CINCINNATI — It’s inevitable. A quarterback will come along every few years and be dubbed “the next Tom Brady.” The assessment is, of course, completely unfair for any young player, and the odds of any quarterback playing in 10 Super Bowls like Brady is preposterous.
But then a call from Kevin Faulk delivered more validity than hyperbole.
Faulk played 12 seasons with Brady in New England, winning three Super Bowls while catching 310 passes on his way to induction in the Patriots Hall of Fame. The two have remained friends since Faulk retired more than a decade ago, and they talk frequently — mostly about their families, but sometimes football.
In the fall of 2018, the call was all football. Faulk had recently returned to LSU, his alma mater, as director of player development. And the player he watched develop faster than anyone else was a quarterback who had transferred from Ohio State.
So much of what Faulk saw in Joe Burrow reminded him of Brady. The swagger. The leadership. The drive. The toughness. All of it. Faulk had to let his friend know that this time, the next Tom Brady truly might be on the way.
“There were a couple of conversations we had early on,” Faulk said. “One thing about Tom, once you tell him something once, trust me, he’s gonna pay attention to it. I guarantee he watched Joe Burrow play.”
Brady will watch Burrow play in person Sunday at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa as they share a field for the first and maybe only time when the 6-7 Buccaneers face the 9-4 Bengals.
No one is suggesting Burrow deserves to be viewed as Brady’s peer in terms of accomplishments. Burrow could go on to author one of the greatest careers ever and still not achieve all that Brady has. The seven Super Bowl titles, five Super Bowl MVPs, three league MVPs, 15 Pro Bowls and the most wins, passing yards, touchdowns, attempts and completions in NFL history.
The parallels here live in potential. They are seen by people who know or have played with both. Through their eyes, the possibility of Burrow being “the next Brady” comes into focus.
Nobody serves as a better intersection of understanding a young Brady and young Burrow than Faulk. At different points in his life, he watched both rise from unheralded to hero.
For Brady, it was pick 199 and a college career in which he shared time with Drew Henson at Michigan. For Burrow, it was a small-town quarterback who transferred from Ohio State after sitting third on the depth chart behind JT Barrett and Dwayne Haskins.
The initial similarity came in how they approached winning over their teams.
“It took time (for Brady) to win over the locker room,” Faulk said. “But you could see it developing, just being him. He never tried to change anything. He worked his butt off.”
Almost two decades later, Faulk watched Burrow arrive as a transfer in 2018 and the vibes were similar.
“It was kind of like Tom,” Faulk said. “Joe came in very quiet. Didn’t say much. But you could see in his actions throughout the course of the time he was there, even the first few weeks. The first day, he hung out with one of the nicest guys on the team. So you say, ‘OK, OK, that’s right. That’s good.’ And then the next day, he hung out with one of the guys on the team that you wouldn’t think that he would hang out with. And you’re like, ‘Whoa, OK.’ I’m a former player. I observe these things. I watch it.”
Faulk had an inclination then, the natural ability to connect across the team was a familiar feeling. Then once the obsessive competitiveness surfaced, one of the most obvious threads emerged.
“That’s one trait that they have that you can compare them by,” Faulk said.
Faulk might be one of the first to notice the distinct connection due to his career path, but he wouldn’t be the last. For Ted Karras, who played his first four seasons with Brady in New England from 2016 through ’19, came to Cincinnati this offseason and now has 13 games in the books with Burrow, that’s the first connection that can’t be mistaken.
“The killer, obsessed attitude with wanting to be the best,” said Karras, who won two Super Bowls with Brady in New England. “I think it’s interesting they both have great rapport with their teams and their teammates. It’s kind of a contrast coming from Tom, who is 45, and a superstar to Joe, who is 25 and a superstar. It’s a different feel of the team, it’s pretty cool. He is the man, but the kid is our age.”
Karras saw Brady as a “larger-than-life figurehead” as a young player joining a team headed up by the greatest of all time.
For offensive lineman Alex Cappa, the persona came with a similar dynamic. He was a third-round pick out of Humboldt State just starting to come into his own in his third season when Brady arrived in Tampa Bay. They spent two seasons together and won a Super Bowl before he signed on to protect Burrow with the Bengals this year.
The obsessive attitude and connection with teammates in which both specialize manifested itself in a very specific way in Cappa’s eyes.
“They are very different, but they are both supremely confident and great leaders that keep everyone prepared,” Cappa said. “It’s really through the preparation. It doesn’t just happen. Those guys are good because of the way they prepare. They always put us in a great position to be successful.”
Nobody has been more successful than Brady, who has but one season as a starter in which he did not reach double-digit victories. He’ll have a second if Burrow and the Bengals beat him Sunday. A Cincinnati win would also mean a second straight season of double-digit wins for Burrow.
When the game is on the line, all the obsession, competitiveness and relationships with teammates come into play for both. It’s how you become known as a winner.
“Joe does a great job having a great relationship with everyone here and being dialed in and ready to go,” Karras said. “That’s who you want with the ball in their hands when it comes down to the game on the line.”
