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Early Returns: Burrow Commandeers Huddle As A.J. Green Heats Up The Pastures 

Joe Burrow got some throws in Thursday.
Joe Burrow got some throws in Thursday.

OK, it's early. Way too early to say the Bengals are going 10-6 and heading to the playoffs.

After all, they've done next to nothing. They've been together in camp since only Tuesday and they've have had a grand total of three walkthroughs. They've had more swabs than snaps in the last three days.

But ever since March we've been looking for just a feel-good patch of greener pastures and they seemed to beckon this week.

Yes, Joe Burrow has command of the huddle.

"You think that's a little thing on the outside, but it gives you juice breaking out of the huddle," said veteran wide receiver Alex Erickson Thursday between Zoom meetings.

Yes, A.J. Green has A.J. Green-like pop in those 32-year-old legs.

"We're just running routes and haven't gone full speed against the defense," said veteran tight end C.J. Uzomah, who had to laugh at sophomore tight end Drew Sample's reaction when they ran routes on air Thursday morning. "Drew only saw him last year for, what, that first practice? He said, 'I forgot how explosive he is.' I told him, 'You haven't seen the half of it yet.'"

Yes, even with all the contract stuff attached to him like barnacles, the photo galleries show Joe Mixon is still his upbeat bouncy smiling self with two 1,000-yard seasons underneath him.

"For not being together for seven months, we look pretty good," Uzomah said. "It's a breath of fresh out there to be running plays and being in the building."

And, yes, everyone appears safe and sound. No positive tests since they've come together as a team. When the opt-out deadline passed Thursday, they had lost two players.

"I didn't think about it. But I get where guys are coming from," said Erickson, a father of two babies in diapers who chose to play. "It's just about the risk. You're going to be around a good amount of people for the next seven months. And I certainly understand. It's a personal decision. With the protocols in place, I'm pretty confident with the steps we're taking. The protocol is in place to protect us if one guy does test positive. Masks. Social distancing. Contact tracing. I think we're in good hands."

Uzomah is just glad to be on the grass. Some of the guys were talking about how they had been working out at high schools and he had to tell them, hey, he had been trying to scratch out football spaces on a Nashville baseball field.

It was Uzomah who on Thursday was lined up for play in the walkthrough when he heard Burrow make the kind of call that had a six-year vet saying to himself, "Dang, this is the third day and you're making that check right now?"

"I think he knows his stuff. He's making the appropriate reads and checks," Uzomah said." He's going to be one of the boys for sure. He has a certain confidence in himself and you can tell he has the confidence in us to do what we need to do. I like him so far. I like what he brings to the table. That poise that he has. The moxie that he has is nice."

Uzomah noticed that Burrow on Thursday urged the running backs to run a route a little flatter and he thinks that's a great sign. It's a pretty accessible bunch of guys on offense. Uzomah came back from one route and told him he ran it a little deeper than he should have.

"I think Joe knew it, but it's good for us to tell him because that gives him confidence in us," Uzomah said.

Erickson likes how the kid handles himself.

"He has that confidence about him, but he's not overboard," Erickson said. "He carries himself like he knows he belongs. As he should. He earned the right to be the No. 1 pick. He's earned the right to be the face of the franchise. But he has a rookie's approach. He has to earn the respect of his teammates. He's doing that one day at a time."

One of the new Bengals, safety Vonn Bell, has already been a teammate. They crossed paths at Ohio State, before Bell went to Louisiana to start five post-season games for the Saints and Burrow went to the Bayou to become a legend.

He says not much has changed since he would urge the freshman, "Give me a cup of Joe." And that seemed to mean a certain edge, a certain big play.

"He still has that Joe swagger. He's just got to be himself every day. That's all you need," Bell said. "That's good enough. Just challenge himself every day, just getting better, just finding that one percent of getting better. It's going to be alright.     

 When Bell was in New Orleans, the Saints had an offensive assistant named Joe Brady and Brady absconded with the Sean Payton and Drew Brees blueprints that built Burrow's Heisman Trophy at LSU.

 "(Burrow) is more mature now," Bell said. "He was picking on some good brains. It's helped him, his progression and the speed of the game slowed down. His time table in his head… he can progress the field way better. He's got even more swagger to him and I love it."

The only time Bell can really see Burrow is on the field because the offense and defense are basically working split shifts. The offense has the building in the morning. The defense in the afternoon. And the day starts early. Part of the 7 a.m. conditioning on Thursday had the receivers running routes.

Burrow showed up as advertised, they say.

"He can definitely spin it," Erickson said. "Arm talent? That stuff? Not going to be an issue."

And there was the huddle.

Remember, Burrow didn't have one in Baton Rouge. When he was exiled in Athens after the draft, he spent his days having his old high school coordinator or his father or maybe one of his buddies call a play from the Bengals playbook.

And then he would repeat it as if he were in a huddle before running the play. It seems to have paid off.

"The first thing with a lot of the rookies, especially guys that go from a system where they're not in a huddle, they're yelling out plays. He's got command in the huddle," Erickson said. "You can tell he's really worked hard at it in the offseason.

"It sounds like a little thing, but that stuff really matters. It makes a big difference when the quarterback says the play, you get a good break and it sets a tempo for the whole play."

And Burrow has what rookie Andy Dalton didn't have for a target. Chad Johnson. Except his name is A.J. Green and even though he hasn't played in the last 24 games because of foot and ankle injuries, Green, so far, has looked the way he's supposed to look.

"He looks like A.J. Green," Erickson said. "You can tell when a guy looks explosive and he looks explosive. The quick twitch. He's bending, getting in and out of routes. It's awesome seeing A.J. Green back out there.

"I think he's confident. He's had the time to build himself back up. He just makes us a much better team. When he's out there, he's got a presence to him. He's out there working, pulling everyone along."

Yeah, it's early.

But good vibes are good vibes when you think back to March.

"A lot of energy," Erickson. "Everyone is glad to be back."