'Keep dreaming, baby!' Why the Cincinnati Bengals can contend with Jake Browning
Their 2023 season should've died the moment Joe Burrow was lost for the season. It did not. Go Long drove to Cincinnati to figure out why. Believe it or not, this team is still thinking Super Bowl.
CINCINNATI —Emotions boiling inside of Jake Browning the last four years were finally unleashed in all their fury. This reaction was authentic, if terrifying.
The Minnesota Vikings cut him loose in 2021 and, no, he didn’t like how it all went down. So, it didn’t matter that the general manager and head coach responsible weren’t even on the staff anymore. Didn’t matter that he wasn’t even in the state of Minnesota. This revenge was too sweet. After the Cincinnati Bengals kicked a field goal in overtime to stun the Vikings, Browning (admittedly) lost his damn mind. He ripped his helmet off, slammed it to the turf with both hands and — as the shattered helmet bounced straight into the sky like a basketball — Browning didn’t merely stare into the camera.
He stalked over to the lens like a serial killer in a horror movie. With a gash on his elbow and rage in his eyes, he screamed: “You should’ve never f--king cut me!”
Once the adrenaline wore off, Browning regretted the fact that this burst of emotion took away from the efforts of teammates. But it was real. It was rooted in what NFL life’s like for most players, the life that isn’t glamorized in commercials and documentaries.
Three days later, chatting with Go Long inside the Bengals locker room, Browning thinks back to life on the NFL fringes. To toiling on the Vikings’ practice squad 2019… to 2020… to 2021. To then waiting for his chance on the Bengals’ p-squad 2021… to 2022… to finally earning the No. 2 job. All of it, he begins, is a “logistical nightmare.” You don’t know where to live. You don’t know how much money you’ll make. Browning didn’t even sign a lease in Cincinnati until he beat out Trevor Siemian for the backup job last September. Hotels. Friends’ houses. He bunked wherever possible as his career hung in the balance.
The pain behind that outburst was real.
That summer, he was cut. He was pissed. But he expected to sign to the p-squad. Pen in hand, Browning remembers hearing a Vikings staffer go “whoa, whoa, whoa.” GM Rick Spielman wanted to talk to him. Moments later, the GM said the team didn’t even think Browning wanted to be in Minnesota. Browning was flabbergasted. Huh? He told Spielman that he never said that, that he was willing to bide his time. Spielman said they didn’t have a spot for him on the p-squad, but to hang out at the nearby Omni Vikings Lake hotel. Maybe they could find room.
For four hours — maybe five — he sat. And waited. And waited. And, finally, his agent received a text saying the Vikings were going a different direction. That’s it.
Another player on another team spat out by the NFL Machine.
“I never heard anything again,” Browning says. “It was a weird deal.”
He set every California high school passing record that matters. He lit up the record books at the University of Washington and finished sixth in the Heisman voting. All he’s done his entire life is throw touchdowns at will. But in the NFL? Jake Browning was undrafted before spending two years on the Vikings p-squad and two on the Bengals’ p-squad with one moment of reckoning in-between. He’s been viewed as the average QB with the average arm. Until now.
This 2023 NFL Season has become the Year of The Backup Quarterback. Which, of course, is the NFL’s worst nightmare. Despite the owners’ efforts to wrap their most valuable commodities in Saran wrap, as it turns out, players still suffer injuries in a contact sport. Only six of the 16 teams in the AFC have started the same quarterback in every game this season, a number that’ll drop to five if a concussion sidelines Trevor Lawrence this weekend.
No injury should’ve been more devastating that the torn ligaments in Joe Burrow’s right wrist.
He’s the player who completely changed this franchise. Burrow waltzed into stadiums in sunglasses, diamonds, Sherpa jackets and earned every cent of a $275 million contract extension. The Bengals were a play away from winning one Super Bowl and nearly reached another. His presence alone will have this city dreaming of championships every season. That’s why this injury stung more than the rest. The news sent this entire city into mourning. Even local businesses prepared for an economic downturn.
In record time, the Bengals became irrelevant. We all mentally drew a line through the
2023 Cincinnati Bengals with a permanent marker.
So, I ask Browning what was possibly going through his mind that week as the new guy central to so much dismay. He laughs.
