In the span of about four months in 2019, Burrow went from a midtier quarterback prospect to the slam dunk choice for the Cincinnati Bengals at the top of the 2020 NFL draft.
Lawrence, on the other hand, was a phenomenon long before he went to Clemson, where he lived up to the billing of being one of the country’s top prospects, which was codified when the Jacksonville Jaguars drafted him first overall last April.
But the two quarterbacks, who will be featured as the Bengals host the Jaguars on Thursday Night Football (8:20 ET, NFL Network), also have a relationship with Jaguars coach Urban Meyer. Meyer recruited Burrow out of southeast Ohio to Ohio State and coached him for three years. In 2021, when Meyer came out of a two-year retirement to coach the Jaguars, he did so knowing he could draft Lawrence with the top pick.
Burrow and Lawrence face each other for the first time in the NFL, each trying to lift a losing franchise to success. Lawrence is learning what Burrow found out about Meyer during their time together at Ohio State.
Playing for Meyer, even if you’re a No. 1 overall pick, requires the ability to earn trust — and that does not come easily.
Meyer saw a ‘competitive maniac’ in Burrow
Meyer was in the midst of his seven-year run at Ohio State that yielded a .902 winning percentage and one national title when he started recruiting Burrow.
When Burrow committed to Ohio State’s 2015 signing class, he was a recruit with a smattering of good offers but none as significant as the Buckeyes. It turned out Meyer’s evaluation was a good one. In Burrow’s senior season of high school, he led Athens to a state championship appearance and was named Ohio’s Mr. Football.
While Meyer knew Burrow was a multisport athlete who needed to develop as a football player, he liked his tenacity.
“He got his nose bloodied in basketball,” Meyer said in an NFL Network interview in 2019. “I’m a big fan of that. He was a little bit behind, but a competitive maniac.”
Almost as soon as Burrow arrived in Columbus, those traits were apparent. Even though he was behind J.T. Barrett on the depth chart, those around the program could see his leadership skills and desire to test himself.
“You could see how fired up and emotional and excited he got during those competitive environments,” said Mickey Marotti, Ohio State’s head strength coach. “You knew right away. Some guys aren’t like that when they come out of [high school].”
But Meyer also wanted to test Burrow’s mentality. Burrow later told reporters that early in his Ohio State career, Meyer would prod him, saying he looked like a Division II quarterback or he couldn’t throw, one of the many slights Meyer delivered regarding Burrow’s arm strength. At the time, Burrow didn’t understand Meyer’s approach. Eventually, he figured it out. Meyer was trying to see if he could trust Burrow.
“When he gets a new player, he tries to put them in a very intense situation to see how they respond, to see if he can trust that player,” said Burrow, who declined to go into more specifics.
The quarterback earned that through the competitiveness that defined him as soon as he enrolled at Ohio State. Meyer said Burrow’s mindset is one of the best he’s ever seen in an athlete.
“Even when he struggled early in his career, the one thing you can count on is that guy is [a] tough-as-nails competitor,” Meyer said. “Refused to lose at anything in the offseason.”
Burrow was behind Barrett in 2016 and 2017. He appeared in 10 games for the Buckeyes, throwing 39 passes for 287 yards and two touchdowns.
But Burrow hit his ceiling at Ohio State. A broken hand suffered right before the start of the 2017 season put him at a disadvantage to be the team’s top backup. The injury gave teammate and current Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Dwayne Haskins, a 2019 first-round pick, a leg up on the long-term battle with Burrow, one Haskins eventually won when he was given the starting job after Ohio State’s 2018 spring camp.
“It was close, and obviously Dwayne beat him out and Dwayne threw for 50 touchdowns,” Meyer said.
Burrow transferred to LSU, set a slew of records and had a 2019 campaign with the Tigers that almost couldn’t be scripted: a Heisman Trophy, a national championship and the No. 1 overall pick.
Since joining Cincinnati, Burrow is learning the NFL can be difficult. He suffered a season-ending knee injury in his rookie season and had a rough outing this season against the Chicago Bears, when he threw three interceptions on three consecutive attempts in a 20-17 loss.
Burrow, who rebounded with three touchdowns in a Week 3 win over Pittsburgh, said that game was an example of how the lessons he learned in college from Meyer were useful.
“It made me a much better player and a better person and able to handle weeks like this, when I throw three interceptions and we lose the game,” Burrow said Sept. 15. “I think we’re going to bounce back in a big way, and [Meyer is] really one who pushed me to grow in that way.”
Meyer stepped down from his Ohio State job in 2018 after a tumultuous season that included questions about his knowledge of domestic violence accusations against one of his assistant coaches. Meyer worked as a TV analyst for two seasons before coming to the Jaguars.
Meyer said the fact the Jaguars’ No. 1 pick was a huge factor in his decision to make the jump to the NFL.
That’s because the No. 1 pick was going to be quarterback Trevor Lawrence.
Lawrence is ‘one of the most elite’ players Meyer has coached
Generational prospect or not, Meyer took the same approach with Lawrence in Jacksonville that he did at Florida and Ohio State: He immediately put him under pressure to see how he’d respond. He had a good idea of what he’d get, but he wanted to be sure.
