Skip to main content

A.J. Green: 'Cincinnati Will Always Be My First Love'

Number 18.
Number 18.

A.J. Green's final play as a Bengal shows you why he's one of the most significant people in franchise history.

Far removed from one of his spectacular sleight-of-hand bits that made geometry invisible when the show was at its apex, it is a simple gesture of respect and kindness.

A mere trip up the stairs to Paul Brown Stadium and the corner office, where Green had an idea Bengals president Mike Brown wouldn't be surprised to see him.

The gut-wrenching 2020 season hadn't been over for very long and the frustration was etched on both their faces. Green had come to talk. To say good-bye. Thank you. Then he realized Brown just couldn't get around to talking about him leaving.

"I love Mr. Brown. He's the most misunderstood man ever. Unbelievable. Unbelievable dude," Green recalled Wednesday night in Arizona, the first day of his new life. "I don't think he wanted to talk about me leaving.

"Because, I was very special to his heart and what I meant to the city. But I think he understood."

He understood what we all understand but hard to grasp. All things come to an end, Green said. Especially in the NFL. Coaches change. Schemes change. Salary caps change.  With his one-year deal with the Cardinals at age 32 giving him a shot to revive his career with another overall No. 1 quarterback, he begins his journey into the Bengals archives as one of the legends.

Maybe it is fitting the uniform stripes Green and his teammates wore are being retired next month.

"Cincinnati will always be my first love. That city embraced me," said Green, a month shy of the 10-year anniversary of the Bengals' landscape-changing 2011 draft. "My kids were both born when I was there. That's all we know. Like any business, everything comes to an end at some point. I'm very grateful to the Brown family. They took a risk on the kid at a young age and changed my life forever."

It was mutual.

Green was their first draft pick for head coach Marvin Lewis' reboot staged during a thick cloud in the wake of Carson Palmer's trade demand and a 4-12 season. Yes, quarterback Andy Dalton came a round later and the defense staged a series of top 10 stands. But it was Green who set the tone for the greatest run in franchise history of five straight post-season berths.

No soap operas here. Just Summerville, S.C., sweat and sweetness. The Green-Dalton Bengals unassumed themselves to two AFC North titles in the toughest division in football while he did what no receiver did in 50 years and went to the Pro Bowl in his first seven seasons.

"That played so much into why he was so special," said Andrew Hawkins, an unknown rookie wide receiver who came from Canada looking for a job that first training camp and ended up becoming lifelong friends with Green.

"We were a talented team, but A.J. was head and shoulders. Whenever you were on the field with A.J., there was no question who the big dog was and when you have a team like that and your superstar is that kind of person … How could anyone on offense have an ego?

"The guy has zero ego. He's one of the nicest people in the world. He just loves his family. A simple man who just works his ass off every single day. He doesn't put himself in front of anybody else. Incredible dude. Just special."

That first day, Hawkins saw Green make a No. 4 pick-in-the-draft catch. Dalton overthrew it deep down the middle by about 10 yards and there was Green diving through the air about five feet off the ground and stretching all the way back to Summerville.

"He did that once a game. Once a practice. It became routine," Hawkins said. "You saw it every day."

That's why they called him "The Martian." Like he was from another planet. Hawkins, now a popular media member, had no handle in 2011. But Green got him a new car each of the three years he played for the Bengals.

"If A.J. Green is going to have a deal, then Hawk has to have car, too," is the way Hawkins recalled the arrangement.

That's a play you don't see in a stat sheet. But it wins games because it wins locker rooms.


On Wednesday night, Green remembered only the ones that won games. So, yeah, he remembers climbing the mountain of the Green-Dalton era, his 25-yard touchdown catch from AJ McCarron with 1:50 left to give them the lead over the Steelers in the surreal mist of the 2015 Wild Card. But they didn't hold the lead in that one. So he leaves it in the mist.

But … 2012, right?

"Yeah. Bench," Green said.

In Pittsburgh and if there's a play on the field to remember Green, this is it.

"Bench," Green said of the route. "We kicked the field goal."

It put them in the playoffs and knocked Pittsburgh out. Bench. Reggie Nelson picked off Big Ben at the Steelers 46 with 14 seconds left and Dalton needed about a dozen yards to get into field-goal range.


Green had already dented Pittsburgh's top-ranked defense for 95 yards and everyone at the confluence of the Three Rivers knew where they were going. Bench. Still, Green put his foot in the ground and, like he always seemed to do, made the lines disappear. Dalton threw a 21-yard rope and Green had enough separation to snag it and go out of bounds into the Bengals bench and freeze the clock at eight seconds.

"There was the Seattle game. Baltimore games. Big wins," said Green, who had to laugh when told the happiest man in America is Ravens head coach John Harbaugh now that he's out of the division.

There weren't many bench routes for him in the Bengals 'new scheme. He talked about that at length late in the season, how second-year head coach Zac Taylor's system was different than the playbook he had during his career. How they didn't move him around much out of the X spot and gave him a lot of slant routes.

Green showed a flash of frustration, but never enough to hurt the club. He made sure of that even as he had career-low catches (47) and yards (523). The year he got hurt, 2018, he had that many yards in the seventh game.

"It helped me grow as a person last year. I wouldn't trade it for anything," Green said. "The guys in the receiver room, I love them to death."

If they didn't get hurt, Green might very well have seen slot man Tyler Boyd and rookie starter Tee Higgins both get 1,000 yards, something he's done six times.

Higgins is one of those guys who found out knowing a guy he followed as a kid turned out to be worthy of his fans.

"He could be arrogant. A jerk. But he treats you like family. Like a friend," Higgins said. "He taught me a bunch of little things. Things I'll keep using."

Green knows he put that work with Higgins and Boyd to good use.

"I think TB and Tee are going to be good," Green said. "I have full confidence in Tee that he's going to keep getting better and keep working and be the leader."

He's excited about playing in a system he says is similar to the one coordinators Ken Zampese and Bill Lazor had with the Bengals. With DeAndre Hopkins ("Hop") and his 115 catches on the other side, he envisions a lot of one-on-ones. He thinks he's got three or four good years left.

He's not sure if one of his mentors, Larry Fitzgerald, is coming back to the Cards receiver corps, but he knows quarterback Kyler Murray is a No. 1 overall talent just like the Bengals' Joe Burrow.

"I've been pretty fortunate there," Green said. "And you can't beat the weather. You know how I feel about playing on grass. Now there's 10 games on it. Good on the knees."

It turns out that Mike Brown, the old Dartmouth College quarterback, can talk some receiver, too. He and Green would hash over certain plays and Brown would know the angle and the concept behind it and where the ball was thrown.

"It's crazy how much he knows about every little play," Green said. "People don't understand how sharp he is."

Green remembered going down the hall to Brown's office after he had signed the four-year, $115 million extension. They were about to open the 2015 season in Oakland and Green can still hear him in the corridor.

"Let's give the media something to talk about."

Green always made it a classy, defining discussion for his team.

Related Content