Brandon Allen got to hit the mute button Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium. And when he clicked out of this one long, weird Zoom meeting of a season to make his Bengals debut, reality in the form of the New York Giants, beat virtual reality.
But since this is 2020, it was a close run thing and had a few data glitches. The numbers said the Bengals should have imploded after the painful third quarter, but their 19-17 loss wasn't secured until 49 seconds left and the chance to win it was just a 20-yard patch away.
"It's definitely a weird year. But it's a weird year for everyone, so there's no excuse for that," said Allen, his first career Zoom with the Cincinnati media coming four months after he signed. "I've been around the building, and guys have seen me in practice. That first Wednesday practice was good for the whole team to see the throws being made. I tried to talk to as many guys as I could and get to know a lot of the guys, but this season with COVID-19 is a very strange season."
So strange that Allen, who had done everything in this league before got here (waived, practice squad, cut, winning starter, losing starter, unused third string), found himself being isolated from the quarterbacks and pretty much the rest of the team.
He was the COVID guy. The guy that played if Joe Burrow or Ryan Finley got it. Forget his release time or his 40 or bench press. What was his temperature?
"He's never in a room with them. He always met virtually away from everybody else," said Bengals head coach Zac Taylor, who knew him for two years with the Rams and thought he'd be the perfect guys because of his knowledge of the system.
"And even on (the) field, I often lectured him about standing too close to the other players. He had his helmet on and could listen, but that's just a part of what we've got to do now. We'll have another guy coming in now to play that role."
Allen has already been that guy. Now Kevin Hogan, once he can leave hotel sometime this week, is going to do what Allen did with Burrow. Stand behind him and shadow his steps and motions and patiently wait for quarterbacks coach Dan Pitcher after practice. Then go in a room by himself and Zoom.
"Me and the scout team receivers and Dan Pitcher every single day after practice would stay and throw the majority of the routes that Joe Burrow was throwing in practice," Allen said. "Obviously it's not the same as getting with the live receivers and the timing of their routes. But you have to find a way to get those reps in, and that's what we decided to do."
Now he's the starter. Despite the Bengals offensive struggles on Sunday (a Taylor-low 155 yards, three turnovers, 2.7 yards per 15 carries, 3-for-10 on third down), Taylor says Allen starts Sunday in Miami.
"B.A., he came in and he played his ass off," said rookie wide receiver Tee Higgins, whose gutty one-yard touchdown catch over the middle cut the thing to two with 2:33 left. "Throughout practice the whole week, he was putting them where he needed to be and I feel like he played good today. There were some mistakes made, but that happens in football, but you're going to learn from it."
Higgins was talking about what has now become a legendary Wednesday practice. Apparently the ball never hit the ground. The way the Fox-TV guys said it, he was like 25-for-25 while Higgins, with the other wide receivers Tyler Boyd and A.J. Green, romped.
"We were connecting all week. Me-B.A. B.A.-A.J, B.A.-T.B. All the receivers, we were connecting like he had been starting this whole time. It was very frustrating we couldn't connect today. We had some dropped balls. A.J. had a dropped ball, T.B. had one, Drew (Sample) had that fumble -- those plays would have turned the whole game around."
Reality 19, Zoom 17.
The sledding was going to be tough on any kind of connection between the quarterback and the receivers. They'd only thrown together this week. But the Giants made it even tougher.
When the Bengals showed up with Quintin Spain at left guard and Alex Redmond at right guard, they were supposed to dent the Giants' sixth-ranked run defense. But by halftime, Redmond was out with a concussion, the Bengals budged it for barely 40 yards on the ground on the day and old friend Kevin Zeitler was rotating at guard on a Giants offensive line running for 142 yards.
With the Bengals run game null and void, the Giants were able to take away the Bengals' vaunted receivers with seven- and eight-man zones. Allen's longest pass was 18 yards to Higgins. His interception came thrown into traffic in the middle to Boyd and cornerback Darnay Holmes batted it in the air.
"They played a lot of heavy zone coverage, and played everything deep to take away a lot of our routes that get down the field," Allen said. "We were forced to hit a few check downs, and that's the type of game they wanted. That's how it played out."
Higgins: "They was playing over the top a lot. We couldn't get anything deep. They were dropping eight. They were doing a lot of things that wouldn't allow us to throw the ball deep. That tells you right there."
Still, there is that week of practice under the belt. It is December this week, but it was the first time they practiced together.
"He has a great presence. Come in and got us," Higgins said. "That's the leader of the offense. He's loud. He's getting guys going. Talking us up, so that's what you want when a guy is running your offense."
Wednesday was golden.
"I think it went a long way with the guys having the confidence in me, and seeing that I could make a lot of the throws needed to win a game," Allen said. "I haven't taken reps with them all year, so for them to finally see it gets us on the same page with routes and timing. It gives a boost of confidence."
It makes the last play make some sense.
The Bengals trail, 19-17. But thanks to punt returner Alex Erickson, the ball is at midfield. There's a minute left and kicker Randy Bullock's range is about 20 yards away. Allen sends them out in the gun and three wides. Running back Giovani Bernard is next to him and he sends him out on a route. Allen drops back, looks for Boyd and hesitates ever so slightly. He can't take his eyes off Boyd. Linebacker Jabaal Sheard takes advantage of the extra second and strips the ball after getting by left tackle Jonah Williams.
"I knew we only needed about 15 yards to get within field goal range," Allen said. "There was a little miscommunication with me and (Tyler Boyd). I was expecting one thing, and he read it a different way. I got stuck on him, and from there I need to do a better job of taking care of the ball. I was trying to scramble and make a play, but in that situation the best thing is just to get forward as far as I could."
If it's not 2020, if it's not Zoom and instead reality, is that a miscommunication or the winning 15-yarder?
We'll never know. And like Taylor says, it doesn't matter.
"It's life in the NFL. It's the position we were in, and we've got to move the ball and make some plays," Taylor said. "Again, it doesn't all come down to that one play. There are plenty of other plays where we could have gotten momentum throughout the game. There were plenty of other plays where guys could have stepped up. Of course, everyone was going to remember the last play the game, but there was so much more that went on around that."
Reality 19, Zoom 17.