“I mean, it still felt pretty important to me,” he says. “I know there’s not a ton of opportunities just being handed out. This is really the first one I’ve had in four years, so I didn’t really care about all that. For me, it’s an opportunity to play. All of these games feel like the Super Bowl a little bit.”
A helmet will break. An F-bomb will be screamed into the camera. The Legend of Jake Browning grows, and grows, in the Queen City. These Bengals are becoming the most inconceivable storyline of the season. Fresh off three straight wins, at 8-6, their expectations have officially rebooted. Browning is the first quarterback in NFL history to throw for 1,000 yards while completing 75 percent of his passes in his first four starts. This quarterback’s instant success is the product of both a.) that chip on the shoulder; and b.) the infrastructure built by head coach Zac Taylor, OC Brian Callahan and QBs coach Dan Pitcher.
This is also a Bengals team dying to prove that they’ve always been more than one player.
They’ve got the Steelers in Pittsburgh on Saturday, followed by a trip to Kansas City and a home finale against the Browns. Circumnavigate this Bengals locker room and the belief is real. Left tackle Orlando Brown Jr., profiled here, chose Cincinnati to chase another ring and believes that’s still the realistic goal — “absolutely,” he adds without hesitation.
“Sky’s the limit, bro,” Brown says. “We can do anything we f--king want to do.”
Go Long is your home for longform journalism in pro football.
Subscribers can access all features, all columns, all podcasts.
Across the room, there’s tight end Irv Smith Jr. He signed with January Football in mind, with Burrow in mind. But he also entered the NFL itself with Browning in Minnesota. He’s seen the growth firsthand. “If anybody were to be in this situation and do what they’re doing, it would be Jake,” Smith says. “Why stop now? Everybody individually has put in so much work.” At the other end is Michael Thomas, a veteran safety in his 12th season. He glances toward his QB across the room and raises his voice. “Keep dreaming, baby! Dream on! Dream on! Don’t wake up!”
Our late-season chats with Mike Hilton — the team’s fiery core — have become an annual rite of passage. Hilton called the Bengals’ shot ahead of the 2021 AFC title game, peacocked right into “Burrowhead” the next year and, hell no, he isn’t softening his rhetoric one bit with a new quarterback. He knows most teams quit when a star quarterback goes down.
Losing Burrow presented his team the ultimate challenge.
“From top to bottom,” Hilton says, “we have a Super Bowl roster. We took it to heart. Obviously, outside this locker room, everybody thinks we’re nothing without Joe, but people don’t realize there are 52 other guys that helped this team get to where they are. We all contribute in different type of ways, but we all also know we have the confidence to finish the season out the way we’re supposed to.”
The best perspective comes from the assistant coach who has worked with Browning every day since the Vikes moved on.
Pitcher has helped guide Browning through the QB’s day-to-day, month-to-month, year-to-year growth. That’s why he sounded so confident before Browning even started a game. Belief was strong. They saw how Browning attacked the profession when nothing was promised on those NFL fringes. Now? There’s proof. “Hard evidence,” Pitcher calls it. All the positive qualities the Bengals knew were inside Browning are translating to wins. And belief.
“So now,” Pitcher says, “that’s an affirmation of ‘Hell yeah, we can do this. Hell yeah, we can make the playoffs. Hell yeah, we can…”
He stops himself short, careful to not get too far ahead of himself.
“You just line us up, and we believe in our chance to win any football game. Anybody you put across from us right now. And it’s going to be challenging. And we’re a different team without Joe Burrow. And obviously Joe Burrow is, in my opinion, the best in the world at what he does, but we’ve figured out a way to do it with Jake right now and we’re going to keep doing it.”
The 2023 Cincinnati Bengals see no reason to stop winning any time soon.
No way did anyone foresee that burst of sideline euphoria with four minutes left in the third quarter. The Bengals trailed Minnesota, 17-3. Browning was fresh off a terrible pick. At that point, Brian Flores’ defense had gone 29 straight drives without allowing a touchdown.
