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Bengals' Royal Line Of Receivers On Display In Finale

A.J. Green had his longest catch of the season on this play Sunday.
A.J. Green had his longest catch of the season on this play Sunday.

This last week of this regular season seems to be just the right time to talk about wide receivers and the long line of royalty stretching through Bengaldom. Ever since Sir Isaac Curtis caught the torch, there has always seemed to be worthy successors.

After all, Tee Higgins is on the verge of breaking a club receiving record nearly 40 years old now that he's one away from breaking Cris Collinsworth's rookie record with his 68th catch Sunday (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12) at Paul Brown Stadium against the Ravens.

Slot receiver Tyler Boyd is two catches away from becoming just the fifth Bengal receiver to have back-to-back 80 catch seasons.

And A.J. Green, who in Thursday's Zoom said if this is his last game as a Bengal he "had a great time here," is one catch away from tying Chad Johnson's franchise record of 66 touchdowns.

"If it's going to happen, it's going to happen. If it's not, it's not. That's the way I look at things," Green said.

This is the way the Godfather looks at it. Isaac Fisher Curtis is the first of the great Bengals receivers and we'll argue the greatest of them of all as the prototype of the 21st century NFL receiver who made Paul Brown change the rules.

Here's who he would take as his running mate if only two receivers could make an all-time Bengals team.

"A guy who played for the Bengals to play on the other side?' Curtis clarified this week. "A.J."

"His size, his range, his route running. He can run every route in the book. The whole tree. When he was healthy and at the top of his game he was as good as any receiver in the league. He really goes after the ball. When it is in the air he really attacks the ball. He gives your quarterback a lot of confidence. He'd take the pressure off me. Maybe I'd get all the balls because they'd double him. I know this. It would be fun."

Curtis, a Cal running back and Olympic caliber sprinter who transferred to San Diego State and became a wide receiver under Don Coryell, used his breath-taking brew of speed and hands to help change a stodgy game stuck in the '40s.

Curtis never had more than 47 catches or 1,000 yards in a season, but in his first four years in those 14-game seasons he never averaged less than 18.7 yards per catch while racing for 32 touchdowns. After his rookie year, his Hall-of-Fame head coach and powerful NFL competition committee member, Paul Brown, seething over the Miami Dolphins mauling Curtis down field in a 1973 playoff game, successfully lobbied for the rule that prevented hitting receivers five yards down field.

By the time Curtis retired after his 12th season in 1984, Brown's Isaac Curtis Rule had changed the game indelibly. Bengals tight end M.L. Harris had 48 catches, one more than Curtis ever had, and Collinsworth finished just 11 yards shy of his third 1,000-yard season.

Before Green mentored Higgins, there was Collinsworth watching Curtis' every move. When Collinsworth arrived in 1981, Curtis was 30 and nothing made Paul Brown more nervous than 30-year-old receivers.

But Curtis was special. And with Collinsworth catching that rookie-record 67 balls, Curtis jacked his yard per back up to 16.5, the best of his last five seasons. In 1981's biggest regular-season game of the year, Curtis had eight catches for 147 yards in San Diego to make sure the AFC title game was in the Freezer Bowl in Cincinnati. The next biggest game was a shootout against the Jets at Shea in Week Two and there he was with 108 on five catches.

"Cris was very polished coming out of that offense at Florida," Curtis said of the rookie CC. "He was deceptive. I would stand there and watch him run. He was so long and lanky. He had these long legs coming right at you. He would run up on defensive backs. They didn't realize Cris was faster than he looked because he was so long and lanky and he ran great routes and he had the good hands. He was a great player. He took pressure off of me. We complemented each other."

Green, a first-round soul mate of Curtis, had to laugh on Thursday. When Higgins was drafted this last April in the second round of Collinsworth-Chad Johnson-Tyler Boyd, he proclaimed that Green was his favorite receiver and the reason he followed the Bengals as a kid in Tennessee.

But it turns out Higgins isn't the only one.

"When I was coming in, I always looked up to Andre Johnson and all those guys," Green said. "When we played the Texans he came over to me and I'm talking like I watched him in high school. And he's like 'Appreciate it young 'un.' Going to the Pro Bowls and watching Reggie Wayne and Brandon Marshall and all those guys, and now I'm one of the old guys. It's a little crazy to be on the field when all these guys are saying 'I used to play with you in Madden in high school' and all that. It's crazy. It's definitely humbling and it's a blessing to where I made that impact to where these young receivers can really look up to my game and stuff like that. But I'm just happy to play the game. I just love playing this game and I can't wait to see what the future holds for me."

