CLEVELAND - To this day Andy Dalton likes to offer from time to time a trivia question. "Who threw A.J. Green his first NFL touchdown?" Green and Dalton have become so synonymous with Cincinnati like Procter and Gamble that they rarely pull out "Bruce Gradkowski." Even though Dalton leaves with an injured wrist at halftime of today's opener, he becomes just the fifth rookie quarterback since the 1970 merger to win a road opener in his NFL debut when Gradkowski engineers the sixth fourth quarter comeback of his career with two touchdowns in the Bengals' 27-17 victory over the Browns.
The verdict stuns the pundits, some who pick the Bengals go winless in the year after franchise quarterback Carson Palmer has jumped the team demanding a trade and Chad Johnson has been shipped to New England. Head coach Marv Lewis begins what he calls a re-boot when they draft Green with the fourth pick and Dalton with the 35th to lead a team that averages less than four years' experience. Adding to the Opening Day improbability is first-year NFL offensive coordinator Jay Gruden's efforts to install his scheme doesn't start until late July because of a lockout
Gradkowski, who beats the Bengals on the last snap in Tampa Bay in 2006 and again late in the fourth quarter in 2009 in Oakland, chalks up this one for the Bengals when he hits Green on a controversial quick-snap 41-yard bomb with 4:28 left in the game that also marks Green's first NFL catch for trivia fans. When running back Cedric Benson pops a 39-yard touchdown run with 1:49 left, Dalton has what Palmer needed 16 games to reach with a road division win. Before Dalton hits his wrist on Browns defensive tackle Phil Taylor's helmet, Dalton stakes the Bengals to a 10-0 lead with his first NFL touchdown pass, a two-yarder to tight end Jermaine Gresham on third down. Lewis says Dalton's X-rays are negative and it's hoped he can play next Sunday in Denver. He not only passes the medical test, he also appears to pass the football test with a 102.4 passer rating on 10 of 15 passing for 81 yards, one touchdown and no picks. "He was in there competing and then when he wasn't, he was still in our faces when we came off the field, and that was good to see," says left tackle Andrew Whitworth, one of the team captains leading the re-boot.
Gruden, calling his first NFL game, sends in the quick snap from the bench. Browns head coach Pat Shurmur later infers that the Bengals substituted and the refs didn't allow the Browns to also substitute. But this is a day for rookies. Before the Browns realize it, the Bengals are running the play and Green is finally shaking game-long nemesis Joe Haden at cornerback as he waits forever on Gradkowski's rainbow. "I threw it up there because he was so open," Gradkowski says. "It was like one of the slowest balls I have ever seen to come down," Green says. "I was 'Come on and get down to my hands!' This was one of the toughest ones because I really had to think about it and it seemed like it was taking forever to get down to my hands. "I was saying, 'Hurry ball, get down so I can catch this and score.'" The ball is taped and marked in his locker, his only catch of a very big day. "I'd rather have that than a 100-yard day," Green says.