A.J. Green has been in the NFL for 11 seasons, seven of which produced Pro Bowl honors. He has caught 696 passes during that span, including five on Thursday night for the Arizona Cardinals against the Green Bay Packers. One of them even came on the Cards' final, fateful drive.
The man knows how to play wide receiver. The man knows how to catch passes.
It’s what makes it all even more baffling.
In the wildest game of the NFL season, Green had a chance to deliver an all-timer of a comeback victory. The Cardinals trailed by 10 in the fourth, but had cut it to three with 3:23 remaining, after their defense delivered an epic goal-line stand. With 15 seconds remaining, the Cardinals were in the process of putting together a 99-yard, game-winning touchdown drive to move to 8-0 on the season.
And then, with Arizona on the Green Bay 5-yard line, Green ran into the end zone against single coverage and … well … just stopped.
He didn’t make a cut. He didn’t turn around. He didn’t do anything, even as a Kyler Murray pass was coming right at him.
With the ball and victory secured, Douglas immediately began celebrating with Packer fans who had helped pack Arizona’s stadium, all as an Arizona fan slumped over the front row wall like he’d just died. Everyone else looked on in disbelief.
It’s hard to know what was more unlikely, that the game would essentially end on consecutive goal-line stands … or that A.J. Green, who had caught so many balls and scored so many touchdowns through the years, would simply not catch a ball for a touchdown?
Did Green think it was a run and he was trying to force the corner deep into the end zone and out of position? Did he think there was no chance Murray would look for him? Did he not realize he had single coverage and DeAndre Hopkins was out of the game and … he’s A.J. freaking Green?
No one seemed to know anything. Due to NFL COVID-19 restrictions, the locker room was not open to the media and Green didn’t appear in the media conference room.
Everyone else had to try and answer for him.
What happened, Murray was asked?
“I don’t know,” the quarterback said. “I honestly don’t know. Just some miscommunication. I honestly couldn’t tell you.”
What were you looking for on that final play, coach Kliff Kingsbury was asked?
“That,” Kingsbury said. “One on one over there. Run the route and the guy made a good play. It wasn’t a route, but we thought we had checked. We’ve got to communicate better in those situations.”
“We feel it's a safe throw if he knew the route to run,” Kingsbury continued. “They brought zero [coverage]. It was the right place to go with the ball. They didn’t communicate on some level and the guy made a good play.”
Did you talk to A.J. after the game, Murray was asked?
“No,” Murray said. “I know he’s hot. Emotions running high. Obviously after the fact, we both know, we weren’t on the same page and it cost us. But we’ll be better because of it.”
There were a lot of shrugs. A lot of blank looks.
“We’re not going to put this on one guy,” running back James Conner said. “We’re not going to do that.”
“We just can’t go back,” Murray explained. “Can’t go back in time. We weren’t on the same page.”
The Cardinals need to find the page of the playbook that reminds receivers that when they run into the end zone they might have the ball thrown to them.
The good news? That seems simple to fix. This is still A.J. Green, who on that very drive got wide open for a 23-yard reception with Arizona sitting at their own 1-yard line and facing third-and-10.
It was part of a gutty, gritty, almost heroic effort for the Cards, who despite the loss are still 7-1 and still proving that they are a lot more than just Kyler Murray running around making unbelievable plays and Hopkins making incredible catches all while Kliff Kingsbury looks cool on the sideline.
“That fourth-down stop is what this team is about,” defensive end Jordan Phillips said. “As long as we have a blade of grass to defend we’re going to do it.”
That’s the new Cardinals. And this game, even in defeat, showed it. This was about heart – on both sides, of course. Green Bay was missing arguably its three best weapons for Aaron Rodgers to throw to and still won after a guy they picked up off the street a month ago – after Arizona cut him – made a huge interception.
Green Bay has now won seven consecutive games and has the tiebreaker over Arizona for NFC seeding. The season, however, is only half over. The race at the top of that conference promises to be heated – Dallas, Tampa Bay and the Los Angeles Rams also have only one loss. This is getting great.
“See you in the playoffs,” Rodgers told Murray, and after that Thursday night classic fans can only hope that comes true.
Arizona would certainly like a chance because whatever the heck happened on this one, it’s likely A.J. Green is going to catch the next one.