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The Conversation: Jake Browning Leads Bengals Into Playoff Push Looking To Win First NFL Start Instead Of Trying Not To Lose It

QB Jake Browning
QB Jake Browning senior writer Geoff Hobson spoke with The Next Man Up as Bengals quarterback Jake Browning sat down for this week's conversation. Browning prepares for his first NFL start Sunday at Paycor Stadium (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12 ) against the 6-4 Steelers in the rush of the AFC playoff picture with the same even-keel approach he brought to his victorious training camp Joe Burrow Backup derby.

The conversation:

GH: A slew of backup quarterbacks are winning games this season. Josh Dobbs has won with two teams. What do you think when you see those names winning games?

JB: I think it speaks to the quality of backups that are in the NFL now. But also I think as I watch some of those, it's coaches calling plays to let them go win the game. You watch some guys and you can tell they're trying to protect the quarterback and call plays just so the quarterback doesn't lose the game.

That's kind of been my thing to the coaches. 'Hey, let's call whatever plays are going to help us beat the Steelers,' and not be as worried as much about whether they're protecting me with certain play calls or trying to run the ball just to give me plays off or something like that. Let's call plays to go win the game.

GH: How do you break down Pittsburgh? You've helped Joe break these guys down. What makes them tick? How do you beat them?

JB: We're still early in the week, but obviously they've got a really good pass rush. Feels like they've had a really good pass rush for like 70 years. They're a good team. They do what they do, and they do it really well.

They're going to challenge you on the outside and try to make you one-dimensional stopping the run. I think it really starts with their pass rush and the two guys on the edge and the two on the interior. I mean, we know Larry (Ogunjobi at defensive tackle). Larry makes a lot of splash plays. Shows up on film. Cam Heyward has been there forever. The two edge guys are two of the better ones. One is the best in the NFL and the other one's not talked about as much but really good, too

GH: Joe's got the rep for getting the ball out fast.  You seem to be willing to unload it, too.

JB: Yeah, I'm not looking to pat the baby back there. But part of that is mixing up when you're going to take your shots. You don't want to just sit there and quick game the whole game. You don't want to let DBs just play downhill. You want to challenge them. It's just anytime you're going against a good pass rush, whether it's Pittsburgh, Cleveland, or basically this whole division, you want to pick and choose your spots. You still have to challenge people down the field.

GH: Head coach Zac Taylor and offensive coordinator Brian Callahan are going to ask you what your favorite plays are. What do you like? Obviously, I don't want you to tell me that ….

JB: I wasn't planning on it.

GH: But you talked about your favorite play from Thursday's game. Your first snap. Under center, the naked rollout to the left, first-down arrow to Trenton Irwin. Are you one of these guys that can roll out of a snowbank and hit .300?

JB: I think half of that play was just getting warmed up again. Kind of hard to on the sideline, you can't really open up and run.  I've been in this offense for a while. It's not a Josh Dobbs situation where I'm showing up on a Tuesday, get thrown in on Sunday. I know the offense. As far as the favorite plays thing, Joe likes having that throughout the week and my thing is just call … just get someone open. I'll get it to the open guys. Just get somebody open and call whatever is going to help us beat the Steelers and I'll just play accordingly.

GH: That play showed you're a mobile guy who can throw on the run. I thought that play kind of showed your strengths.

JB: I think that's always kind of been part of my game.

GH: You left California and Folsom High with a bunch of state high school records and the national touchdown passes record in your senior season with 91. What is your favorite record?

JB: I don't know.

GH: You broke your own state record for passing yards in a season, which I find fascinating because California has had some great quarterbacks.

JB: I wouldn't be surprised of the top 10 if eight of them went to Folsom. We throw the ball. It's a smaller town for California standards, but it's known for football. Going all the way back to third grade football. Our junior football program is unbelievable.  It's kind of a random hotbed for football in Sacramento. But if you live in California, you know Folsom football.

GH: You probably knew all those guys who were setting the records. Watching them growing up.

JB: I remember all the way back to Cary Grossart, David Graves, Dano Graves. Tanner Trosin. And me. And then there's been a bunch after me, too. I think it all kind of started with Kris Richardson and Troy Taylor, the two coaches. Kris Richardson is now the O-line coach at Sac (Sacramento)  State. Phenomenal coach. And then Troy Taylor's now the head coach of Stanford. So that always helps a little bit.

GH: It's amazing to me that your high school coaches are now coaching in big college programs, which should tell you something, right? Plus, Jonathan Smith, now the head coach at Oregon State ….

JB: He was my OC for three years in college. A lot of promotions around there, huh?

GH: Because of you?

JB (with a big smile): I've definitely benefited from them, but I think maybe they benefitted, too. That's a good reputation to have. If I play for you, you get promoted. No coach is going to deny that.

GH: What was the whole COVID thing in Minnesota during training camp? You were like the last man standing, right?

JB: That was 2021. Basically for five days, or a week, or whatever the protocol was, I was the only quarterback. Got a lot of reps. That's really the most reps I got in the NFL up to that point. Unfortunately, I didn't play as well as I needed to in order to make the team in the (preseason) games, but that's kind of where got my first taste of going against our first team defense back when (head coach) Mike Zimmer was there and they always had good defenses, going against them and feeling like, alright I can really do this. And I got into the games and it was my first time playing a decent amount of live football. Before that it was like the 2019 Rose Bowl. So there was a little bit of a transition there.

