:
“It is intelligence. It is special intelligence,” Day says. “Understanding how things move. How bodies react. Their ability to anticipate what the defender might do, their ability to anticipate what their own teammates might do and I think that’s ‘IT.’ I’ve always believed that.
“And then also to have the moxie and leadership that it takes to have the emotional intelligence of leading a team. So when you combine the intelligence, the IQ, the EQ, and the spatial intelligence, I think that’s what makes both those guys special .”
The Bengals have a raft of defensive backs who played against Stroud in college. Michigan’s Dax Hill and DJ Turner got him in The Game, and Cam Taylor-Britt had a shot at him at Nebraska. But out of the mouth of babes… The rookie Turner says Stroud is the best college quarterback he faced. But it just doesn’t matter now.
“The NFL game and the college game are so different,” Turner said before Wednesday’s practice. “He’s in a different system. I’m in a different system.”
But they’ve seen some of these same qualities in their own building. Day says Burrow and Stroud are also both special in the pocket.
“They both move well. They don’t get enamored with the rush. They can stand in there,” Day says. “They have a feel for when the rush is breaking down. When they can hang on to it maybe a little longer and when they need to escape.”
And Day saw what drove Burrow to LSU and Stroud to overcome an impoverished childhood.
“Their competitiveness,” Day says. “Both good basketball players. Both very driven. Both extremely intelligent. Can handle high levels of information. Both strong in their beliefs, but well-liked by their teammates.”
And they both seem to like each other. If Ohio State embraces Burrow, Burrow has certainly embraced his fellow Buckeye. Stroud has talked this season about reaching out to Burrow for advice.
“I’ve met him a couple times,” Burrow said. “He seems to be a guy that’s always dialed in, always wants to learn from people, always wants to get better. When you have those combinations, it usually works out for guys.
“He’s playing really well. It’s always exciting when you’ve got guys who come into the league and play well. I know CJ I know what kind of guy he is. It doesn’t surprise me that he’s playing as well as he is . I know he’s going to continue to work as hard as he can to maintain that success.”
After he stepped off the podium last March at the NFL Scouting Combine, Stroud let it be known how much he admires Burrow. They hadn’t spoken much at that point, but he liked how Burrow handled himself.
“Really humble guy. Really honest. You can kind of tell he’s got dog in him,” Stroud told Bengals.com. “And he’s going to compete and he’s not going to let anybody take his job and failure is something he’s not used to. He doesn’t want to fail again, so he’s going to fight like hell not to fail again.”
He put him in some heavy company.
“One of the top two quarterbacks in the world,” Stroud said. “One of the reasons I wore No. 7 was because of Michael Vick. He inspired me not only just to be athletic and use my athleticism but as a black quarterback to stay in the pocket and throw. That’s something he was very underrated in. I looked up to Deshaun Watson a lot. That’s somebody I have a similar playing style to.
“And then Joe Burrow, being able to create. Not being the fastest guy, but being a guy who can extend plays and throw guys off view and just be tough, and that’s something that I feel like I do in this game.”
Day says he doesn’t have a favorite Burrow story, but he hears a lot of them.
“A lot of people have a lot of great stories around here about who he is as a person,” says Day, six years later. “He’s got a big heart, but he’s the ultimate competitor and I’m just happy to see his success.”
The way Day remembers it, it was a close run thing between Burrow and Dwayne Haskins.
“It was a great battle between him and Dwayne here,” Day says. “He broke his hand and then Dwayne came in the rivalry game and won. And there was a fierce battle in the spring, and Dwayne was a little bit ahead coming out. But it was really, really close. We felt like we needed to at least be honest where it was. We didn’t want Joe to leave. We had a hard time making that decision, but we helped him with that as hard as it was. But he’s been great. He still comes back around all the team.”
Day won’t see it, the day after a night game over there at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center. But he’ll catch snippets.
“I’m always excited to see these guys compete. It will be a great game, I’m sure,” Day says. “There’s so much that goes into it. We don’t get an opportunity to see much other than the highlights.”
The coaches might be in film sessions, but that’s it. Rest assured. The place where Joe Burrow went to school is going to be watched.
“It will be on in the Woody here,” Day says, “and all the guys will be watching it.”