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A.J. Green Again Leads A Bengals Overhaul 

A.J. Green back in the fold again.
A.J. Green back in the fold again.

Fast forward from the Lockout of 2011 to the Lockdown of 2020. A.J. Green, on his first career media Zoom call, has a lock on everything in between after Friday's signing of his $18 million franchise tender on the eve of his 10th season.

When he broke into the league nine years ago, Green remembers it was just basically him and his fellow rookie, quarterback Andy Dalton, flinging it on the fly and drawing it in the dirt as they went. Chad Johnson, the all-time leading receiver in Bengals history, had been traded the day before Green took the field for the first time as a Bengal. Not only was Green the man, he had to be the man.

Now he's the 32-year-old bridge to the future for another rookie quarterback-receiver pair taken in the first and second rounds, respectively, named Joe Burrow and Tee Higgins. The tandem, it appears, reports Tuesday for Covid-19 testing with the rest of the rookie class. In 2011 Green was a kid all arms and legs and making plays on pure talent. In 2020, he's a husband, father, locker room leader and heady Pro Bowler.

"Once Tee gets (Green's) autograph and gets that out of the way, A.J. is going to be great for him," wide receivers coach Bob Bicknell joked Friday. "Just being around a guy like that to learn from and be friends with and knowing both they'll get along great. It's big for Tee. Hey. It's big for me. For everybody. A.J. is the kind of guy that makes everyone do their job better."

Green signed the tender right away to get into camp on time because that's what consummate pros do. He also signed because he heard all the right things from the Bengals via executive vice president Katie Blackburn and their desire to sign him long-term even though they didn't. He heard enough to say he wants to get one after the season and retire a Bengal.

If it wasn't for a pandemic, he thinks something could have been done. Plus, some would say the Bengals made a rather bold move giving a 32-year-old wide receiver who has missed the last 24 games a total of $18 million guaranteed at the height of the most uncertain economic picture during the lifetime of his owner. And Mike Brown was born at the height of the Great Depression.

But then again, this is Green we're talking about.

"I've been hurt. It was always tough to get a deal on. Especially (because) I know my value and also, they still need to see me play," Green said. "I understand that's a tough place to be when you're running a business. But like I said, we had great communication. That's one thing about this whole process. We understand each other. The points that we made, my agent (Ben Dogra) and I, the points Katie had made, for us the feeling is mutual. I always wanted to envision myself retiring at one team. That's still on the table. If I stay healthy, we'll see what happens."

Ah, the 2011 kid has kids of his own. Two little guys. Easy and Gunnar. About to be four and two. The usually impassive, impenetrable Green doesn't wear his heart on his sleeve. But on Friday he wore a Black Lives Matter bracelet on his left wrist.

For the kids, really.

"For me, it hits home because I'm a black male and I have two brown boys," Green said. "For me, it's always setting that foundation, setting that example for my two brown boys. Sometimes, things are not going to be fair because of the color of your skin. But you cannot let your ego get in the way of whatever that situation is. You always have to carry yourself as a man and respect that man just to get home, you know what I mean?

"My point to them is always going to be your ego is never too big than your life, you know? Always carry yourself with the utmost respect, respect everyone and treat everybody like you want to be treated. For me, it's starting that at a young age and teaching my two boys the real value of life and manners like that."

 The torn ankle ligaments that wiped out all of last season? Fine. He's been running routes since February, catching balls from Florida quarterback Emory Jones since May and texting off and on since the draft with Burrow.

"You see the energy he brings to his teammates," Green said of the new quarterback he has yet to meet. "Watching the national championship game you see how fired up he is. A lot of people don't look at quarterbacks to be that fired up, but I feel like he's going to bring that same energy he brought to LSU. I'm just excited to be out there with him."

Back in '11, the Bengals' infant offense snuck up on people. Dalton was a second-rounder. The leading returning wide receiver was Andre Caldwell and his 25 catches. Starting opposite Green was Jerome Simpson and his 21 career catches. They'll go 1-15 the pundits said. 

But they went 9-7 and went to the playoffs with the No. 7 defense, running back Cedric Benson and Green, Green and more Green. He knows this offense, with A.J. Green and Joe Burrow, is sneaking up on nobody.

"We didn't have any kind of expectations," Green said. "But I feel like when you have the No. 1 pick and what we did in free agency and me coming back, (Tyler Boyd) is coming back, John (Ross), Tee and all these pieces that we added on defense … I feel like the talent level that we have now is way different than we had in 2011. Our defense was great, but I feel like our offense matches our defense right now."

Forget 2011. This isn't even the Green of 2014. Chad never stopped eating McDonald's, but that's about the time Green did. He's had a chef in Cincinnati and Atlanta for years. But after the last two seasons when his feet broke down, Green got a new trainer and they concentrated on strengthening the ankles and toes and learning how to land.

"I have at least four -- four great years left in me," Green said. "Great years. I mean, I always said I wanted to play 15 years, but coming now, I am like, 'Man, maybe I can play more.' I've got my body where I feel good, so we'll see. We'll take it year by year. When I'm done playing, when I seem like I'm retiring, I don't love the game anymore. I still love the game. I still love the practice so when that goes away, then I'll be done."

Bicknell is convinced Green is one of those ageless, freakishly great receivers. He knows because in his first year as his coach in 2018, he saw Green wreck the league in just half a season with 46 catches for 694 yards and six touchdowns.

"1,300 yards would be nothing for A.J.," Bicknell said. "Other than twisting an ankle and stepping on somebody (which is how he tore up the ankle in the first 45 minutes of camp), I haven't seen anything different from A.J. God, those first eight games I was around him, I was like, 'You've got to be kidding me.' He was like he was a 22-year-old kid."

Green talks about numbers, but he's never been about numbers. Turning 32 on the last day of this month. Getting $18 million. Gunning for his eighth Pro Bowl. Those really aren't the stories of this year.

"I'm just glad to be healthy and playing football again," said Green, who is already the man this year ten seasons later for this crop of kids.

"The best thing he is, is he's the best guy I've ever been around. As a person," Bicknell said. "A rookie coming in and things are going to happen. I'm sure it's great to have a guy that's just that type of person that can help you and talk to you about what he's ever learned through the years. It's a big deal."

And he wasn't talking about the $18 million.