CINCINNATI -- A.J. Green’s exit from Sunday’s loss to the Broncos summed up everything about how the Bengals’ season was going.
Green’s year had been turned upside down in the span of a few minutes. What could’ve been a triumphant comeback ended quickly after Green pulled up untouched and grabbed the front of his right foot.
Green had already missed three games due to a toe issue but had pushed to come back. It appears now that he might have returned too soon. Green couldn’t put weight on the foot and hobbled off to a cart, screaming in frustration.
Green had tears in his eyes as he sat on the back of the cart, looking forlorn before he covered his face with his hands. The stoic and quiet team captain, whose emotions were almost always contained, had finally had enough.
“I don’t think I’ve seen him that emotional in the four years I’ve been here,” said tight end C.J. Uzomah.
Said wide receiver Tyler Boyd: “He was in the training room at halftime. ... I know he’s kind of down, but he’s a strong guy, and he will overcome it.”
Clearly the Bengals had enough, too, dropping their fourth straight game and essentially removing themselves from playoff contention with a 24-10 loss to the Broncos. The paid crowd was 44,392, the smallest number since Green’s rookie season in 2011. The actual attendance was probably far less.
“I’m pretty sure there’s probably a lot of other things that are playing into it,” cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick said of Green’s rare emotional display.
It’s likely Kirkpatrick was implying an overall frustration with how the season is going, something that could be said of everyone in the locker room. But it's especially tough for Green, who fought to come back from his injury only to immediately be sent to the sideline again.
“He's tough. This man calls me 'warrior' all the time, and I think he's the toughest guy on our team. He fights through everything, and I think at certain times people think, 'Why isn't he playing right now, why isn't he playing right now?” Uzomah said. “And all of a sudden, he's like, 'Alright, I'm going to tough this out,' and then he gets hurt. It sucks, man. He's a leader on our team. He's a captain. It sucks to see any of your guys go down, but especially someone like 18. That's tough."
Because the trajectory of the Bengals’ season usually starts and ends with Green, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that seeing him carted off was like seeing the last hopes for their season extinguished before his teammates’ eyes.
“The guy puts so much effort into it, to get guys going. He has an effect on the team. He has an effect on everybody from the top to the bottom,” Kirkpatrick said. “... I hope we can figure out a way. But at the end of the day, I feel like his safety is first. So, I feel like he’s a guy we’re invested in, and I heard what he said the other day, but, man, we’re going to need him for the future.”
It’s not as if Green hasn’t gotten emotional or outspoken before, but to see it unfold is a rare and somewhat startling sight. Almost every example has occurred during the slump the Bengals have been mired in for the past several years, starting with Andy Dalton’s season-ending injury against the Steelers on Dec. 13, 2015.
Green punted a football into the stands that day after catching a touchdown pass from backup A.J. McCarron. He was clearly caught up in the moment after losing Dalton to a season-ending injury but remains embarrassed about the display to this day.
In 2016, Green's attempts to come back from a hamstring tear were denied by Bengals’ management. He was told on Christmas Eve that he wouldn’t be playing despite traveling with the team to Houston. A frustrated Green went home before the game to spend the holiday with his family.
Green quietly questioned offensive coordinator Ken Zampese two games into the 2017 season, wondering why the ball never even came his way in a loss to the Texans. Zampese was fired the next morning. Those frustrations might have bubbled up midseason, when he snapped and punched Jaguars cornerback Jalen Ramsey. Both got thrown out of the game for fighting.
A heavy weight might have been on Green's shoulders in some of those moments. It would be a letdown to fans if Green simply had a good career. He's expected to break the rest of the Bengals' offensive records and possibly get in the Pro Football Hall of Fame one day.
With so many expecting Green to be the superhero, it's easy to forget that he is very human indeed.
But it's not as if he hasn't produced in the difficult years. Last season, he finished with 1,078 yards even though it was a season of offensive turmoil. The Bengals repeatedly leaned on him this season with nobody else to turn to offensively except Tyler Boyd.
At his best, he was the guy catching three touchdown passes in one half against the Ravens and the game-winning receiver against the Falcons. At his "worst," he had only five catches for 58 yards and no touchdowns in a loss to the Panthers in a game in which an injured groin kept him out for the entire second half.
Green will be 31 and in the final year of his contract when the 2019 season begins next year. It’s impossible to know what that team will look like or even who will be coaching the team come September. But with the Bengals appearing to be several pieces away from contending, it’s fair to wonder if some of Green’s best years have been wasted.
The only person who could truly answer that is Green himself, and he didn’t falter last week when he said Cincinnati was where he wanted to be.
“My goal when I got drafted was to always stay in one place the whole time. No matter what the situation was,” Green said last week. “I want to win, I want to bring something to this city. I don’t want to be like, ‘Oh, A.J. left because he wasn’t winning.’ It’s not about football, that’s just who I am to stay loyal to whoever gave me an opportunity. It’s been fun. I wouldn’t rather be nowhere else. In tough times, that’s why I’m here -- try to lead these guys and get this thing back on the road and for the future. I have one more year on my contract, and then we’ll see what happens."
He added: “When Andy and I got here, I feel like we turned a lot of things around. We still can do that. Put some more pieces around us and we’ll be fine.”