On Saturday, they signed their former 2014 fifth-round draft pick AJ McCarron to the practice squad, releasing defensive end Garrett Nelson to make room. This comes after signing Reid Sinnett, who had spent the summer with the team, on Friday to replace Will Grier after the Patriots signed Grier to their active roster.
McCarron, who was with the Bengals from 2014 to 2017 and bounced around the NFL through 2021, enjoyed a record-setting season with the XFL BattleHawks this past winter/spring.
“We just keep getting ready for whoever ends up playing plays,” offensive coordinator Brian Callahan said Thursday. “You always have contingencies anyway. You have things that you’re planning that you think you like, and then you have things that you have in your back pocket if you need them.”
Burrow worked in “limited” fashion Friday and Saturday after not practicing Thursday, and he is listed as “questionable” on the team’s injury report, which also includes tight end Irv Smith Jr. (hamstring) as being doubtful.
If Burrow can’t go, backup quarterback Jake Browning could make his NFL debut Monday night. Browning, originally an undrafted free agent signee of the Minnesota Vikings in 2019, has toiled on practice squads for the Vikings (2019, 2020) and the Bengals (2021, 2022) his first four seasons in the NFL, but he won the backup job over Trevor Siemian this preseason and now is next up behind Burrow. Sinnett and/or McCarron likely would then be on the bench Monday in case of need.
“I came into this league as an undrafted guy, and there’s not many handouts that are given there,” Browning said. “It took me four years and near a life sentence on the practice squad to really double down on, ‘Hey, at some point I’m going to get an opportunity,’ whether that’s year whatever.
“The best advice I got was in Year 1 as an undrafted rookie when Kirk Cousins said, ‘Hey, you’ve got a 10-year timeline. Whenever that time comes, you’re going to get your opportunity,’ so I took that as every offseason doubling down and investing money or time into becoming a better player and trying to get access to the best information and the best offseasons I can have to try to put myself in position to play well. Whether that opportunity is Monday or next year or whenever, I’m ready.”
Browning hasn’t put too much thought into his possible debut coming on Monday Night Football. The Bengals are wearing their all-white uniforms and helmets, and Chad Johnson and Boomer Esiason also will be recognized during a Ring of Honor ceremony at halftime.
It would be quite the night to finally step into the spotlight, but Browning prefers not to think of it that way.
“There’s so much going on with the gameplan, being prepared and all that, the less you think about all that,” Browning said. “I think the main thing that’s different this year is I don’t go into a game or play thinking too much. I just react and trust my footwork and that I can play. I’ve thought I could be a good quarterback in the NFL a couple years now and haven’t had the opportunities to show that in preseasons and haven’t had an open chance to win the backup job (until now), so coming off winning that, I’m feeling pretty confident.”
Browning finished the 2023 preseason 32-of-45 passing for 277 yards with one touchdown and one interception in three games. He posted a rough 75.1 passer rating, but that was with an entire offense of backups.
In training camp practices, Browning got plenty of first-team reps while Burrow was out five weeks following his initial calf strain on the second day of camp. It didn’t often look pretty, but the last week of preseason, he was showing more consistency.
“Here’s Chido Awuzie at corner and Mike Hilton at nickel, and really our whole defense, that’s a good defense,” Browning said, “so going against them the whole month of August, going down that rabbit hole 30 days in a row really helped my development as a player. As far as the reps this week, it helps for sure. That’s why you practice, but a lot of my confidence comes from how I played against our defense in preseason.”
The Rams defense poses its own set of challenges, starting with the likes of defensive tackle Aaron Donald, who can wreck any offense. Burrow said he will do what he can to help Browning if he can’t play, but he’s confident Browning could get the job done if needed.
“Jake’s prepared,” Burrow said. “He’s as prepared as I’ve ever seen him. He practices really hard. He prepares in the film room really hard. I have all the confidence in the world in him if I’m not ready to go.”
Rams at Bengals, 8:15 p.m., ESPN, 700, 1530, 102.7, 104.7