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Return To A.J. Green's Coveted Grind Marks Another Significant Opener In His Career  

A.J. Green: back grinding.
A.J. Green: back grinding.

A.J. Green, who says he'll lop off his training camp moustache Friday for his wife and in time for the Chargers and Sunday's Opening Day (4:05 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12) at Paul Brown Stadium, has had plenty of close shaves on Opening Day:

  • The 180 yards that overwhelmed Hall-of-Fame candidate Darrelle Revis in New York on the 15th anniversary of 9/11 made for all the difference in a 23-22 victory over the Jets
  • His 77-yard touchdown catch off an Andy Dalton bomb as the clock ticked under five minutes in Baltimore was the difference in 2014's 23-16 victory.
  • The only catch of his NFL debut was on Bruce Gradkowski's perfectly thrown 41-yard moon ball that brought them from behind as the Cleveland clock blinked toward four minutes in 2011's 27-17 win that kicked off an era like they hope one kicks off Sunday.

Yes, Green assured on Thursday, his body feels as good for this opener as it for those openers.

"My body feels great. My legs are very fresh, and I'm pretty sure I'll be out there running all over the place," said Green, loving the walk-through sweat beading on the doomed stache. "I don't know how long my wind is going to last, but I'll get out when I get tired and hop back in after a couple plays."

Even though Green plays with a stately grace, had Canton-esque numbers before the injuries and is used to usually being the best player on any field he is on, he is, at heart, a grinder.

"That's the biggest thing I miss is the grind, my teammates, the camp, the practices and the stuff like that leading up to the game. It's been a long time," Green said. I'm very excited. The last two years have been rough just not being a part of the team.

"I'm just happy to be going to practice and being around the guys, feeling tired. I'm not taking anything for granted any more. I love the grind. I missed the grind so much. I'm just happy to be with my brothers again."

Green sent a shock wave through Bengaldom back on Aug. 17, the day before the pads came on. For the first couple of days he was looking great with rookie quarterback Joe Burrow. The injuries that had wiped out his last 24 games flickered in distant memory.

That was easy to do. Remember, when he went down with a toe injury on the last offensive snap of 2018's eighth game, he was on pace to have the second biggest year of his career with nearly 1,400 yards.

And, remember this. Even now, heading into the 2020 season after missing those 24 games, only one active wide receiver on a roster, Larry Fitzgerald, has more touchdown catches. Only three active wide receivers on a roster have more yards. Only five active wide receivers on rosters average more yards per game.

"For me it's always proving myself. I know that I've put in each and every season to come out there and play at a high level," Green said. "You can't control these injuries, but everybody knows my body of work when I'm on the field. No matter what anybody else says I just go out there and play my game and it speaks for itself."

But on Aug. 17, when Green got jostled running a route in a slight collision, he tweaked his hamstring and that was enough to basically button him up the rest of the way. This week he's enjoyed his first full team practices with Taylor as his head coach, but he says he's ready.

"We all had communication to make sure I felt 100 percent. For me, I had to tell my mind to just relax," Green said. "Just be healthy enough to be ready for Week 1 and not push too much. That's what I did, and I feel great now. 

"It's just been a rocky road, but I wouldn't have it no other way, man. I think it just keeps pushing me to be the best, fight through adversity and just keep pushing. That's who I am."

At heart a grinder and it suits him more than ever.

Green hasn't played a full game since Oct. 28, 2018, when his sliding catch in the last seconds at PBS (which injured his toe and started it all) set up a Randy Bullock field goal to beat a Tampa Bay defense coordinated by Mark Duffner, now the Bengals senior defensive assistant.

You get the idea. Zac Taylor was a quarterbacks coach. It was Hue Jackson's last day as the head coach in Cleveland. LSU quarterback Joe Burrow reclined during a bye week and would be shut out at home the next week by No. 1 Alabama. At 5-3, the Bengals were in the thick of the playoff race.

They've won three games since.

 How long ago?

That night the Red Sox won the World Series when they rode home on a Mookie Betts homer against the Dodgers in Los Angeles.

"It was very difficult because I know what I meant to the team and what I bring to the offense. It was tough," said Green of watching 3-21. "But you know these injuries happen. For me, it's just keep going out there and keep pushing myself and hope these injuries stop. For me, it's just getting out there and keep playing and don't have that stuff in the back of my mind. It's going out there and playing my game."

Like everyone else, Green likes what he sees in Burrow. On Sunday he'll try for the quartet and catch a touchdown pass from his fourth quarterback, joining Dalton, Gradkowski and AJ McCarron.

Here's what he likes:

"He's very accurate. The way he puts the ball on you and the communication he has with his receivers," Green said. "After you run a route you come back and he's like 'What do you think about this? How do you like this ball?' Just his leadership outside of throwing the ball."

But when will Green and Burrow be like Green and Dalton? Like on that last catch against the Bucs? Something mystically in sync through just reps?

"That's going to come over time," Green said. "We had plenty of work done leading up to the training camp, and we always communicate. Even on my day off, I came up and we started running routes on Tuesday."

At 32 and in his 112th game looking for his 603rd catch and the four more touchdowns that make him the Bengals' all-time touchdown receiver, yes. Green is going to have the jitters. And he will until he takes a shot.

"It's just getting hit in general. That's even if I wasn't hurt," Green said. "I'm comfortable once I get hit that I can get back into football. Especially since we had no offseason, no preseason, so it was really not even tackling in training camp. I think that's going to be for everybody."

Since it's an opener, look for something special from him. But for Green, just taking the field to open is special enough. That's the one thing he only truly visualized while he was trying to get back.

"Not even just the catch. Just getting out there and playing," Green said. "Just getting back in the swing of things. Getting back into my weekly routine leading up to the game I'm just excited about that."

Not the game.

The grind.