This backup quarterback was stumbling right into the defensive coordinator’s trap.
Oh, continuity on offense is why we can even think about the Bengals as contenders with a backup quarterback. Taylor, Callahan and Pitcher have been together for five years. They’ve learned how to construct gameplans, Pitcher says, “with our players in mind.” But you can sit in a meeting room all day, all night, review every possible hypothetical through endless hours of film. Ultimately, it’s on Browning to think fast between the whistles.
What happens those three, four seconds is a different experience than sitting around talking about it for three, four days.
“There’s a disconcerting feeling when there’s eight guys — eight sets of eyeballs looking right at you at the line of scrimmage,” Pitcher says. “It’s like, ‘Well, my coach told me told me that they’re going to drop out more than they’re going to come, but they’re staring at me like they’re coming.’”
Flores presents one of the most exotic pressure schemes in the league. Coaches tried to give Browning answers if the Vikings sent the house, if those threatening to blitz all dropped into coverage and everything in-between. Any given play, Flores could rush eight or drop nine and everything’s typically timed up perfectly. Exactly when you snap the ball. With two linebackers mugging up the A-gap, safety Harrison Smith lined up on the edge and the other four defenders loitering a mere 10 yards off the line of scrimmage, the Vikings screamed “Here comes Cover 0!” about 10 times through three quarters. But it wasn’t until the fourth quarter that Flores actually sent the hounds.
Which is why the DC’s plan was so brilliant on paper. He was trying to scare the bejesus out of a young quarterback before — finally — burying him when it matters.
“If you can make the quarterback fear it,” Pitcher says, “but then not have to deal with the consequences and the weaknesses of actually having brought it, that’s part of the illusion of pressure that they present.”
Browning even made the big mistake that should’ve cracked his confidence. His force into double coverage was picked off. Everything could’ve sunk right then, Pitcher admits. This is where most backup QBs fade for good. Josh Dobbs had a nice run before getting benched. Even Dorian Thompson-Robinson won a game before bowing out. Instead, down 17-3, Browning responded with 75-, 63- and 75-yard touchdown drives to force overtime. There’s immediate frustration after a bad pick — “What the hell did I just do?” anger on the sideline. But he watched the replay on the sideline with his QB coach and, snapping his fingers, Pitcher says Browning flipped a switch. Moved on. Stared down the barrel of that Vikings pressure and made plays.
The left tackle in that Bengals huddle has a more biting description for this switch. Brown says Browning possesses “a lot of a--hole energy.” That’s why the mountainous lineman who has blocked for Lamar Jackson, Patrick Mahomes and Burrow in the pros thinks of a different QB when it comes to Browning.
His teammate back at the University of Oklahoma: Baker Mayfield.
“The raw confidence of not wavering,” Brown adds. “Coming out, throwing a pick and then being able to go out there and finish that game against Minnesota the way he did. That’s the a--hole energy I’m talking about.”
Browning Fever is taking hold of this team.
But a fairy godmother didn’t fit him for glass slippers. This didn’t happen overnight.
Any quarterback hanging on for dear football life, Browning explains, easily falls into one of three categories. You can be the QB who works hard, but totally loses confidence. You can be the QB who fumes that he’s getting absolutely screwed. This player doesn’t lose confidence but he doesn’t work hard. Then, there’s the QB who’s simply happy to be here and probably won’t last long. Usually this player was drafted high and busted out. The key, Browning adds, is striking the right balance of working hard… while staying confident… while being happy that you’re still in an NFL locker room.
A difficult needle to thread. Browning completed more passes (1,191) and threw for more yards (16,775) and more touchdowns (229) than any high school quarterback in California history, before then setting the same records at UW. For what? To be shoved into a hotel without even getting a phone call? Browning should’ve either cursed the NFL for failing to realize he’s got it and quit working so hard or completely lost his swagger for good. It’s not like the Vikings were blind to his ability. They saw him tear up practice for three straight offseasons.
Up close, in Cincy, Pitcher saw how Browning processed this all. His confidence never wavered and his motivation only sharpened. This was obviously a quarterback eager to play on NFL Sundays and prove his worth to the world. And, yet, this desire didn’t consume him. That’s the danger, Pitcher says. That’s what leads to recklessness on the field. A backup quarterback’s psychological make-up is just as important as the physical ability to gun a third-and-8 completion into tight coverage.
