CLEVELAND — The redheaded rookie and the bald grizzled veteran both turned out to be winners Sunday after the Bengals won their first road opener since 2006 in Kansas City.
Even though Andy Dalton left with an injured wrist at halftime, he became just the fifth rookie quarterback since the 1970 merger to win a road opener in his NFL debut when backup Bruce Gradkowski engineered the sixth fourth quarter comeback of his career with two touchdowns in the Bengals 27-17 victory over the Browns.
(Anybody into history? It's the 30th anniversary of the 1981 AFC title season that started on Opening Day with backup QB Turk Schonert rescuing Ken Anderson.)
It also looks to be the first game a backup quarterback brought the Bengals back from a deficit since Scott Mitchell didn't complete any of his five passes after replacing the injured Akili Smith in the game Corey Dillon set the NFL rushing record against Denver on Oct. 22, 2000.
Gradkowski, who beat the Bengals on the last snap in Tampa Bay in 2006 and beat them again in the fourth quarter in 2009 in Oakland, chalked up this one for the Bengals when he hit rookie wide receiver A.J. Green on a controversial quick-snap 41-yard bomb with 4:28 left that also marked Green's first NFL catch.
When running back Cedric Benson popped a 39-yard touchdown run with 1:49 left on his 25th carry, the Bengals jacked their record to 31-2 under head coach Marvin Lewis when a runner carries at least 25 times.
"How you guys doing?" asked Gradkowski as he began his news conference dressed to the nines and his voice rising with each word.
He made a winner of Dalton in a debut Dalton staked the Bengals to a 10-0 lead with his first NFL touchdown pass, a two-yarder to tight end Jermaine Gresham on third down, and then grew it to 13-0 before the Browns took a 14-13 lead late in the second quarter before they knocked him out on what looked to be the Bengals' last play of the half.
There looked to be a miscommunication on the protection on third-and-four from the Browns 47 with 53 seconds left and Dalton took a hit from rookie tackle Phil Taylor as he overthrew Green. Dalton is not sure if he hit his wrist on a helmet, but when he got back up "I knew something was wrong," he said. "l lost a little feeling in it. I couldn't grip it like I wanted to. I didn't want to put the team in a (bad) position if I couldn't grip it and I lost the ball. ... The plan is for me to play next week … I'm going to come in here and do whatever I have to do to play."
Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis said Dalton's X-rays were negative and it's hoped he can play next Sunday in Denver, but it's also believed he'll get an MRI Sunday night.
Dalton not only passed the medical test, he also appeared to pass the football test with a 102.4 passer rating on 10-of-15 passing for 81 yards, one touchdown and no picks.
"There were some things we would have liked to have gotten, but I thought he managed things very well," Lewis said of Dalton's no-turnover effort.
Dalton let the play clock get the best of him just once, when the Bengals called a timeout, and he seems to be developing a quick rapport with Gresham, a guy he found five times for 36 yards that included his longest pass of the day, a 22-yarder down the left side after he pumped to wide receiver Jerome Simpson deep down the right.
On the touchdown Dalton hit Gresham on play-action on third down coming over the middle on safety T.J. Ward and Dalton hung it high and in front where only Gresham could jump and pluck it.
"He's going to be a great one," Gresham said. "He's got a good arm. He can throw it, now. And he just read the defense. He was on today. He'll be fine."
Left tackle Andrew Whitworth was just as impressed with Dalton's sideline demeanor after he didn't go back in. And Dalton wasn't happy he couldn't go back, visibly angry as tried some practice tosses before the second half and unable to get anything on it.
"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," Whitworth said.
Center Kyle Cook thought Dalton controlled the huddle and that it was impressive the Bengals had no delay of games.
"He did a great job as far as tempo, in the huddle, calling everything, he was spot on. That's good. It's something you have to overcome," Cook said of the play clock. "Last year we had quite a few (delay of game penalties) I think. We have to keep our tempo up, know that we can control the clock and not give up an easy five yards."
Dalton said he felt comfortable before getting hit by Tractor Taylor and that he just wanted to see how the game went without putting pressure on himself.
"The big thing is just getting out there and see how everything goes," he said. "When we're out there it's just playing football. You can't put too much into it. We wanted to sell the run (on the Gresham touchdown). I tried to work my progression and I saw him in the back of the end zone and he did a good job bringing it down."
So did Green on what will be forever known as a JayWalk for his first NFL touchdown when the Bengals caught the Browns slowly breaking out of the huddle on third-and-11. Offensive coordinator Jay Gruden, calling his first NFL game, called the quick snap from the bench. Browns heads coach Pat Shurmur inferred that the Bengals substituted and the refs didn't allow the Browns to also substitute, a rule left over from the no-huddle days of former Bengals coach Sam Wyche.
Before the Browns realized it, the Bengals were running the play and Green wasn't the only receiver open but he was the farthest downfield after finally shaking game-long nemesis Joe Haden at cornerback and he was waiting forever on Gradkowski's rainbow.
"I threw it up there because he was so open," Gradkowski said. "It was the easiest touchdown ever … I was looking for a flag."
This was classic Gradkowski in Tampa and Oakland, the perfect systems quarterback trying to make a desperate situation work with brains and pluck. Before the bomb he was 4-of-11 for 51 yards and he never threw another pass.
Here's a guy who somehow, some way does it. He's got six fourth-quarter wins and only six wins as a starter.
"I would have liked to have played better, but the big key for me is protecting the ball," Gradkowski said. "Just try to find a way to get a win and we did that today. My No. 1 goal is I don't care about my stats, but at the end of the day if we have that, 'W,' that's all that matters and that's what I'm happy about today."
So was Green, who had the ball 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 said. "It was like one of the slowest balls I have ever seen to come down. 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,' We could have done it before but the ref waved it off."
The Bengals didn't want to talk much about the play but Gruden sounded like the play was on the up and up and that the Bengals have worked on it throughout the preseason.
"If the defense isn't ready, we take advantage of it," said Cook, who thinks there weren't enough players on the field when the first try got waved off. "It was a great call by the offensive coordinator at the perfect time and we called it when they weren't paying attention. It's one of those plays if it doesn't work for a touchdown and you still catch a 10-yard ball or a 15-yard ball, it works well for you. They know we'll do it whenever.
"I think they know they screwed up," Cook said.
Gruden brought Gradkowski to Cincinnati to back up Dalton after he saw his professionalism first hand in Tampa.
"He was rusty. He didn't practice the first couple of days this week because of a hamstring," Gruden said. "But he fought and got it done. He's a pro."