Bengals' A.J. Green is back, and that's good news for Joe Burrow

CINCINNATI -- Even if it was anything but normal, Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green relished the moments before Sunday's season opener against the Los Angeles Chargers.

Cardboard cutouts taking the place of real fans. Crowd noise piped in. A virtual national anthem.

In the first game of the coronavirus era, nearly everything felt strange. But for Green, who missed all of the 2019 season with an ankle injury, it was just good to be wearing a game jersey again.

On Sunday, Green showed why the Bengals need him on the field and how instrumental he can be to rookie quarterback Joe Burrow's development. Green had five catches on nine targets for 51 yards in a 16-13 loss and led the team in all three of those receiving categories.

Green sounded satisfied in his first game since Dec. 2, 2018, even though the ending was far from ideal.

"Shortly before kickoff, I was just going through the whole emotions," Green said. "But it was fun to be back even though we lost the game. I was so happy to be back."

The seven-time Pro Bowler came tantalizingly close to a perfect return. With 12 seconds left, Green appeared to haul in a 3-yard touchdown from Burrow that would have all but sealed a victory. However, Green was whistled for offensive pass interference after he pushed off Chargers defensive back Casey Hayward before the pass arrived.

Green argued he didn't have much of an option since the physical contact was mutual.

"He was clamping the whole time coming off the ball within 5 yards," Green said. "If you're going to call that, we can call that both ways. But they made the call. We lost the game."

The difference Green makes when he’s on the field has been evident since the Bengals drafted him in 2011. When he plays, the Bengals have a .594 winning percentage, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Cincinnati has only seven wins in Green’s 33 career absences.

His value to the franchise was evident in Sunday’s game against the Chargers.

In addition to the near-touchdown on Cincinnati's final drive, Green arguably should have had another touchdown earlier in the game. In the third quarter, he got past the defense and was wide open in the end zone. However, Burrow's throw from the Chargers' 31-yard line sailed well over Green's head, which forced the Bengals to settle for a field goal on that drive.

"I can't miss that throw to A.J.," Burrow said. "A high schooler can make that throw."

Green shrugged off the play during his postgame news conference and praised Burrow's performance in the loss, especially on the last drive, when Burrow went 8-of-11 for 70 yards and nearly pulled off the comeback win.

If Green can stay healthy, he'll have a chance to build a rapport with Burrow. Before Sunday, Green had missed 23 of the last 24 games because of injury. His last game with multiple catches came on Week 8 of the 2018 season -- with Marvin Lewis as coach and Andy Dalton at quarterback.

Coming into his 2020 debut, Green was worried about his game conditioning, something he said he struggled with against the Chargers. But overall he said his body and his legs felt good.

That's a great sign for a Bengals squad that needs Green on the field as much as possible this season.

"It was fun to be back out there," Green said. "It was an unbelievable feeling just being back with my teammates."