Bengals’ Browning eager for first NFL start

CINCINNATI — Jake Browning said his competitiveness and a bit of delusion got him this far, and those are the traits that will carry him now as the Cincinnati Bengals task him with trying to lead them to the playoffs.

After four years toiling on practice squads, Browning finally made an NFL roster this season as Joe Burrow’s backup. He’s been preparing ever since for the possibility of being thrust into action, and that moment came last week when Burrow exited the Thursday night game at Baltimore with what turned out to be a torn ligament in his right wrist.

Browning will get his first NFL start Sunday against the Pittsburgh Steelers (6-4), as the Bengals (5-5) are trying to get above .500 and collect their first AFC North win of the season.

“I think it’s the trait (competitiveness) that has gotten me here, that and I think you’ve got to be a little delusional and optimistic to think rolling into my fourth year on P-squad that this is going to work out,” Browning said Wednesday in his first press conference as a starting quarterback.

“So I’ve carried that and the competitiveness and the confidence in my own ability, as well as being around some good people, but that’s kind of what drags you through four years of ‘this sucks’ and being competitive and not losing that edge of ‘I know I’m good enough to play in this league at a high level.’”

Browning admitted to feelings of frustration over the last four years being buried on quarterback depth charts after not coming into the league as a high draft pick like others and knowing he was going to have an uphill climb to ever get a true opportunity.

Now he is fueled by the adversity he has overcome to get to this point, even if it came due to unfortunate circumstances for Burrow.

“I’ve watched a lot of good quarterbacks go through those situations and lose their confidence or get frustrated or whatever it may be,” Browning said. “It’s not the most physically demanding thing, being the third string quarterback. It is mentally demanding. You’re not getting a ton of reps. You still get graded harder than if I came into the league as a third-round pick. I got that chip on my shoulder and a lot of confidence. I’ve had to earn everything. … I had to battle. Here I am.”

Browning said he is not oblivious to the fact this could be his make-or-break opportunity. Several backup quarterbacks are getting similar opportunities in the NFL this season, headlined by what Josh Dobbs is doing with Minnesota since he was called upon in the wake of Kirk Cousins’ season-ending Achilles tear. Of course, there are a lot of examples of backups who have struggled.

The Bengals just need Browning to do enough to keep them in games. They have enough talent around Browning to give him a chance of success, but it’s ultimately on him to pull the trigger.

“I’ve seen this happen for other guys where it goes well or it doesn’t,” Browning said. “I think you can never just act like it hasn’t crossed your mind at least once. But I think as time goes on and you kind of get into the week, there’s a lot of game planning that goes on throughout the week where you can’t just constantly be in La La Land, like ‘What if this goes well?’ At some point you’ve got to narrow your focus to playing the Steelers. They’re really good on defense, and let’s go give them our best shot.”

Cincinnati had one memorable win over the Steelers with a backup quarterback when in 2020, Burrow was out with a torn ACL and third-string quarterback Brandon Allen had overtaken Ryan Finley for the starting job but was out for the Week 15 game against Pittsburgh that year because of a knee injury.

Finley only threw the ball 13 times and finished with 89 yards passing, but the Bengals rushed for 152 yards and got three turnovers to spark a 27-17 win at home.

Bengals offensive coordinator Brian Callahan said that game feels like a decade ago because of how different the roster is now, but surely “there is a takeaway in there somewhere.” It just won’t be the idea of watering down the playbook.

Callahan said that was one of the first things Browning said for the coaches not to do when he was preparing to replace Burrow.

“You try to just make sure he is comfortable with whatever’s in the game plan, and I don’t think you need to cut anything back,” Callahan said. “He’s mentally capable of handling the system as it stands. And that’s a positive thing. And I think if you were to ask him, he’d probably get irritated if you felt like he had to cut back at all. He kind of got that way in the game when you’re just asking him what he likes and, and he goes, ‘Just call it, I don’t care. I’ll call it.’ And you like to see that from guys.”


Steelers at Bengals, 1 p.m., CBS, 700, 1530, 102.7, 104.7

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