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Joe Burrow finally could be Bengals’ answer at quarterback

For the love of Boomer Esiason, good fortune still might not be on the side of the Cincinnati Bengals.

Godspeed, then, Joe Burrow.

Of the 10 biggest busts to be drafted by the organization that sits along the Ohio River, the top two were quarterbacks.

Which means when this year’s remote draft commences April 23 and the Bengals phone (text?) in the No. 1 overall choice — a Heisman Trophy winner from Louisiana State — a long and happy marriage hardly will be guaranteed.

“Teams are picking at the top (of the draft) for a reason,” Burrow said. “I’ve won everywhere I’ve ever been. If anybody can do it, I can.”

How soon Burrow and the Bengals might discover unity can’t possibly be known. It’s a question those who have mourned a franchise with no playoff wins in 30 years want answered sooner than later.

Somewhere, deep within their embattled souls of countless seasons gone wrong, exists dark memories of David Klingler and Akili Smith.

Even the spectacular accolades of Esiason and Ken Anderson, the only quarterbacks to lead Cincinnati to a Super Bowl, can’t totally eclipse the blunders that were selecting Klingler (No. 6 overall, 1992 to 1995) and Smith (No. 3 overall, 1999 to 2002).

The two combined for a 5-24 starting record while accounting for 21 touchdown passes and 35 interceptions.

Neither made it to a fifth season in Cincinnati.

Carson Palmer (No. 1 overall in 2003) and Andy Dalton would return the position to a level of respectability, but they were a combined 0-6 in playoff games for the Bengals.

Fit matters. It did for Eli Manning when he orchestrated a two-time Super Bowl champion career with the Giants on draft day. It did for Jared Goff when Sean McVay became coach of the Rams. It did for Ryan Tannehill when he was traded from Miami to Tennessee.

So now comes Burrow to Cincinnati, his hometown not 160 miles away, carrying with him all the hopes and dreams of a fan base that just last season saw many wear bags over their heads at games to hide the bitterness and disappointment.

Burrow, then, like so many from the past, represents a newfound expectation of much better Sundays.

Which makes this part intriguing: The annual smoke screens and bluffs and misdirection and misinformation that define those final days before a draft have recently suggested Cincinnati could either trade the first pick or pass on Burrow.

“If they do,” quipped one draft expert, “the city will revolt.”

Storming of the Bastille?

Try of Paul Brown Stadium.

Making a difference

“Coming from Southeast Ohio, it’s a very, very impoverished area …”

The journey to what is now an infamous message during the Heisman Trophy acceptance speech was hardly original in scope.

Talented quarterback shows up at high school practice as a freshman. Immediately exhibits traits of a born leader. Named the starter as a sophomore. Sets all sorts of records before signing with an elite Power Five program.

“The poverty rate is almost two times the national average …”

“Everyone knew he was the guy from the beginning,” said Nathan White, Burrow’s coach at Athens High School in The Plains, Ohio. “Joe just had a different understanding of the game. You realized very quickly this was a special player. All he told me was how he wanted to get better every single day. When others were doing what high school kids do, he was working.

“I’ve never been around a kid like that. He’s the same now as when he was in the ninth grade. A once-in-a-lifetime leader.”

“There are so many people that don’t have a lot, and I’m here for all those kids in Athens County that go home to not a lot of food on the table and hungry after school …”

What the Bengals would be getting in Burrow reaches far beyond a quarterback who might prove capable of lifting them from an NFL purgatory of missing the playoffs four straight years.

They advanced six of the previous seven seasons, losing each time in the wild-card round.

They didn’t qualify from 1991 to 2004.

But the leader White speaks about has proven adversity is not his kryptonite. Burrow has a capacity to enact change on and off the field, and his maturity suggests transitioning to the NFL won’t be as arduous as it is for others.

Athens County is like so many places across the country, balanced by the wealthy and poor, by pristine waterfront property to broken-down homes.

The poverty rate is 30.6 percent, the highest in the state.

Those words from the Heisman speech — all 32 seconds of them — generated more than $500,000 for the Athens County Food Pantry.

“I didn’t say it for the outreach to the food bank, but that was a great side effect,” Burrow said. “It happened around Christmas time and helped a lot of people. I came to understand the power of such a (platform). I can make an impact on peoples lives, and it’s something I want to continue doing moving forward.”

“You guys can be up here, too …”

Small hands, big goals

By now, you know the remarkable story.

Burrow signed with Ohio State out of high school, originally played behind J.T. Barrett, was beaten out by Dwayne Haskins, graduated in three years and sought opportunity as a transfer at LSU.

As a senior: A 15-0 record. National championship.

Only the greatest collegiate season by a quarterback in history.

By any player, really.

His hands measured 9 inches at the NFL scouting combine, tied for the smallest among first-round quarterbacks since 2008.

Burrow made light of it on Twitter and later offered a suggestion to any team that might be concerned: Watch the film.

He also has repeatedly discounted reports about refusing to play for the Bengals should they indeed take him No. 1.

He pledges not to a pull a Manning, who forced a draft-day trade from San Diego to the Giants in 2004.

“Of course, I want to be the first pick,” Burrow said. “I have worked my whole life for this. (Cincinnati) is a 2½-hour drive from my home. I could go there for dinner. Not a lot of professional athletes can say that.

“I’m prepared to be the guy. I want to be a starting (NFL) quarterback. I’ve just not wanted to be presumptuous as to who might pick me. It’s the draft. Anything can happen. Maybe (the Bengals) will fall in love with someone else.”

And maybe they will think twice about that.

Things tend to get messy when a city revolts.

Contact columnist Ed Graney at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618. He can be heard on “The Press Box,” ESPN Radio 100.9 FM and 1100 AM, from 7 to 10 a.m. Monday through Friday. Follow @edgraney on Twitter.

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