The one thing you know about the Bengals new starting quarterback is that Ryan Finley may be categorized as a rookie on the roster, but this thing isn’t too big for him.
“I feel like I got good experience in the preseason,” Finley said as the cameras streamed him as the starter for the first time after Wednesday’s practice. “Obviously it’s a lot different. But those are some good plays that I can fall back on in my mind. I’ve got confidence in myself. I think I’m going to play well.”
Don’t look at Wednesday’s practice. Don’t look at the pre-season tape, where he had a 99 passer rating paired with a 73.4 completion percentage, second best in the NFL among passers with at least 64 passes. Just check out his first foray into media responsibilities as delivered in a crash course at his locker by 25-year veteran P.J. Combs, the team’s director of media relations.
Finley briskly checked the boxes in his head and moved on as if Nov. 10 at Paul Brown Stadium is just another day at the office instead of his first NFL start against the hottest quarterback this side of Tom Brady in the Ravens’ Lamar Jackson. If you’re looking for contrasts, you just had to watch the media interactions of Finley and Andy Dalton. Both are intense with Finley cool and Andy Dalton 98.6.
But then, that’s one of the things that drew them to Finley during the draft as they sought a backup to Dalton. There’s an edge you don’t see in many of these young guys. A.J. Green sees it.
“I love Ryan, man. Ryan is a competitor. He wants to win. He has that edge,” Green said after Wednesday’s practice. “He has that leadership. It’s going to be a little different for him now. He’s young, so he doesn’t really understand the business side of this. So it’s probably a little awkward with him and Andy because him and Andy has a great relationship, but at the end of the day it’s a business and you have to take your emotion out of it sometime and just focus on the business part.”
Finley’s pre-draft visit to PBS is now part of Bengaldom lore because of how North Carolina State’s most accurate passer ever won them over with a braniac grease board session. And the fact he brought 46 games in college, 39 as the starter for the Wolfpack.
“He’s very intelligent. He’s played a ton of football,” said offensive coordinator Brian Callahan. “It’s not a new thing for him. He’s played 50 games (with those four pre-season games) and those things help. He’s got a lot of playing experience. He gets a chance to step in and drive the car a little bit.”
And if he gets out of it unscathed with a few fast, winning laps, he just may get the keys for good. Finley gets it. He’s been watching. He knows the deal. They’ve got the fourth fewest points in the league. They’re next to last scoring red-zone touchdowns. They’ve allowed the second most sacks.
“I hope to bring energy, bring some juice,” Finley said. “Do my best to be good in the pocket. Get the ball out on time. Extend plays. We’ve struggled a little bit into the red zone. Just hoping to find some ways to get some points.”
The Bengals like the 6-5 Finley’s feel in the pocket and that could be a strength as the offensive line continues to work through personnel shifts. (Update: right guard Alex Redmond is probably out, but John Miller is expected back after out the last two games. Andre Smith figures to be back at left tackle after missing the last three.) Taylor talks about how effective Finley is working his way back up into the pocket and stepping up and Callahan likes the way he can complete balls with different arm angles.
“He moves well in the pocket. He moves well as a runner,” Callahan said. “He can run well. He can throw from different arm angles. He’s got a unique talent and his skill set is he’s accurate and throws the ball well. We’re hoping to find a way to score more points, at the end of the day. Whatever that means for us.”
It means they need Finley to extend some of those plays in the red zone and step up against the rushes the only way NFL defenses can blitz a rookie. And he’s the kind of the guy that can pull it down and run for 50 yards on the day, too. Although he came into the league hyped as one of the smarter rookies, he believes his biggest improvement has been learning the game from watching Dalton and listening to long-time NFL quarterbacks coach Alex Van Pelt.
“Sitting in that room with Alex and Andy, they know a lot of ball,” Finley said. “They’ve each played for a long time in the NFL. Alex has obviously coached for a long time. Just kind of (improving) my football intelligence. Andy, he’s just extremely positive. He has a really good ability to kind of forget about the last play and move on. You can never count him out. That’s kind of what I learned from him.”
Green gets a kick out of it.
“Even ahead of time Ryan is calling out plays, like ‘What you got? What you got?’ I'm like, ‘Ryan, I don’t really know what I got right now. I wasn’t out there,’” Green said. “But he’s going through the whole thing. It’s fun just being on the sideline with him and building that connection.”
But the biggest thing he took from Dalton came in a text after the call was made.
“I look up to Andy more than people will know,” Finley said. “He’s a really good dude. He’s a class act and he’s special to me. I look up to him a ton. I can’t imagine how hard this is for him. He texted me and said he has my back. That meant a lot to me.”