It was the only time all night he had let something slip right through his fingers.
As he stood at his locker in the postgame dressing room, a box of diapers next to some footballs on a top shelf behind him, A.J. Green quietly admitted his fumble.
He said he hadn’t thought of saving the ball he caught for a touchdown in the Cincinnati Bengals’ 22-7 victory over the Miami Dolphins on Thursday night at Paul Brown Stadium.
He hadn’t considered the ball might one day be a meaningful souvenir for his newborn son.
The thought of that now made him purse his lips and shake his head at the missed opportunity.
And that’s when I suggested he had done the 8-day-old boy one better against the Dolphins. It was like he had dedicated the game to him.
“You’ve nicknamed your boy Eazy and that’s how you made your effort look in tonight’s game,” I said. “You made everything look so …easy.”
And for the first time in his postgame session, A. J. Green started to laugh.
“I tried,” he said. “I tried.”
And he succeeded.
The wide receiver caught 10 passes for 173 yards and a 7-yard touchdown against the Dolphins’ outclassed and overwhelmed secondary.
One moment there was Green leaping up and over cornerback Xavien Howard to wrestle away the ball on a 51-yard connection with quarterback Any Dalton.
Two plays later, he was beating Howard again with a reception, this time stiff-arming the dazed Dolphin to the ground.
And two plays after that, there he was juking stumble-footed cornerback Tony Lippett. Breaking Lippett’s desperate attempt at an ankle tackle, Green scooted into the end zone for the score.
Before the first half ended, Green had caught passes over the middle and down each sideline. He had 80 yards in receptions in the first quarter and 123 after two periods.
On this night, once again, he looked like the best receiver in the NFL.
Yet later, as he reflected on his night, he said it paled in comparison to the performance he had seen eight days earlier by his wife, Miranda.
“This was nothing tonight next to what I saw her go through,” he said. “This was a piece of cake.”
He said she had been in labor 36 hours before giving birth to their 8-pound, 8-ounce boy. They named him Easton Ace Green and said they’d call him “Eazy.”
Being a dad, Green said, is an “unbelievable” feeling:
“Oh man, there’s no such thing as a bad day when you go home and see him. It’s just unbelievable. No more naps. I go hold him and he just looks up in my face the whole time. Everything is new. It feels like I have got another purpose in life.”
And yet four days after his son’s birth, it appeared as if the sixth-year pro had forgotten his old purpose.
In his first five years in the NFL, he had over 1,000 receiving yards each season, a feat in NFL history equaled only by Randy Moss.
Each of those seasons, Green had been a Pro Bowl selection. And then this year he had started off on another tear, with 12 catches for 180 yards and a touchdown in the season opener against the New York Jets.
But three days before his son was born he had two catches for 38 yards in a loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers. Then last Sunday, although he had eight receptions for 77 yards against the Denver Broncos, he had an uncharacteristic fourth quarter.
With the Bengals down 22-17, he missed an assignment, thinking the team was running when instead Dalton was trying to pass to him. Instead the Bengals quarterback had to throw the ball away. On the next play Green was targeted again and he dropped the pass.
The Bengals managed to hold the football 45 seconds that possession before punting to the Broncos, who promptly scored again to seal the 29-17 victory.
Afterward, Green took the loss hard and blamed himself: “I didn’t show up.”
That fueled him in the few days he had to prepare for Miami and he talked about it late Thursday night after the game.
“Last week wasn’t one of my best games,” he said. “I hold myself to a very high standard. I know what I’m capable of and when I don’t perform to that level, I have to refocus myself.
“I feel like my team needs me every week. I feel like I’m one of the leaders and our offense goes as Andy and I go.”
He said receivers coach James Urban pumped him up in the days leading up to the Dolphins game: “Urb challenged me. The eye of the tiger — he said that’s what I had to have tonight.”
Green said the coaches helped make that happen with a game plan that “had me all over the place. They put me in great spots and didn’t leave me on an island by myself.”
Dalton agreed: “We had a lot of different looks for him today. Any time we got single coverage on him he was able to make the play.”
Thursday night was the 23rd time in the 80 games of his NFL career that Green has had at least 100 yards receiving. It was the fifth time he’s topped 170.
After the game, he did make one more big grab. He snagged the top half of his uniform.
“I didn’t get the ball tonight, but he’ll have this jersey,” Green smiled. “It will be his.”
And when he got home he figured his son would have something for him, too:
“The crazy thing was that last week I wasn’t even tired. I have a great wife and she slept in the guest room (once they brought their son home). Her mom was here, too. So I didn’t have to do anything.
“But now my wife is back in the room with me and I’m going to have to step up. This is the time he usually gets up — he sleeps during the day and is up all night — so I don’t think I’m going to sleep that much tonight. Not at all.”
He said when he got home there would be “daddy duty.”
Thanks to Eazy, there would be no more “easy” on this night.
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