GH: No preseason games in 2020, your second year.

JB: In 2019 I played like a quarter or so, like a half a quarter. I don't even remember. Then 2020 no preseason, which was tough. And then 2021, I think I started the first game, played a quarter, and then didn't play a ton in the next two. I ended up getting cut there, was a free agent for a couple of days, and randomly got a call here and ended up being here the whole season.

 And then the next year, Joe had the appendectomy and I got to play a lot in the preseason. I think that was a big building block for me to kind of take off this year and this preseason, to really be able to play well.

GH: What was it like playing for Zim?

JB: I liked playing for Zim. He was more on the defensive side. I was with Gary and Klint Kubiak a lot. Kevin Stefanski was the OC my rookie year. I learned a lot from all those guys. I enjoyed my time with (quarterback) Kirk Cousins. Still a guy I keep in touch with and I think very highly of. Just watching how he operates, getting to learn some things from him. Getting to learn some things from Joe. As you're going through all these different practice squad years of like, 'Damn, I'm not playing,' and then just doing everything you can to stay engaged so you're still learning from maybe their mistakes and things that they do well.

I think you have to be pretty engaged to pick up on some of those things and so that was always kind of my focus. Be very engaged in meetings, be very involved with the week-to-week.

GH: What did you learn from Burrow and Cousins?

JB: Well, first of all, both guys, at least in my experience, have been very open with how they feel about certain plays and what they see. I was an undrafted rookie coming in and Kirk was very accessible. I don't know if all guys at that stage in their career would have been like that. And so I really appreciate it. Things he did, even like taking care of his body, soft tissue work, stuff like that.

And then just how he kind of went about preparing where his mind was at during games. A lot of teams run the same plays and Kirk and Joe will both kind of talk through like, ' Yeah,' whenever they call that play, 'here's kind of what I think.' And there's a lot of value in that for me. Being a guy until about a year ago who wasn't playing a ton.  It's like, 'Okay, let's store that away in the memory bank if that comes up for me,' and then kind of playing with the same idea behind it because they kind of reached those conclusions with so many reps. So let me just piggyback off that.

GH: Have you heard from Cousins in the last couple of days?

JB: I can't remember. I've had a lot of texts, but he's someone I still keep in touch with every now and then.

**GH: I would imagine you reached out to him when he got hurt a few weeks ago.


JB: Yeah. Sucks to see that happen. He's been playing at a very high level. I think it's been good to see the last couple of years … I was there behind the scenes and watched him play a lot of really good football. And then he kind of had a bad rap. And then the quarterback show ("Quarterback," the Netflix documentary), it was good to see that, too, because that is very genuine. That was the most genuine representation of my experience around him. And then just to see him go out … you know, he's not a guy who's going to move around a ton. But he plays on time and he's super accurate, and that's getting the ball to where it needs to go on time.

 And just comparing that to how Joe avoids pressure and will extend plays. So there are two ways to do it. Just to see both and both guys do it at a high level, it was good for my development.

GH: What else have you learned from Joe?

JB: A lot. I've spent a lot of time with him in meetings. I think kind of going back to my time with Kirk, I'm never afraid to ask questions. 'If you don't feel like answering  it, you don't have to.' But he always has. 'Hey, this play call. What made you get to throw this?' Because I'm always behind him whenever he's taking reps thinking, 'Okay, this is where I would throw the ball.'  Sometimes I'm thinking I would have thrown one thing and then he throws it over there. 'What did you see that made you go over there?' A lot of the really good quarterbacks I've been around, they can always explain what their thought process was and why they did a certain thing. It's super valuable to be a younger guy or a guy who hasn't had a ton of reps and be able to ask those questions and get good answers.

GH: Joe said you and him have similar personalities. Agree?

JB: Yeah, both kind of in the same stage in life. Not married or any kids or anything like that. I've gotten along well with Joe.

GH: He says he's a routine guy, too.

JB:  I can't imagine being a quarterback in the NFL without a routine. I think your career might be short- lived.

GH: The last Bengals quarterback to win his first NFL start is AJ McCarron.

JB: Who's that guy?

GH: What's it like to have him around?

JB: It's been good. It's been good for the room. Definitely.

When you come in the middle of the season, or like right at the end of the season … I had that in 2021, you're trying to learn the offense. But you also want to contribute. And so it's valuable. He's been in a lot of different offenses. We talk about some play and he'll say, 'When I was in whatever place here's how we did it and I kind of liked that.' So there's been some stuff like that  come up. I felt like I kind of did some of that in 2021. Just different things I had done with the Vikings that we had success with.

GH: That last Bengals quarterback to win his first NFL start at home was Boomer Esiason. The last quarterback to beat the Steelers in his first NFL start was Brett Favre. What do you have to do on Sunday to take Boomer and Favre off the lists?

JB: Play on time. Play accurate. Get the ball to the guys who are really good receivers, running backs. And then when the time comes, extend, and make plays with my legs.