Longtime NFL left tackle Andrew Whitworth never played with Burrow or Brady. But spending years battling against Brady in the AFC and understanding the dynamics of the locker room and culture as well as any player in football, he knows exactly why the game has ended up shaped in Brady’s image. He got to know Burrow from afar watching him lead LSU, Whitworth’s alma mater, to one of the greatest seasons in college football history in 2019.
The perfect record and national championship was only the beginning of their relationship. After Burrow tore his ACL and was stuck in Los Angeles post-surgery in 2020, Whitworth was recovering from a knee injury of his own and invited him up to his house to watch football on a December Sunday right around their birthdays.
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He saw the connection right then in their mental makeup.
“You never want to just put things on guys that they are certain players,” Whitworth said during a recent appearance on NFL Network’s “Good Morning Football.” “I’ve heard people relate to whether he is (Peyton) Manning and Brady and all these different players, but when I was around him, the guy that came to me was Tom just because of the dynamic he has when he’s talking about football and talking about winning, you just feel like what he’s saying is the truth. He told me a couple of stories from being at LSU and going through the draft process. At the time, I’d just had a torn MCL and PCL and he had just had a torn ACL and we are sitting down watching NFL games. I’m trying to hobble to my weight room to get some lifts in after I got done talking to him because I was like, ‘This kid is so inspirational, I want to play right now injured for him.’
“I just think he has a rare aura about him that he is going to be a special football player for a long time. Not just because he’s a special football player, but he makes the guys around him elevate the way they play as well.”
Big Whit talking about Joe Burrow! ?
“I think he’s gonna be a special football player for a long time, and he makes the guys around him elevate the way they play as well.” #ThatsMyQB pic.twitter.com/xOLIIxBUMK
— Cincinnati ? (@CincyProblems) December 6, 2022
There is another angle to the Brady-Burrow comparisons, an up close and frustrating existence that Bengals defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo has lived for the better part of a decade.
Anarumo had to deal with Brady twice a year as a defensive backs coach and coordinator for the Dolphins for six seasons and went 4-8 against him.
Then one year after Anarumo arrived in Cincinnati, Burrow showed up. And while it’s not been a battle for wins and losses, Burrow has made for some challenging days and weeks in training camp as Anarumo attempts to get that year’s defense up to speed.
“I just see how they are on the field, and their approach I think is similar,” Anarumo said. “Just all about football, all about winning, all about doing the things that it takes to win. They’re both great players.”
Anarumo had to face Brady and the Patriots in the 2014 season opener with rookie Will Davis starting at cornerback for the Dolphins. And his message to Davis that day no doubt will be echoed to rookie corner Cam Taylor-Britt when he makes his sixth career start Sunday against Brady.
“I said, ‘Will, he’s gonna look at you, he’s gonna lick his fingers and he’s going to throw the ball at you every play. So just get ready. The ball’s comin’,’” Anarumo said. “And that’s what happened. He knows what you’re in all the time. He’s seen it all, done it all. So we’ll have to be at our best, and the guys that are stepping in to play will have to be at their best when you’re playing a guy like this. I don’t care what their numbers are.”
It was just 16 months ago when Anarumo had another, less intense encounter with Brady. It was the 2021 preseason opener in Tampa. He’d obviously seen Brady continue to excel on TV, but watching him on the field in pregame warmups that night stunned him.
“I couldn’t believe how the ball was still jumping out of his hand,” Anarumo said. “He looked like it was 2011 or ’12, whenever it was the first time I saw him. Just amazing, really. The speed that the ball comes out of his hand and accuracy he’s always had, he’s Tom Brady. I see the best quarterback that’s ever played the game.”
Earlier this summer in training camp and the preseason, Faulk was a coaching intern for the Giants, whom the Bengals faced in the second preseason game. Burrow was still recovering from his appendectomy and probably wouldn’t have played anyway, but it still gave him a chance to reconnect with Faulk.
“It was like he was still at LSU,” Faulk said. “He came and gave me a hug, we talked, he told me, ‘I love you, man. Thank you for everything.’ He was still Joe. And that’s what you want to see. He understands where he is, understands what he’s doing, to push other people forward.”
Sometimes those pushes land on the backs of opponents. Sunday will be one of those times. It will be the first Burrow versus Brady meeting, but it will be only the latest “the next Brady” versus Brady matchup.
Brady hears the comparisons and he almost always finds a way to crush them. But this won’t be a case of a young quarterback chasing the GOAT up the mountain, it will be Brady trying to impede Burrow’s climb and slow his own descent.
Brady won’t be face to face with Burrow on the field, of course, but he’ll see it as nothing less than three hours of direct competition.
“He’s definitely paying attention to it. He’s definitely watching,” Faulk said. “That’s what competitors do. That’s where they get their competitive edge. They try to get an advantage somewhere, somehow. Tommy’s a little older now, so he has to get that edge somewhere. He’s got to try to find it.”
(Top photo of Joe Burrow: Chris Graythen/Getty Images)