There’s no guarantee that you’ll ever sniff the field. Especially when Joe Burrow is the No. 1.
Possibly, you collect dust on the sideline. For years.
Possibly, you’re piloting a team with Super Bowl aspirations. And NFL Network cameras are suddenly zooming in on your family in Burrow’s luxury suite.
Browning spent four years on practice squads before becoming the No. 2 this season. Always hoping for an opportunity, Pitcher says, but never knowing if that opportunity will actually present itself “takes a special person.”
Adds Pitcher: “It’s one thing if you or I know that we’re going to be judged at a given date. It’s one thing to know and have that out there: OK, the test is on this date, or I'm training for a marathon and they’re firing the gun at this time. It’s a different thing if you don't know if that ever is going to happen. But to still have the motivation to get better. That’s his job. But it does take a special resilience and focus to be able to do that.”
No wonder we’re seeing such raw emotion out of backup quarterbacks. Browning isn’t alone. After authoring a 10-play, 92-yard drive to beat Philadelphia, Drew Lock was overwhelmed in his postgame interview. It’s all understandable. Backups pour themselves into a gameplan — every week — without ever knowing when they’ll be thrust into action to save a game, save a season.
“Some guys are built for it,” Pitcher says, “some guys aren’t.”
All while trying to make yourself a selfless, positive influence on the team.
Browning hasn’t been wasting his time these last 2 ½ years in Cincinnati. He turned himself into an asset.
Each Tuesday — an off day in the NFL — Browning sat inside the defensive backs’ meetings to dissect offenses. As they all studied, Thomas explains, the DBs would discuss reacting to a specific route a specific way. And… Browning often stepped in. “No, no, guys,” he’d interject. “When they get in this formation, they ain’t worried about that. They’re trying to throw it here.” Sure enough, that’s exactly what unfolded on Sunday. Thomas credits Browning for many of the game-changing plays you’ve seen out of this Bengals defense the past two seasons.
He’s not surprised Browning is reading the field with such ease.
Pitcher kept the quarterback’s mind sharp with side projects, too. He’d send Browning cut-ups of the opponent’s two-minute defense and ask him to highlight six of his favorite plays he thinks will work. Each time, Browning returned with “in-depth opinions” on that defense’s personnel. He knew which of the 11 players on defense the Bengals should treat as a human bull’s eye. He knew which blitzes the coordinator preferred on third down.
“I tried to give him as much as I could,” Pitcher says, “and it all ties together. It’s why he’s here. It’s why he’s having the success he’s having now. It’s why his teammates love him. It’s why guys are rallying around him. That stuff doesn't just pop out of thin air.”
Hilton agrees. They’ve been sparring in practice since the beginning. Running the scout team, Browning loved taking shots downfield to challenge the Bengals’ defense. And if he threw a TD? There’s a good chance Browning followed the completion up with a hearty amount of trash talk.
“We all knew he had that confidence,” Hilton says. “He’s a gamer.”
All of this — the DB meetings, the side projects, the expletives — accelerated Browning’s own evolution as a quarterback. He improved. That’s what too often gets lost in our Twitterified quarterback discourse: the reality that a player can ascend with the right team, the right coaching staff, and a genuine willingness to grow. Browning might’ve taken a blow torch to the state record books at Folsom High School, but he was never schooled in quarterback camps. Nor did he ever play rotational sports like baseball or golf or tennis. On to college, he never threw with his hips. That’s how all of the best pros generate velocity.
In 2019, he went undrafted. Browning never cursed the entire NFL for failing to recognize his numbers. He knew his arm wasn’t nearly strong enough.
“And it’s because I was throwing all arm,” Browning says. “I was strong in the weight room, I was all that. I just didn’t have the right biomechanics for throwing. And so draft training, I went and did that and saw a lot of improvement. That opened my eyes — you can improve at 23, 22. We can continue to improve. After that experience, I just felt like every time I got access to new information that was quality information, I got better. It’s never been a work-ethic issue. Let’s get some good information. Let’s get some good exposure to good information and then apply it to how much I’m already working.”
