A.J. Green, the elastic wide receiver who seemingly made the boundary lines disappear while high-pointing the Bengals to five straight postseason appearances, retired from the NFL Monday the same way he tortured AFC North defenses. With barely a word, he economically and humbly put a bow on his 12-year career of seven Pro Bowls and six 1,000-yard seasons at age 34 in an Instagram post and then let everybody else do the talking.
"He had so many plays where it looked like a man against kids," said Marvin Lewis Monday as Green's first NFL head coach recalled how the rookie first-rounder helped him jump-start that run of five straight playoff berths. "I tell people this all the time. From the minute he came into the building, he was first in every line. He always did everything the right way and was just a joy to coach. You couldn't ask for a better person. He went at it every day. You had to pull him back."
For Lewis' 2011 "Re-Boot," the Bengals drafted Green with the fourth pick and then took Texas Christian quarterback Andy Dalton in the second round. With Green as his top target and going to the Pro Bowl, Dalton became the first rookie quarterback in history to lead a team to the playoffs with nine wins while throwing at least 20 touchdown passes.
"I've even told him this," said Dalton Monday, still close to his draft soulmate. "There's no one else I would have rather shared my time there in Cincy, especially the way we came in, me being picked in the second round, him in the first. Quarterback. Wide receiver. Growing up in the NFL and accomplishing a lot and our families growing close over the years. Friends for life."
Before he finished up his career with the Cardinals these last two seasons, Green became a built-in Bengals trivia answer. Not only did he win Dalton's debut (and his) in the 2011 opener in Cleveland catching backup quarterback Bruce Gradkowski's 41-yard touchdown pass with 4:28 left in the game, but he also should have won Joe Burrow's debut in the 2020 opener. Burrow found Green for a three-yard-go-ahead-touchdown pass against the Chargers at Paycor Stadium with seven seconds left, but it was waved off on Green's ultra-borderline offensive interference penalty.
Green is in the books for catching Burrow's first first down pass, an 11-yarder over the middle, but his career was never the same after he made a sliding catch from Dalton to beat the clock in a 2018 game. That set up a winning field goal at the gun to beat Tampa Bay and put the Bengals at 5-3. But he hurt his foot and his monster year of 694 yards and six touchdowns was done.
"We were in first place at the bye and I had a dinner for the captains with their wives," Lewis said. "And A.J. showed up in a boot."
Then, Green hurt his ankle in new head coach Zac Taylor's first training camp practice in 2019 and he missed the year. The Bengals franchised him when Burrow arrived and after he had a career-low 47 catches for 523 yards in 2020, he hit free agency and went to the Cards for two years and 31 games. Even this year's 24 catches for 236 yards couldn't erase his early brilliance.
From 2011-2015, he had the sixth most yards (more than Larry Fitzgerald) and fifth most catches (more than Julio Jones). With 649 catches and 9,430 yards, only Chad Johnson has more in Bengals history.
And more moments of incredulity than Dalton and Lewis can remember.
"For so many years he was arguably the best receiver in the game," Dalton said. "I'm so thankful I got to witness what he was able to do. The best thing he did, when the ball was in the air it was going to be his. No matter what. His ball skills and knowing where the sideline is and getting his feet down. His ball skills are what made him different than everybody else."
Dalton can't pick out one catch or game, so why not go with their first of a Bengals-record 58 touchdowns together? It was a five-yard loft to Green on the left edge of the end zone in Denver and what would become a common sight for Bengals fans, after Green stretched over cornerback Andre Goodman for the catch, he somehow tipped-tapped both feet inside the line as he sprawled with the ball.
"He gave a glimpse," Dalton said, "of what was to come."
What came was the most successful stretch of Bengals history B.B. (Before Burrow) that included division titles in 2013 and 2015. And before Burrow-to-Ja'Marr Chase in the last minute of an AFC Divisional in Tennessee, there was that 21-yard bench route from Dalton to Green in Pittsburgh in the last 14 seconds that set up the field goal that put the Bengals in the 2012 playoffs and knocked the Steelers out.
There was also a 224-yard game in a fourth-quarter comeback in Baltimore, a Hail Mary that forced an overtime in Baltimore and the "Can we ever cover him once before he retires?" quote from Ravens head coach John Harbaugh. Plus, the halftime Hail Mary juggling TD against Hue Jackson's Browns, the winning fourth-quarter TD slant in 2015 against Mike Mitchell's Steelers after Mitchell vowed to knock him out a la Marvin Jones and the winning TD in Atlanta in 2018 against Matt Ryan's Falcons when he scooped Dalton's red-zone pass with seven seconds left.
"His rookie year in Seattle," said Lewis of a 43-yard touchdown. "The minute Andy let it go, I said, 'Bleep, interception.' But A.J. jumped over the whole secondary and brought it back down like (Pro Football Hall of Famer Calvin Johnson).
"A great career and a great man, but look at the great father and husband he has become."
As Green said in his retirement post, he's a man of few words.
But like his hands, he knows how to use them. The words he used to say good-bye to the Bengals two years ago hold up pretty well now.
"Cincinnati will always be my first love. That city embraced me," Green told Bengals.com. "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."