Virgil Carter thinks Jake Browning has a better chance at becoming the next Bengals playoff quarterback than he did at becoming the first. And not just because they led Folsom High School to undefeated seasons in the foothills of northern California's Sierra Nevada 50 years apart.
"He's got real ability," says the always self-depreciating Carter.
Never mind that Carter was good enough to guide the Bengals through what is still the NFL's most mountainous climb to a division title 53 years later. When Carter took over the 1970 Bengals in the first year of the AFC Central, they were 1-2 about to go to 1-6 before he took them on that magical seven-game winning streak that ended with them carrying head coach Paul Brown from the Riverfront Stadium turf to a postseason date with Johnny U. in Baltimore.
So, yeah, he says. Browning, leading a team that's 5-5 and gets the first of two shots at the 6-4 Steelers Sunday (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12) at Paycor Stadium, certainly is in a better spot.
"He'll do fine," says Carter, a pleasant 78 who answers the phone, "This is Virg."
"He just has to be comfortable in his own skin and do what he thinks he does best. I know for me it was the quick pass and the quick decisions and running a little bit. Pick up a few first downs here and there. That was my style even in Chicago."
Don't look for Browning to beat Carter's team record for yards rushing by a quarterback, when he went for 110 against Cleveland at Riverfront to get them to 3-6. But the quick decisions? Kris Richardson, one of Browning's head coaches at Folsom, saw it when was 10 and playing with his kids in the youth leagues.
"The way he had handled himself, he was just so much more mature and locked in," Richardson says. "Probably more than any other kid I coached."
Browning grew up watching Dano Graves fling Folsom to a 14-1 record while winning Gatorade Player of the Year as the cutting-edge spread offenses Richardson and co-coach Troy Taylor helped introduce to Northern California in the late '90s took a stunning hold on Greater Sacramento. It was a perfect storm. The offense designed to beat bigger schools was now in place for a town mushrooming from 30,000 to 72,000 in the first decade of the century.
With the setting for Johnny Cash's iconic "Folsom Prison Blues," ballad as the backdrop, the high school football team took no prisoners. It got to the point where kids came to play. Once Richardson opened his door and met a kid who just moved in from Georgia.
"A sophomore, 6-4, 265 pounds with a full beard," says Richardson, describing Bengals right tackle Jonah Williams, a future first-round draft pick and Browning teammate on the undefeated state champs. "Became the best offensive lineman in the history of Sacramento."
A brief two years after Graves, Browning was a true sophomore making his first start facing the constant Zero blitzes of Woodcreek High School.
"Every time we went empty, they brought six men," Richardson recalls. "Jake already knew how to sway and get the ball out quick. He threw for ten touchdowns and something like 500 yards in that game. Teams stopped blitzing."
But Browning kept throwing and broke his own California record for yards passing yards before becoming the winningest quarterback in Pac-12 history at Washington. There was a bigger kid with a stronger arm who could have been their quarterback. "But there was something special about Jake and his decision-making."
There were the Sundays Browning would sit in as Richardson and Taylor game-planned, and frankly, Richardson thought, it was like hanging out with another coach.
"And a coach gets to go on the field and spin the ball around," Richardson says. "We were always raising the envelope of reads and protections and we wouldn't just throw it to one guy. We spread it around the field. And you'd get Jake's perspective coming off the field. 'How come you threw it to this guy?' He would say, 'I saw the safety roll down and the nickel push out. It took my read across the field.' You'd question it, then see it on film and that's exactly how it happened. That doesn't happen very often with a high school quarterback."
Richardson, now the assistant head coach, run game coordinator, and offensive line coach at Sacramento State, and Taylor, now the head coach at Stanford, always thought Browning could have been an offensive coordinator even when he was playing for them. That's why in those few days in between the Vikings and Bengals two years ago, Browning thought he was headed back to Sacramento to begin his coaching career.
"We definitely made that call," Richardson says. "But you guys called, he's getting better and better and smarter and smarter."
Carter, who moved to Southern California, followed him out of Folsom to Washington before losing track of him when he hit the pros. Until a year ago, when the local paper did a story on Folsom's quarterback legacy. Carter, it discovered, laid the foundation in the early '60s when it was a town of about 4,000. His father was stationed at Mather Air Force Base and the kids were sent to school 30 minutes away in Folsom. So were the children of the employees of the burgeoning rocket propulsion company Aerojet-General.
"About a third of the team was like me with family members in the Air Force. Another third was with Aerojet," Carter says. "And the other third were talented athletes who were in town. We were undefeated my senior year and not many teams even scored a point on us. There was no state championship at the time, but we were considered No. 1 in Northern California."
Like Browing, Carter stayed west. He'll tell you he wasn't that good, but he was good enough to be a sixth-round pick of the Bears in 1967 out of BYU, where he picked up the nickname "Carter The Blue Darter," from the name of his intramural basketball team. He started seven games in two seasons for the Bears (he beat his idol Packers quarterback Bart Starr) and ended up in Buffalo in 1970. Paul Brown, looking to replace injured 1969 AFL Rookie of the Year Greg Cook, swung the trade with the Bills three weeks before the opener.
"My wife had to tell me where Cincinnati was," Carter says. "Paul Brown was great. (Offensive assistant) Bill Walsh was the key to my success there. He certainly knew how to put pass plays together."
The next year Carter morphed into rookie Ken Anderson's backup before becoming the first NFL player to sign with the World Football League. After the league folded, he returned to the Bears to back up Bob Avellini for a year to finish a solid career that was much better than he says it was. The playoff run in Cincy is the highlight, he says.
He watches Chicago some, but he takes in the Bengals more than any team. His grandson, the red-haired Jonah Hamilton, has always been partial to Bengals colors and he's been a Bengals fan ever since they spent a week at training camp about 20 years ago and got tickets to a game from Bengals president Mike Brown. Even though Jonah is working back east now, they still talk every week catching up on the Bengals. Browning, of course, is a hot topic for them. They'll be watching Sunday.
"He's not going to beat out Joe (Burrow) even if he wins four or five games," Carter says. "But you know how the league is."
It's just like it was back in 1970. There never seems to be enough good quarterbacks. There are always teams looking.
"When Jake came along, there was no memory of me in Folsom," Carter says. "That was a lot of years ago."
Not so fast, Virg. There's this text from Richardson when asked if he ever heard of Carter:
"I know I did! … All the coaches that hired me always told me about him. He is a Folsom all-time great."
More than fifty years later, Carter hopes his fellow alum can repeat playoff history.