Meyer made Lawrence alternate days with the first-team offense with quarterback Gardner Minshew to make Lawrence to earn the starting job. Lawrence was clearly the best quarterback in camp and outplayed Minshew in the first two preseason games, but he embraced the competition and said no player should be handed a job.
Meyer eventually named Lawrence the starter on Aug. 25. Three days later, the Jaguars traded Minshew to Philadelphia.
“Leadership, intangibles, the work ethic, the character, the desire to be great, his support from his teammates, his support of other teammates [is great],” Meyer said of Lawrence. “I’ve been very fortunate to coach some elite, elite players, and he’s one of the most elite, just the way he handles himself.”
Meyer knows having success in the NFL — for Meyer, success means championships — hinges on having a great quarterback, and the ability to get Lawrence was one of the most attractive things about the Jaguars job. But he didn’t know a thing about what it was like to try to win with a rookie QB, even one as good as Lawrence.
Meyer has turned to a couple of quarterbacks he trusts in order to find out what he needed to know about dealing with a rookie in the NFL: Burrow and Alex Smith, both of whom played for Meyer (Smith at Utah) and were No. 1 overall picks.
Burrow, who led the NFL in dropbacks in 2020 before he suffered a season-ending knee injury in Week 11, advised Meyer about the risks of having a rookie throw it too much.
“Have balance and not put a guy in harm’s way constantly,” Meyer said of Burrow’s advice.
It seems the Jaguars are working out that balance. Lawrence was sacked twice in the first two weeks, but Arizona sacked him three times Sunday. The offense was pass-heavy in the first two weeks, but the running game with James Robinson finally got going against the Cardinals.
Meyer has a track record of developing quarterbacks in college — he helped turn Smith, Tim Tebow and Dwayne Haskins into first-round draft picks — but he was able to bring in big-time recruits year after year, so there were options if the starter faltered.
That’s obviously not the case in Jacksonville. Lawrence is it, and Meyer’s success is wedded to Lawrence’s development. It hasn’t gotten off to an ideal start.
Lawrence has completed 54.2% of his passes for 669 yards and five touchdowns with seven interceptions in his first three games. He’s now the fourth quarterback since the 1970 merger to throw multiple interceptions in each of his first three starts, joining Peyton Manning (1998), Troy Aikman (1989) and Jim Zorn (1976).
Lawrence has a big arm, and he’s not shy about taking deep shots or trying to fit balls into some tight windows. He’s gotten away with it a few times, but he’s gotten burned, too, and Meyer wants him to be more patient.
Lawrence is also dealing with the things all rookie QBs battle: holding onto the ball too long at times, staring down receivers and indecision.
Still, Lawrence’s poised in the pocket and his arm strength allows him to make some throws that other QBs can’t. And don’t forget: Lawrence is the youngest starting quarterback in the league (his 22nd birthday is Oct. 6).
This has created some interesting moments with his rookie NFL head coach as they each try to help each other develop in their first season together in the pros.
“There’s definitely been times, like, he’s pulled me off to the side and he’s like, ‘Can you believe this? This is so weird. This is so weird. This is how they do it here,’ stuff like that,” Lawrence said. “I’m like, ‘Yeah, I don’t know. It’s my first time too.’ That’s always funny, but I think we’re all just growing [and] we’re learning.”
Considering all that, Meyer says Lawrence is about where he expected after three games.
“I love Trevor Lawrence. I love everything about that guy,” Meyer said. “Is he having some growth pains? Like I’ve always said from day one, this goes back 20 years, the quarterback gets a lot of the glory when you win and gets a lot of the fingers pointed at him when he loses. It’s an offense. The one common characteristic of every great quarterback is he has a great team around him. Every great quarterback has that, and we will do that. We’re growing that right now.
“That kid, he’s unbelievable to coach. Everything about the guy is an A-plus.”
Connection between Meyer, Lawrence and Burrow is ongoing
Lawrence may not know it, but Burrow is, indirectly anyway, helping him navigate his rookie season, thanks to Meyer’s multiple conversations with Burrow about his rookie season in 2020.
Burrow ran into his former Ohio State coach a couple of times this offseason at various charity events. Meyer decided to pick Burrow’s brain.
“I just wanted to talk to a guy that was in that position,” Meyer said.
On Thursday, Burrow will be going up against Meyer and Lawrence, the latest quarterback the coach hopes can lead to his definition of success.
It won’t be the first time Burrow and Lawrence face each other. The two famously met in the national championship game at the end of the 2019 season, when Burrow and LSU beat Lawrence and Clemson 42-25.
Now, Burrow is hoping to lead the Bengals to their first playoff berth since 2015 and Lawrence is looking to establish himself in the NFL.
The quarterback Lawrence faces this week can relate. Despite Meyer not picking Burrow to be his starter, which led to his departure from Ohio State, Burrow never soured on Meyer or Ohio State and vice versa. According to Marotti, the Buckeyes’ chief strength coach, Burrow’s thumbprint still allows him inside the team facilities.
And as for Meyer, the early trials that yielded trust in Burrow resulted in a bond that will be rekindled when they see each other at Cincinnati’s Paul Brown Stadium, as his latest quarterback pupil takes on his former one.
“We’ve got a great relationship,” Burrow said of Meyer. “So whenever you see a friend pregame, it’s always good to talk to people you haven’t seen in a while.
“But it’s also pro football and you’ve got to go get a win, so I’m excited to do both of those things.”