Last season, the Cincinnati Bengals had the youngest roster in the NFL with an average age of 25.2. Not much has changed as the 2019 season approaches. The current team roster heading into training camp has only five non-special teams players over the age of 30 (punter Kevin Huber and long snapper Clark Harris are the others).
With a youthful roster and new head coach Zac Taylor just a tad older than the team’s eldest player, where will the leadership come from on the field? The schedule isn’t exactly favorable in 2019. Four of the five Cincinnati “Thirtysomethings” are expected to continue their role as team leaders, with a fifth in the mix for a starting role on the offensive line.
This week we’ll examine one of the most dynamic players from the past decade, wide receiver A.J. Green.
This is 30
There are a few ways to look at A.J. Green at age 30. Heading into 2014 Green was 26 and considered one of the top wideouts in the NFL. In his 2011 rookie season, he surprised everyone by logging just over 1,000 yards receiving and 7 touchdowns while helping lead the Bengals to the playoffs. In the next two seasons, he averaged 98 receptions, 1,388 yards, and 11 TDs. By 2014, he was mentioned in the same breath as Detroit’s Calvin Johnson and Houston’s Andre Johnson.
But then the bottom fell out. Injuries, shaky quarterback play, and team meltdowns led to a significant decline in Green’s numbers. Since 2014, Green has averaged just 68 receptions, 1,015 yards, and 7 TDs. Despite the decline, he has by far been the franchise’s top offensive weapon since the team’s reboot in 2011. But in Cincinnati, that’s not always a good thing.
There’s a history with Cincinnati’s best offensive players wanting out of the Queen City. Wide receiver Carl Pickens was one of the league’s top wideouts for the better part of his eight seasons in Cincinnati. Unfortunately, that was during the “lost decade” of the 1990s, and Pickens often let his frustration with the team show. He was so critical the team began attaching a “Carl Pickens clause” to player contracts. The clause stated that any public comments critical of the team would result in the forfeit of some or all of the player’s signing bonus. By 2000, the team gave in and released their then all-time leading receiver on the first day of training camp.
Running back Corey Dillon helped erase the pain of Ki-Jana Carter’s ill-fated ACL tear. Cincinnati traded up to number one overall in the 1995 NFL draft to select Carter. They felt the Penn State RB would be the type of player they could build the team around. Carter would shred his knee on the third carry of his first pre-season game and never became the player the team envisioned. Still reeling in 1997, the Bengals gambled on Dillon, a talented back who slipped to the second round of the draft due to off-field concerns.
The gamble paid off immediately. Dillon would rush for 237 yards in a rare prime time game against the Tennessee Oilers, breaking Jim Brown’s 20-year-old record for single-game rushing yards by a rookie. He finished with 1,129 rushing yards and 10 TDs as a rookie. In seven seasons, Dillon averaged 1,151 yards rushing, 6 TD’s, and 27 receptions. But along the way, Dillon constantly complained about the team’s losing ways. He famously said he’d rather “flip burgers” than return to the team in 2000, and in 2003 said “trade me to Dallas” mid-season. He was traded to New England after the 2003 season.
Quarterback Carson Palmer was Marvin Lewis’ first draft pick and helped infuse breath into a lifeless franchise. Like A.J. Green, Palmer was once considered one of the top players at his position. In just his second year as a starter he did what nine starting quarterbacks weren’t able to do since 1990: lead the Bengals to the playoffs. Between 2005-2007, Palmer averaged 4,000 yards passing and 29 TDs per season. By 2010, Palmer had enough, saying he’d rather retire than play another down for the Bengals, citing frustration with the team ownership and management. In 2011, he was traded to Oakland.
Back to the Future
Which brings us back to Green. His tenure with the team started strong. Beginning with Green’s rookie season in 2011, the Bengals made the playoffs five consecutive seasons. However, they lost all five of those games, and since that stretch, the team is 19-28-1 with zero playoff berths. There were some grumblings in 2016 from Green after his season was shut down after an injury, and again in 2017 due to play-calling. Are these cracks in the foundation enough for history repeat itself with Green?
It doesn’t look likely. Green appears to be in it for the long haul in Cincinnati. Heading into a contract year, he recently told reporters, “I can’t see myself playing anywhere else or playing in a different city.” Green will be 31 when the season starts and coming off a toe injury, so there are questions regarding the size of contract the Bengals are comfortable offering. After all, Cincinnati did let stalwart offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth leave for free agency when he wanted to stay.
For now, it looks like the contract is the only thing left to hammer out. Green looks to have escaped the malcontent that his predecessors succumbed to. He’s positive heading into year nine and believes that an offensive-minded coach will equal more points and more wins. Look for Green’s continued quiet leadership on the team, where he lets his play speak louder than his words.
Next week: “Thirtysomething” Andy Dalton