Working with Jordan Palmer — the same private coach who helped Josh Allen catapult into the elite stratosphere — improved these biomechanics. So did learning from Kirk Cousins, from Burrow. Four years later, he’s now throwing with full rotational strength. The difference between a 20-yard completion and a pick is milliseconds. Many of the tweaks Browning has made to his mechanics are so nuanced that you’d never notice with the naked eye. To Browning? They’re massive. His velocity has improved tremendously.
Reaching this point takes a suppression of ego. Not all quarterbacks up for a Heisman are so willing to look in the mirror.
“When you have the kind of success that you have throwing a certain way through high school and even in college,” Pitcher says, “there’s not a lot of motivation there to change. And that’s scary to change: ‘You’re saying I should change how I throw?’”
Everyone has noticed. Before they were teammates in Cincy, the tight end Smith was with Browning in Minnesota. He’ll never forget the week of training camp in 2021. When the rest of the quarterback room was sidelined due to Covid protocols, he lit up one team scrimmage in front of the fans. Teammates celebrated by dousing him with water at midfield. “I mean he was dicing ‘em up,” Smith adds. “Dicing ‘em up.” Smith remembers the look in fans’ faces that night: Who’s this guy? Jake Browning? Since then, he’s only gotten better.
“It just shows you that he's resilient,” Smith says, “and he loves the game of football. If you don't love the game, in certain situations like that, it’s tough to bounce back from just mentally. He believes in himself.”
Adds running back Chase Brown: “This game can feel like it’s moving at a million miles per hour, especially as a young player that's just starting to get some reps. So I can’t even imagine what it’s like playing quarterback given your first opportunity. Things are starting to slow down for him. He’s been making plays since he stepped back there.”
Browning has approached the last four weeks like the last four years. He’s improving. His first start, against Pittsburgh, wasn’t great. Cincy lost, 16-10. But he finally had game film of himself to analyze and pinpointed exactly what he needed to improve in terms of decision-making to string together wins over Jacksonville (34-31), Indianapolis (34-14) and Minnesota (27-24).
To Orlando Brown, the shift from Jackson/Mahomes/Burrow to Browning should’ve been seismic. It’s not.
Inside the huddle — late in games — there’s no panic.
“He acts like he’s been there before,” says Brown. “Hell, it seems like he has a thousand times. And just what I see in those situations is the confidence. He’s able to give you the play, come to the line of scrimmage, check whatever needs to be checked, communicate with receivers, move guys. Cadence. I mean he’s on it. He’s playing like a real vet.”
When Burrow was officially placed on season-ending IR and many teammates surely were devastated, Browning didn’t feel the need to speak up and assure everyone that everything would be fine. It’s not his thing. He’ll turn intense when he needs to, but has never considered himself a “rah-rah” guy.
Of course, neither is Burrow. That’s never been his thing.
Even as the Bengals morphed from doormat to contender, the star quarterback jet-fueling this rise wasn’t serving as the soundtrack for the team. Others have always done the honors.
“Fight or fold”
Before Jake Browning was shouting a message into that sideline camera, there was Mike Hilton capping the Bengals’ playoff win over the Buffalo Bills: “We’ll see y’all in ‘Burrowhead,’” he said. A quip the Kansas City Chiefs then treated as a declaration of war.
This team has unquestionably drawn endless belief out of its transcendent quarterback.
But even Hilton — the QB’s hype man — has always known there’s more to the Bengals.
“We’re a roster full of dogs,” Hilton says. “It’s the same roster that has been to the last two AFC Championships. We know what it takes. Guys are resilient.”
So after the Burrow news marinated for a couple days, Hilton spoke up to the entire defense. His message: “Fight or fold.” Obviously, the rest of the football world would be counting out this 5-5 team. To everyone else, they were finished. “But we know who we are,” Hilton said. “So let’s go out there and compete.” They chose to fight, a decision that’s not nearly as cut-and-dry as you think. A slew of other teams lost starting quarterbacks this season. To the extreme, the New York Jets were fooled by an aging narcissist’s need to stay in the headlines all season. In believing Aaron Rodgers could actually return from a torn Achilles, they tried to get by with the anemic Zach Wilson. As a result, the perennial laughingstock of a franchise both wasted one of the NFL’s best defenses and potentially destroyed its locker room beyond repair.
