Why this could be end of A.J. Green's time with Bengals

CINCINNATI -- A.J. Green couldn't wait to leave the Cincinnati Bengals sideline.

Before the clock officially ran out on a 30-7 loss to the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday, the veteran wide receiver scampered across the field to greet Dallas quarterback Andy Dalton. Green and Dalton were the top two picks in the Bengals' 2011 draft class and combined for 8,907 yards and 63 touchdowns before Dalton was released in the offseason.

Green had mixed feelings about seeing his old friend wearing a different uniform at Paul Brown Stadium.

"It's weird, but I'm happy for him that he's getting a starting job and can show people what he can do," Green said.

With three games left in the Bengals' season, it's time to wonder if Green, 32, could be following in Dalton's footsteps. The receiver made it very clear after Sunday's game that his future in Cincinnati is anything but certain as he approaches another critical offseason.

"I love my time here," Green said. "Who knows what is going to happen? I will be ready for anything and be excited to get back to playing football whether it is here or somewhere else."

Against the Cowboys, Green showed glimpses of what made him a seven-time Pro Bowler. He caught six of seven targets for 62 yards and a touchdown that placed him one behind Chad Johnson for the Bengals record in that category.

But Sunday was an aberration for Green, who has just 41 catches for 419 yards and two touchdowns. It was his best outing since Week 7 and aside from a handful of games, 2020 hasn't been the comeback season he nor the Bengals were expecting.

After Green dealt with a couple of serious injuries, including an ankle issue that caused him to miss all of 2019, the Bengals gave him a one-year franchise tag worth $18.2 million. That trails only Julio Jones' $20.4 million for the second-highest hit against the salary cap this year, per ESPN's Roster Management System.

Green's year has been especially frustrating. During a Week 5 loss to Baltimore, TV cameras appeared to catch Green talking about a potential trade.

Green is on pace to finish the season with his fewest targets by a wide margin. And when the Bengals do throw him the ball, his 46.6% catch rate is also a career low.

Perhaps the most interesting thing on Sunday was how Green's perspective had drastically changed since this summer when he begrudgingly accepted the franchise tag. Green said he always envisioned playing his career with one franchise. But in his postgame news conference on Sunday, Green did everything possible to distance tying himself to the Bengals beyond 2020.

"My wife, my family, my boys, we are going to sit down and make the best decision that is going to be best for my career," Green said. "Right now, we don't know what that looks like right now but we prepare for anything."

Whether it's a byproduct of his age or the offensive scheme, Green ranks at the bottom of a couple of key categories. Among receivers with at least 40 targets, Green has the fewest air yards per target in the NFL (4.8). He's also creating 1.7 yards of separation per target, according to NFL Next Gen, the second-lowest in the league.

Throughout the season, Green has been the Bengals' third receiving option. However, he believes he can still be a great player. And despite the low production, opposing coaches have praised Green throughout the season.

"A.J.'s a stud of a player," Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy said before Sunday's game. "He has been for a long time. Obviously, he's clearly a matchup challenge."

This offseason, NFL teams will have to assess why Green struggled in 2020. If it's a matter of scheme and a lack of emphasis in the game plan, he could find a robust market. But if it's a matter of age for Green, who will be 33 at the start of the 2021 season, Cincinnati could still be his best option.

And as for the comments made recently, it's worth noting that in 2019, Green floated the idea of a holdout if the Bengals failed to give him a long-term deal. Even though he was given only a one-year deal, he was in Cincinnati for the first day of 2020 training camp.

But as he ran across the field at the end of Sunday's game, it was impossible not to imagine if Green could be in his final games in the uniform Dalton used to wear.

"I'm living in the moment right now," Green said. "Whatever is going to happen is going to happen."