A.J. Green excited to ‘get back to playing football’

A.J. Green said he will probably be more nervous than usual when he steps onto the field for the Cincinnati Bengals' season opener.

The 10th-year veteran hasn’t played a game since Dec. 2, 2018, but he says he is 100 percent healthy now and he’s set to start Sunday as the Bengals host the L.A. Chargers at Paul Brown Stadium.

Green, who missed all of last year because of an ankle injury, was limited in training camp because of hamstring tightness he began feeling the first day of padded practices. He was a full participant in practice Wednesday, marking his first full session under second-year coach Zac Taylor.

“I’m nervous before every game no matter what the situation is, so I’ll probably be a little more nervous leading up to this game because it’s been awhile,” Green said. “But I think I’m more excited to get out there than scared or nervous. I’m just anxious to get out there and just play football, just get back to playing football.”

Green hasn’t played a full season since 2017 when he earned his seventh Pro Bowl selection. The following season, he helped the Bengals off to a 5-3 start before a toe injury sidelined him for the remainder of the season, except for a quarter of a game against Denver when he came back and re-injured himself.

The 6-foot-4 receiver rehabbed through the offseason workout program in 2019 and was about to finish his first full practice under Taylor in the opening session of training camp when he suffered the ankle injury. He had it surgically repaired and thought he would be back by the midway point of the season but never felt like he was fully healthy enough to return until 2020 training camp.

“It was very difficult because I know what I meant to the team and what I bring to the offense,” Green said. “It was tough. But you know these injuries happen. For me it’s just keep going out there and keep pushing myself and hope these injuries stop. For me, it’s just getting out there and keep playing and don’t have that stuff in the back of my mind. It’s going out there and playing my game.”

Green is playing on a franchise tag worth $18 million this season and hoping to earn a long-term deal to stay in Cincinnati, where he would like to finish his career. He believes he still has at least four “great years” left in him and probably more.

But first, he needs to get through Sunday. Green said he hasn’t even visualized that first catch yet. He’s just been looking forward to getting back to his normal practice routine and being on the field on gameday. He missed the “grind” of preparing for games and being with his teammates every day.

Asked if he has to prove himself to the fans and to his teammates what kind of player he is, Green said he always has that mentality.

“I know the work that I’ve put in each and every season to come out there and play at a high level,” Green said. “You can’t control these injuries, but everybody knows my body of work when I’m on the field. No matter what anybody else says I just go out there and play my game and it speaks for itself.”

Green said his legs feel fresh and he expects to be “out there running all over the place” but the biggest question will be how long he can go before needing a breather since he hasn’t played in a game in so long. He didn’t even get into any of the scrimmages this preseason.

The Bengals have benefited from a lot of big performances from Green in season openers when he’s been healthy. In 2016, they played at the New York Jets on Sept. 11, after visiting the memorial site of the attacks on the World Trade Center, and Green finished with 180 yards and one touchdown on 12 catches and 13 targets as the Bengals won 23-22.

That was the most memorable opener for Green, and he hopes for another one Sunday but won’t put too much pressure on himself. Green expects a good challenge from the Chargers' secondary with veterans Chris Harris and Casey Heyward leading the group.

“For me it’s just being out there, getting the adrenaline pumping and just relax and get back to playing football because I haven’t played football in a while,” he said. “For me, it’s just calming myself down. After I get hit and get up, I think I’ll be fine after that.”

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