But, no, it’s not best to compare Cincy to any team that’s lost a quarterback this season, be it the Colts (Anthony Richardson), Browns (Deshaun Watson), Vikings (Kirk Cousins) or Giants (Daniel Jones) because Burrow is unquestionably a Top 3 quarterback. Maybe even No. 1. Losing a player of his caliber was always more akin to the Colts without Peyton Manning in 2011 or the Packers without Rodgers in 2013 and 2017.
Those teams folded.
Defensive tackle Mike Daniels vividly remembers what a fold looks like, too. The life was sucked out of the Packers locker room. Everything orbited around Rodgers, so when the four-time MVP was MIA? They spiraled. This was not a team rooted in an identity of defensive toughness. Conversely, Daniels was with the Bengals for Burrow’s first two seasons in 2020 and 2021. He spoke to the entire team before games through their Super Bowl run and the difference in energy was striking. The Bengals clearly had a rising star at quarterback, but the defense was also becoming special in its own right. This was not a unit that’d wilt psychologically.
Indianapolis experienced the same jarring effect when Curtis Painter, Dan Orlovsky and Kerry Collins replaced Manning through a 2-14 season. A team in the Super Bowl two years prior completely tanked.
Here, Superman is sidelined but nobody’s fast-forwarding to 2024.
“I don’t think people understand,” Hilton says. “This is the best of the best. No matter what position, no matter where you were drafted or if you were drafted. It’s still the best of the best and guys still have a job to do and guys know they’re fighting for everybody in this locker room and fighting for the city that they’re playing in. We take pride in that.”
The football life of Michael Thomas is coming full circle. Like Browning, this safety began as an undrafted signee stashed on a practice squad. All Thomas could do was work. And he’s seen just about everything from San Francisco (2012- ’13) to Miami (2013- ’17) to the New York Giants (2018- ’19) to Houston (2020) to Cincinnati (2021-today). Now, he’s back on the practice squad and, like Daniels two years ago, remains a valued voice. Taylor kept Daniels around on the p-squad to lead and he’s doing the same with Thomas. The number of starting quarterbacks who’ve gone down with injuries this season? “Craziest shit I’ve ever experienced,” Thomas says.
He knows it’s easy for any player on any of these teams to subconsciously feel self-pity, to gradually collect paychecks and ease into the offseason. That’s why he also spoke up.
“Let’s cut the bullshit. Let’s remember who the f--k we are,” Thomas recalls saying. “This organization, this team, there’s a lot of new guys, a lot of young guys, but a lot of core players. We were in the AFC Championship Game in back-to-back years. Back-to-back AFC North Champs. Let’s remember that.”
He’s filling any role he can in the twilight of his career. His primary message is direct: No excuses.
Scanning the locker room, Thomas lists off the team leaders. One of which is the left tackle Brown, who notes that Browning’s “a--hole energy” is the norm on this team. The first-time Bengal sees it everywhere. No team in the NFL creates a narrative and feeds off that narrative quite like the Bengals. They’ve always managed to get ornery over a slight — real or manufactured — and use the energy for good. Earlier this season, players used Isaiah McKenzie’s harmless offseason comments on a Go Long Happy Hour as fuel. All McKenzie said was that last year’s playoff game would’ve been different in a dome. He might as well have peed in the locals’ chili.
Yes, players lean hard into the villain role here. Brown left KC to join this pack of hyenas. He points to Trey Hendrickson continuing to stick it to the New Orleans Saints. He cites Ted Karras and Alex Cappa as offensive linemen proudly wearing chips on their shoulders. It’s true that Burrow was once overlooked by Ohio State.
But this winter, the Bengals have every reason to stick it to critics because — in this case? — it’s fully justified.
Nobody expected anything out of this team when Burrow went down.
