A.J. Green took a look at the Bengals schedule for this season Thursday night and saw the rest of his career.
"It's crazy how fast it goes. This is year ten," says an amazed Green, going on his ninth week sheltered safely with his two children and wife/coach Miranda in Fulton County, Georgia. "Not playing the last year and a half, it's really zoomed me into being more focused, not taking things for granted. The first seven years it was like, 'Oh, this is easy. No speed bumps. Making the Pro Bowl every year.' Then it's been injury after injury.
"It's a process of trying to be great. You play this game long enough, you're going to have these bumps in the road and you have to keep fighting. That's where I am. Still fighting. I still love the game. I'm just ready to get back and play."
Somewhere in these nine years Green has gone from first-round prodigy to perennial Pro Bowler to one of the most recognizable figures in the league to the locker room sage the young players call simply, "Dream." While the Green-Dalton Era passed into history last week with the release of Andy Dalton, Green walked over the threshold to become the Bengals statesman. That's when you stick around for a couple of eras, not just one.
And so he has welcomed Joe Burrow with the open arms that have already caught 602 NFL passes and 63 touchdowns. Among overall No. 1 picks who were quarterbacks since the common draft in 1967, only Kyler Murray last season had a more prolific wide receiver than Green in Larry Fitzgerald.
"We've been talking back and forth. We were talking (texting?) yesterday and I know he wants to get together and throw somewhere," Green said. "I told him wherever he is, we'll come to him. I don't know where, when, how. It's all who can fly where and when. He's the quarterback. He makes his location and we have to get there."
Green doesn't want to hear that he, Adriel Jeremiah Green, is the Hall of Fame candidate and that him, Joe Lee Burrow, is the rookie.
"It's not about that. It's all about he's going to be the leader of our team," Green said. "I just want to put that in him already to where he feels comfortable leading."
This is what statesman do. Statesman also don't have time for the grimy details. Yes, the Bengals have given him the franchise tag of $18 million for this year, but he says he simply isn't thinking about anything other than being in the best shape of his career. He says the plan is to run routes when Burrow calls and that's about all he knows. He's not focused on any timelines, just getting off the line of scrimmage.
"We'll see," Green says. "Whatever happens is going to happen. When the time comes, I'll be in the best shape to play my best ball this year no matter what happens. The best shape of my life."
He says the ankle he hurt in the first 45 minutes of the Zac Taylor Era last season is 100 percent healthy. Miranda Green, the fitness guru, is putting him through a tough regimen in their gym. "She's unbelievable." Green says. They've only been with themselves, so he has been running around cones in the gym. He's looking to start catching the ball in a couple of weeks.
"When Joe gets some dates. Or I know a couple of guys that live around here," Green said. "Some college quarterbacks. The parks are supposed to open in two weeks."
But he's very serious about staying put as the coronavirus cases rise in Fulton County. He's got an unlike-A.J. beard to prove it. The family hasn't been with anybody since mid-March, only leaving for the grocery store or having food delivered.
"I'll definitely fly privately," says Green and while he's laughing because that sounds so un-A.J., he's not joking. He may be a statesman, but he got to be one by grinding and he's really grinding now and you get the sense that's what he likes about Burrow. A partner in grind.
"I've watched him the last two years in the SEC. He beat up my Bulldogs a couple of times," says Georgia's finest. "He's one of the best. With his attitude toward the game, the adversity he went through to get to where he is, you've got to appreciate that from a guy who's been an underdog to being an (overall) No. 1 draft pick and Heisman Trophy winner. You have to respect his grind and his process the way he goes about his business each day."
It sounds like Green is getting a kick out of the early stages of the era, whatever you want to call it. He's already taken rookie wide receiver Tee Higgins, the second-round pick from Clemson, under his wing. Over the phone, that is.
Sure, he knows Higgins has been idolizing him for years, but he's been watching Higgins, too. He talked to Bengals wide receivers coach Bob Bicknell before the draft and asked, "Hey Bob, what do y'all think of Tee Higgins?" and Bicknell said, oh yeah, he liked the kid. And when Green talked to former Bengals wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh after he worked with Higgins in California, T.J. raved about him and told him, "He reminds me of you."
Green looks at Higgins and sees himself nine years ago and he gets it because he knows he can be Higgins' Chad Johnson and that means a lot him. He remembers that rookie training camp that began with the Chad trade to New England in 2011.
"We were just out there winging it half the time," Green said of the rookie tandem with Dalton. "I was so looking forward to play with Chad when I first got here. 'Oh my God, I'm going to play with Chad and it's going to be unbelievable.' I've got to talk to Tee a couple of times. Great guy. Unbelievable talent. He's very glad he can come in and learn and I think he's going to help us out a lot because he can make plays down the field like no other."
He knew the Dalton departure was coming, but that didn't make last week any easier. There had been a marvelous moment last week when the band got back together on a video conference. There was Andy and his receivers past and present. Green. Andrew Hawkins. Mohamed Sanu. Marvin Jones.
"We Face Timed a few days ago," Green said of Dalton, believing he has found a terrific spot backing up Dak Prescott in Dallas. "We'll always be friends. A friendship that lasts forever. I'm very happy for him. He's in a good situation with a good staff behind him and where he can help Dak because Andy is an unbelievably smart guy. He'll push Dak to be better and also help him."
Green is just like the rest of us. He hasn't had his life for two months. But for him, it's been longer than that, really, dating back to October of 2018 and the first injury that has isolated him from the game. All he knows is he not only wants to play, he needs to play.
"The ankle is back to normal," Green says. "I really don't care what the circumstances are. I'm just going out there and play football and get back to being the old A.J. Having fun and making plays."
It sounds like he's already having fun with the new guys. He had to laugh. It took Green and Dalton seven seasons to get a home opener. Burrow got it in his first game.
"That's the power of being the No. 1 pick and a Heisman Trophy winner," said Green with a statesman's laugh.