July 15, 2019; Birmingham, AL, USA; LSU Tigers quarterback Joe Burrow speaks to the media during SEC Media Days at the Hyatt Regency-Birmingham.

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Expecting LSU QB Joe Burrow to be "elite" is unfair

Familiar sky-high summer promises should be tamped down

Seth Dunlap
July 18, 2019 - 7:41 pm
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Will this finally be the year the LSU offense moves the football effectively through the air?  Will the Tigers finally have a quarterback capable of outplaying his counterpart in the biggest moments and biggest games? 

It's an annual rite of passage for LSU football fans to ask these questions in July.  That the answer to those questions has been a resounding no for most of the past two-decades never dampens the optimism of the Tiger faithful. 

There's always next year.  There's always another Alabama game in the future.  There's always the gunslinging savior waiting on the sidelines or incoming from the high school ranks that will surely pull the program into the modern era of pass happy college offenses.

Fans answering those questions optimistically have pinned their hopes on a couple of Joes. 

First, there's Joe Brady, the latest wunderkind football mind who will help shape, or re-shape, the LSU passing offense.  Brady, who was a member of the Saints offensive staff the past two seasons, is expected to do what Steve Ensminger, Matt Canada, Cam Cameron, and a litany of other Tigers offensive coaches couldn’t -- turn the LSU air attack into a viable threat to opposing defenses.  If that seems a big burden to shoulder as a 28-year old assistant, it's nothing compared to the expectations being thrust upon the team's quarterback.

Joe Burrow enters the season as the enigmatic, fan favorite quarterback who led the team to a New Year’s Six bowl win in January.  Burrow is carrying the weight of heavy fan and media expectations on his high shoulder, a task he isn’t shying away from.  He was front-and-center during LSU's appearance at SEC Media Days this week in Hoover, and the steely-eyed senior certainly didn't lack for confidence.

"The key trait of almost any great player is confidence.  If you're not confident, how are you going to go into Alabama and beat them?" Burrow said in a radio interview on The Paul Finebaum Show.  "How are you going to go into Auburn and beat Auburn in front of 90,000 people in primetime SEC football?"

Burrow is right.  If a quarterback doesn't have confidence in himself, and his teammates don't have confidence in him, then disaster is usually just a play or two away.  But Burrow's confidence, and a coaching staff who has spent most of 2019 gushing about what he might accomplish this fall, have fueled the expectation train and sent it into overdrive.  The way those expectations are being framed, frankly, are unfair to Burrow and what he's probably capable of actually accomplishing in a dozen games this fall.

Last season, Burrow helped stabilize a position that had been a sieve during the early years of the Ed Orgeron era.  The Ohio State transfer was solid, if unspectacular, throwing for 2,894 yards with 16 touchdowns and five interceptions.  He also helped lead the Tigers to their first 10-win season since 2013, an in-your-face number to any doubters, as quarterbacks in this era are typically judged by the digits they put in the win column.  

But there were also struggles.  During LSU's toughest four-game stretch of 2018, a span in October and early-November that included games against Florida, Georgia, Mississippi State, and Alabama, Burrow failed to throw a single touchdown.  He also never eclipsed 200 yards passing in a single game during that span, throwing four interceptions, and completing just 53.5% of his passes.  LSU went just 2-2 in those games.

While cumulative volume stats like yards and touchdowns would be an unfair metric to judge Burrow against his peers, considering LSU's run-centric approach last season, efficiency numbers are a better measuring stick.  He completed 57.8% of his passes in 2018, while averaging 7.6 yards per attempt with an efficiency rating of 133.2.  Those ranked No. 87, No. 57, and No. 70 nationally.  Not exactly elite-level quarterbacking, even on a per-pass basis.

How bizarre is it, then, that so many people think that Burrow can be, or even should be, an “elite” college quarterback this season.  Those expectations are unrealistic.  They are unfair to Burrow.  There are limitations to his skill set that were widely in view last season, and seven months of offseason workouts and training aren’t going to turn him into the second coming of Dan Marino. 

This isn’t to say Burrow can’t, or shouldn’t, improve.  He likely will.  It’s his second year in the system, and Brady’s influence ought to be a highly positive one.  Plus, the team will have more receiving weapons, a better offensive line, and much more depth in the backfield.  Plainly, the talent around Burrow will be markedly better, making his job that much easier.

Burrow also doesn’t need to put up the video game-type numbers that many of his counterparts across the country do for the offense to be successful.  Quarterbacks like Tua Tagovailoa, Jake Fromm, Trevor Lawrence, and whoever Mike Leach throws out there for Washington State will dominate the top of the statistical leaderboards.  Those players are in systems that have been designed for years to attack defenses downfield.  LSU may get there eventually, but expecting an overnight (overseason?) transformation is unrealistic. 

If Burrow can be just incrementally better than he was last season, then LSU can compete for an SEC and national title.  The Tigers are that talented across the roster.  Their defense may be the best unit in the country, and designing a low-risk, complimentary offense is smart coaching.  That doesn’t mean it needs to look like Chuck Knox is calling plays for the Tigers, but it also doesn’t mean they’ll need to throw the ball 50 times out of four receiver sets to be a Playoff contender.

Burrow is a stabilizing force on offense for LSU.  He’s also the best quarterback the program has had since at least Zach Mettenberger.  Perhaps Matt Flynn.  But it’s time to tamper down expectations from those who expect Burrow to play like a Heisman Trophy candidate.

As politicians race towards the 2020 election, every good strategist knows it’s best to under-promise and over-deliver.  The LSU football program would be wise to heed that advice.  Fans are promised a Ferrari every summer, only to be delivered a Pinto every fall.  Burrow may not be a Pinto, but he’s no Ferrari either.  A nice Cadillac would be fine.  That’s all the team may need to make the short trek to the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans next January.

 

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