As they say, the beat goes on. Boyd played every position growing up, so his guy was LaDainian Tomlinson. Chad talked about growing up watching Terrell Owens and then they were teammates on the 2010 Bengals. The torch is passed. Last Sunday in Houston, the 27-year-old Brandin Cooks stunned Green before he nearly single-handedly torpedoed the Bengals with 115 yards and a touchdown.

"(Cooks) was talking how he used to watch me and I was his favorite player all the time. It was a little weird because I didn't know Brandin Cooks was that young," Green said. "To hear him talk like that and one of the young DBs was on a recruiting visit when I was working out at Georgia like two years ago. It was crazy."

If that won't make Green, 32, feel old, the stat line won't either because he feels like he can still play and plans to whether here or elsewhere. He goes into Sunday with career lows of Curtis' 47 catches, 523 yards, 11.1 yards per and two touchdowns and there are a ton of reasons.

Start with a new offense and a rookie quarterback after missing the previous season-and-half with ankle and toe surgeries on top of a pandemic-shortened training schedule. Throw in two more quarterbacks and no pre-season games.

It sounds like the biggest adjustment for Green between that monster first half of 2018 before he got hurt, which was better than this entire season (46 catches, 694 yards, six touchdowns at 15.1 yards per) and 2020 has been changing roles in a new scheme.

"It definitely was a learning curve for me," Green said. "I'm used to moving around a lot, put me in different positions. But in here, we have a talented receiver group so I don't have to move around a lot. For me, everything was new. I pretty much played X the whole season. A lot of stuff, a lot of routes I'm not used to.

"A lot of different, little formations I'm not used to. It's usually me, putting me on an island and letting me go win or put me in somewhere, let me go run down the field. It's a little different this year. But hey, this is the offense so I can't really do anything about it. Like I said, I came into work every day."

It will be recalled in the second game of that '18 season, he continued his career-long destruction of the Ravens and hit them with three touchdowns in the game's first 17 minutes from what looked to be three different spots ranging from outside to the slot.

"I was all over the place in that game. That's the way it was back then," Green said.

But instead of bristling, Green has gutted it out with a captain's class. T.J. Houshmandzadeh, himself one of the Bengals' greats with a franchise-best 112 catches in 2007, says that even-keeled personality helps make Green great.

"He's a legit 6-4, runs great routes, good hands good body control. Man, he can put his foot in the ground and go," Houshmandzadeh said. "One of his best attributes is his temperament. He never gets too high or too low. Except for that one game against the Jacksonville Jags (when he and Jalen Ramsey got ejected for fighting), he's always got pretty much the same approach."

Houshmandzadeh admits he's biased when he says Chad Johnson is the best Bengals receiver ever "because I saw it every day. No one was quicker than Chad. For a guy to be that size and that quick was unbelievable. AJ. is definitely number two."

Green has some definite No. 1 moments. The overtime win over Seattle at The Paul in 2015 when they came back from 24-7 down. And there has to be a Ravens moment. Also 2015. In Baltimore where his career-high 227 yards impaled the Ravens on two fourth-quarter touchdowns.

"Just going back and forth with Steve Smith and I. That was probably one of the biggest moments because I looked up to a guy like Steve Smith growing up, his game and watching him do what he did at that age and that late in his career at Baltimore," Green said.

Green watched Smith. Higgins watched Green. Which kids out there are watching Higgins?

Curtis is watching them all.

"A lot of great receivers have come through Cincinnati," said Curtis, still thinking of his all-time running mates. "I think we can put Chad in the slot. Cris Collinsworth in the slot. I'd like to have those four guys. With all the wide receivers they have out there now. I'll take those two guys with Cris and myself. I think we would have fun out there."

The beat goes on. After 649 catches, 9,430 yards and 65 touchdowns, the temperament remains the same.

"Anything is possible," Green said. "I don't really think about my last game. I'm a point in my career where I've played for a long time. So, just go out there and put my best foot forward. And whatever happens after the season is already in God's plans, so I'm not really worried about what's going to happen."