“We’ve got a very close locker room,” Brown says. “Our personalities all mesh really well. Everyone understands their role, which is really important. And then from there, it goes into the coaches and how each coach approaches it. They all have somewhat of a similar style, so there’s not a lot of cracks in the dam. From there, the coordinators, the way that they call plays and execute and prepare us throughout the week on a daily basis. Those are things that are culture-setting.”
All you need to do is look around. The locker room is littered with shoe boxes.
For Christmas, Orlando Brown Jr. bought everyone who travels with the team a pair of Uggs. He thinks it added up to nearly 200.
This coaching staff — Taylor on down — unquestionably encourages players to be themselves.
Nobody’s afraid to call their shot into a sideline camera. Taylor knows such bravado is a lethal energy force. After Hilton proclaimed the Bengals were heading to “Burrowhead” last year, Taylor didn’t douse the drama with cold water at a midweek press conference. Nor did Hilton back off. I haven’t seen a locker room full of so many loud, unapologetic alphas in the same locker room since the “Legion of Boom” Seahawks one decade ago. This sport is won on instincts and emotion above all else. Each win with a backup quarterback steadily builds this storm.
Of course, this defense has not been “LOB”-dominant. Statistically, they are middle of the pack. But they do have individual playmakers capable of warping the momentum of any game, from Hendrickson and Sam Hubbard on the defensive line to Hilton, the 5-foot-9, 185-pound pinball.
The vet who told this defense to fight knows he must back it up with his own play. Cincinnati doesn’t beat the Vikings last week without his goal-line interception.
“I’m just a different breed, man,” Hilton says. “I’m an undrafted guy. I worked hard to get where I’m at and I don’t take it for granted. So every time I’m on that field — no matter who’s on the field — I feel like I’m the best player out there. I feel like I’m a splash playmaker: run game, pass game, safety, nickel. I can just do it all. And I don’t think there's too many like me.”
You won’t be able to miss No. 21. Hilton will never forget that the Steelers didn’t even offer him a contract as a free agent. He’ll be the one hurling his body into Najee Harris, exactly as he’s done to Derrick Henry in the past.
There’s never hesitation. He knows he’s got a few screws loose.
“You’ve got to shoot your shot, man. That’s what I do and I feel like I’m the best in the league at it.”
Hilton also agrees that every team in the NFL ultimately goes as far as its quarterback. The defense can talk as tough as it wants but poor quarterback play will demoralize any team quickly. (See: Jets, New York.) The Bengals may be on track to make the playoffs — 44 percent of the teams in this injury-ravaged conference will. To do more, Jake Browning must keep taking over in the fourth quarter. Thomas implores his QB to simply distribute the ball to Cincy’s host of playmakers. Tee Higgins, Joe Mixon, Ja’Marr Chase whenever he returns. Even “Tanner Hudson,” he says in a creepy voice.
They want Browning to be himself.
Make reads. Spit the ball out. Let the offensive playmakers and the defense and special teams do their part.
“The rest of us,” Thomas says, “we rally behind him. Right now, it’s like ‘Jake!’ From Training Day: ‘I need that money, Jake!’ We’ll rally behind you.
“This season’s not over.”
The Cincinnati Bengals cut Jake Browning, too. Coaches were straightforward. He remembers Zac Taylor telling him exactly why they chose another QB, but that they wanted him on the practice squad. Browning was “bummed” and “pissed” but decided to keep improving and keep inching toward a month like this.
Finally, he is introducing himself to the world.
But… no. Unlike others, he won’t entertain the slightest thought of a Super Bowl run.
“Hoping to beat the Steelers,” he says, smiling. “But we’ll see. Who knows, man? I’m not giving you that sound bite.”
When each week feels like a Super Bowl itself, that’s the best way any backup quarterback can live. All music to the ears of veterans, too. They don’t want Jake Browning to tilt his eyes up at all, to change anything that’s working.
They want him fully locked into this dream.
“Keep dreaming,” Thomas says, “and you might look up and be right where we want to be.”
He says it one more time. Louder for those in the back.
“Keep dreaming, Jake. That’s all I’ll keep saying.”
Friday Features from this season:
Bengals Features past…