Quarterback Joe Burrow #9 of the Cincinnati Bengals celebrates after...

Quarterback Joe Burrow #9 of the Cincinnati Bengals celebrates after rushing for a third quarter first down against the Tennessee Titans in the AFC Divisional Playoff game at Nissan Stadium on January 22, 2022 in Nashville, Tennessee.  Credit: Getty Images/Andy Lyons


Of all the great things Joe Burrow has done for the Bengals, up to and including getting them to the Super Bowl for the first time since Boomer Esiason did it in 1988, his greatest accomplishment is the one you don’t see.

After Cincinnati spent decades as an NFL outpost where careers, hopes and dreams went to die, Burrow has turned it into a destination city and the Bengals into a desirable team for which to play. If you don’t think that takes some doing, you haven’t been paying attention.

But just in case you need further proof of how Burrow has made it cool to be a Bengal, consider the comments this week from one of the coolest players the league has ever known.

Future Hall of Fame tight end Rob Gronkowski, 32, who won three Super Bowl championships alongside Tom Brady with the Patriots and another with the Bucs last year, has given indications that his NFL career might be over. But in an interview this week, he hinted that the lure of catching passes from Burrow might convince him to stick around for the 2022 season.

"I kinda like this young buck quarterback," Gronk told Autograph NFTs. "I watched him in college. I just love the way he presents himself out on the football field. In the pocket, he’s just so calm and he just slings it out on the field. I just love his swag, too."

With Brady having announced his retirement from the NFL at age 44, Gronkowski may join his longtime quarterback in his football sunset. But the fact that he’s already considered the idea of playing one more year and identifying Burrow as a possible future teammate speaks volumes about just how meaningful Burrow’s electrifying personality has been for Cincinnati.

That the Bengals have gotten to this place is one of the biggest surprises of the season. Of the century, in fact. Cincinnati had become synonymous with failure for much of the post-Esiason years, where losing was mostly a given and even the team’s best players bided their time and looked to play elsewhere once they hit free agency.

If you’re looking for a line of demarcation in the team’s history, it’s what happened the night before Super Bowl XXIII in Miami, where the Bengals faced the 49ers for the second time in a championship matchup.

Fullback Stanley Wilson was about to go to the team’s meeting on the eve of the game, but he told some teammates that he had to go back to his room to get his playbook. He never showed up. Having previously been suspended twice for cocaine use, he was discovered in the bathroom of his hotel room after suffering a relapse.

Bengals coach Sam Wyche suspended Wilson for the game and the Bengals went on to lose, 20-16, as Joe Montana engineered a last-second comeback capped by a touchdown pass to John Taylor. Wyche and several players traced at least part of the reason for the loss to the tumult over Wilson’s situation.

It was just never the same after that.

Through all the subsequent iterations of the team, the Bengals could never create a team close to the one that Esiason led during his MVP season. One draft-day disappointment followed another.

David Klingler was a first-round quarterback brought in to supplant Esiason in 1992. But elbow problems before his third season led to his eventual departure in 1995.

Ki-Jana Carter was the No. 1 overall pick in 1995, but the Penn State running back suffered a knee injury in his first preseason game and rushed for only 1,144 yards in his career.

Quarterback Akili Smith was the team’s first-round pick in 1999, but he went 3-14 in 17 starts over four years.

Carson Palmer did blossom into a franchise-caliber quarterback after joining the Bengals out of USC in 2003, but he grew so weary of a franchise that refused to pay him top dollar that he announced his retirement in 2011 and forced a trade to the Raiders.

The hiring of Marvin Lewis in 2003 ushered in stability at the head coach level, as Lewis worked in Cincinnati for the next 16 years. He made it to the playoffs seven times and won four divisional titles, but there were no playoff wins during his tenure.

Many people believed Burrow would become another bullet point on that list of failure when he came out of LSU in 2020. With Burrow fresh off a national championship, there were even suggestions that he would force the Bengals to trade the pick because he didn’t want to be there. But the guy they call Joe Cool actually wanted to play for the team he admired as a star passer at Athens High School in The Plains, Ohio.

Finally, good fortune has come to Cincinnati, and with it the chance for the team’s first Super Bowl championship.

The Bengals finally have become a team players want to become a part of, not a team they want to run away from.