Browning’s 4th NFL start to come against team who gave him a shot in NFL

CINCINNATI — Jake Browning doesn’t believe his past experience with the Minnesota Vikings gives the Cincinnati Bengals any kind of advantage going into this week’s matchup against his former team, but it is a good reminder of how far he has come.

The Bengals quarterback spent the first two seasons of his NFL career on the Vikings practice squad as an undrafted free agent signing out of the University of Washington in 2019. Five years later, he is Cincinnati’s starter after making an active roster for the first time this season as Joe Burrow’s backup, and he’s trying to lead the Bengals to a playoff berth.

Minnesota just happens to be the next team standing in the way. The Bengals (7-6) host the Vikings (7-6) on Saturday at Paycor Stadium.

“I was looking at the roster, there’s a few guys that I know, but it was so long ago and it’s a completely different offense and defense,” Browning said. “It’s a completely different head coach, GM. I mean, it’s completely different than when I was there, so if anything, it’s just familiar faces that’ll be cool to see. But I don’t know, I don’t have an advantage or anything like that.”

Cincinnati signed Browning to its practice squad just ahead of the 2021 season after Minnesota waived him during final cuts, and after two years running the scout team, he opened his fifth year as the backup. Now he’s preparing for his fourth NFL start.

Browning said his time in Minnesota was valuable in helping him get to where he is now, though most of the people who were a part of that have since moved on as well.

“I enjoyed my time there a lot,” Browning said. “I mean there was two years there, where they were kind of the only team that wanted me and so I think if anything, there’s some appreciation for my time there and I think it kind of set me up to come into this building and do what I’ve been able to do over the last couple of years. And I think being around Kirk (Cousins) was great for me. I think he’s a pro’s pro and I learned a lot from him. He was a very open book with me coming in as an undrafted guy and formed a really good relationship with him, where I felt like I could ask him anything. And I think just in general my feelings about my time there or very positive and I’m very appreciative for the time that I spent there.”

That quarterback he was mentored by is currently sitting on injured reserve. Cousins tore his Achilles tendon in an Oct. 29 win over Green Bay, and after Joshua Dobbs’ strong start as his backup seems to have fizzled out, third-string quarterback Nick Mullens takes over the reins of the offense.

Cousins was one of the few carryovers from Browning’s time in Minnesota. Kevin O’Connell is in his second season as head coach after replacing Mike Zimmer after the 2021 season. Kevin Stefanski was his offensive coordinator in 2019, and it was Gary Kubiak in 2020 and now Wes Phillips holds that role for a second year in a row. The defensive coordinator has changed four times since he was a rookie there and now is run by Brian Flores.

“Zimmer was more on the defensive side, so a lot of my time was spent with, my rookie year was Gary Kubiak was running the scout team, and so he was a Super Bowl winning head coach and he’s coaching me up on scout team cards and I gained a lot from that,” Browning said. “And so, I would say obviously liked playing for Zimmer. He gave me my opportunity, but most of my time was spent with the offensive staff.”

Browning said he still keeps in touch with Kubiak and has heard from him recently since he’s been starting games. Kubiak has always given him a vote of confidence, which he still appreciates now.

“I think one thing is you come into the league as an undrafted guy, nobody’s really throwing out your praise, and so he was always really good to me when I would make a good play,” Browning said. “Maybe I’m not getting a ton of reps and he’d be walking off and he just say like, ‘Hey man, you got a good shot here.’ I remember after rookie minicamp, he was like, ‘Hey, that was one of the better rookie minicamps I’ve seen. You got a legitimate shot.’ Now maybe he didn’t mean that at all, but at the time I thought, yeah, okay, that’s pretty cool.”

Browning said the Vikings defense looks a lot different from his time going up against it in practices, but last week’s shut out in a 3-0 win over the Raiders was “impressive.” Minnesota is known to bring pressure with blitzes but also can catch offenses off guard by dropping eight in coverage.

Safety Harrison Smith is a big part of that, and Browning said he was one of the players he enjoyed going up against in practices during his time in Minnesota as well. He’s someone he will always need to keep his eyes on, he said, but the Vikings defense as a whole will be a challenge. They allow just 18.6 points per game.

“I mean it’s just kind of the extremes of both (pressure and dropping in coverage), so you got to be prepared for both and kind of see it post-snap,” Browning said. “I think it presents a lot of difficulties, but we’re working to put together a plan where we’ve got answers for both.”


Vikings at Bengals, 1 p.m., NFL Network, 700, 1530, 102.7, 104.7

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