Joe Burrow knew the plan all along and with a leprechaun's smile after Wednesday's practice offered to the media, "We just didn't want to tell you guys."
Of course he'll play. Now, it won't be for very long. But he'll play. And he'll quite naturally do it on a national stage in the final preseason game of the year against the Dolphins Sunday (4 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12) when Paul Brown Stadium is in the CBS eye.
"I think it's important going into the last preseason game to be as close as you can to having a game-like feel," said Burrow, who orchestrated a 31-20 win over Tennessee in his last Cincinnati appearance back on Nov. 1. "I'm going to be in the huddle game one, so I need to be out there the first play of this game. So I am."
Also in the huddle with him is what is rapidly looking like his Opening Day offensive line. Also making a 2021 debut coming of reconstructive knee surgery is center Trey Hopkins, who tore his ACL six weeks after Burrow in the season finale at PBS the third day of 2021.
The defensive starters won't play after not allowing a point in 20 plays this preseason and it doesn't look like cornerback Trae Waynes could. He limped off the field Wednesday with what appeared to be a hamstring injury. Rookie edge Cam Sample (shoulder) hasn't played since getting injured last Saturday night in Washington and may not go.
Waynes, whose Bengals debut was deferred when he missed all last year with an injured pectoral muscle, has 18 days to get ready for his old team when the Bengals open the season against Minnesota Sept. 12 at PBS.
Head coach Zac Taylor has opted to flank Hopkins with two veteran guards, Quinton Spain on the left and Xavier Su'a-Filo on the right, two guys that played just a total of 14 quarters last season with Burrow. While Burrow lobbied to play, Hopkins has waited.
"If my number's called, I'll play. They called it. Let's go," Hopkins said after practice. "Let's test this thing out and see how it does."
Taylor has seen the league run its course on everything this preseason. Many vet quarterbacks have yet to take a snap, but his guy starts his second season after not playing since the injury occurred on Nov. 22, a total of 280 days by the time Sunday rolls around.
"Everybody's different. We've certainly talked through every situation we could find over the last 10, 15 years. But again, every person's unique," Taylor said before Wednesday's practice. "The timing of every injury was a little bit different. We've got to do what's best for Joe, what's best for the team. We felt like this is what fits best.
"I think it's just good to check that box. You go out there in a real game, you're in there with the guys, and it'll be very limited. We'll be smart with what we do and get him out and then we'll get ready for Minnesota."
There is a third game precedent in Bengaldom. Fifteen years ago when Pro Bowl quarterback Carson Palmer was coming back from his ACL (torn even six days after Hopkins on the calendar), he played only in the third preseason game before taking the first snap of another Pro Bowl season in 2006.
No one expects Burrow to go as deep as Palmer did that night at PBS against Green Bay, 15 years and a day to Burrow's first game back. Palmer fueled the Bengals' highest scoring preseason game ever when he played the first half and staked them to a 34-7 halftime lead on nine of 14 passing for three touchdowns and 140 yards.
Burrow figures not to go nearly as long and one of the nice resources Taylor has on his staff in offensive coordinator Brian Callahan doesn't think he must. Callahan has been around some big-time quarterbacks in Peyton Manning, Matthew Stafford and Derek Carr, but the only time he's been around a guy coming off major injury is when Manning was coming back from his neck surgery with the 2012 Broncos.
"He played, he wanted to play, he had to play," Callahan said of the 64 snaps Manning took that preseason. "He knew he needed to play. He was not only coming off missing a year with major surgery, he was playing for a new team. Still, it was year 15 for him. He knew what he needed to play. I think it's good for guys to participate. You do it judiciously. You manage it. You don't put him in harm's way."
It's not a great comparison. Manning was already a Hall of Fame quarterback in his 15th season, which amplifies Taylor's point. Every comeback, every injury, every knee, every quarterback is different. Callahan believes the common denominator is getting some activity in a game setting.
"I think (the veterans) still need some work," Callahan said. ""There's a mental tune-up, a pregame routine. Then when you take the field, what is your pregame warm-up routine?" Callahan said. "What is your mental space? Just walk through that a little bit. When you get in the stadium with your group and communicate in the huddle, I think there's something to that and I think for Joe coming off an injury it's important for him to do that once before he does it for real."
"Very limited," could mean anything from three snaps to taking him out in the middle of a drive. He said all options are on the table, but one thing is for sure. He says he'll pull that offensive line when he pulls Burrow.
As the offensive play caller, Taylor sees it as a mechanical run-through. As the head coach, he sees it as a tone-setting moment.
"Just getting out there with his teammates, coaches on the sidelines, using the helmet-to-quarterback communicator which we do during practice. But it's just different in a game," Taylor said. "It's different in a game environment. I think it will be fun for the fans that show up to the game, to get a chance to cheer him on and cheer the whole group on. It'll be a fun moment for all of us. "
Also, Taylor wants to make sure he's in sync on the headset with Burrow and on the phones with his two new assistants, offensive line coach/run game coordinator Frank Pollack and running back Justin Hill. Cincinnati's newest parlor game until Sunday is going to be guessing what plays Taylor calls. Don't look for anything crazy. Two handoffs and a swing pass might be along the lines of what he's thinking. (Would they even try a screen knowing that required a big pass rush?)
"I can be as smart as I can possibly do with the play calls and what will be options for him," Taylor said.
The one thing Burrow wants, Taylor won't supply.
"Yeah I do," said Burrow when asked if he want to take a hit before he gets one from old friend Mike Zimmer's Vikings. "That's not going to happen. Hopefully we can somehow find a way to do that."
Don't look at Callahan.
"Some guys need that feeling of its time to go play football again," Callahan said. "I'm not saying I want that. I think he's totally fine where he is."