Jake Browning had big shoes to fill.
Browning was taking over for the injured Joe Burrow and was making the first start of a career that saw him join the Minnesota Vikings as an undrafted free agent in 2019. He spent the next two years on the practice squad before joining the Cincinnati Bengals practice squad in September of 2021.
Browning was thrust into the starting lineup against the Pittsburgh Steelers, who boast one of the most fearsome front fours in the NFL. But the moment was not too big for the former Washington Husky.
“Some ups, some downs,” Browning said moments after the Bengals had dropped a 16-10 decision. “Definitely not my best game. Just tried to keep fighting. There were times when I needed to play better. It was not up to my standard of how I would have liked to play.”
He played well enough to win. Browning completed 19/26 passes (73%) for 227 yards, one touchdown, and one interception, finishing with an overall rating of 96.2.
For comparison’s sake, that performance was considerably better than Burrow’s NFL debut against the Los Angeles Chargers on September 13, 2020. In that game, Burrow completed 23/36 passes (63.9%) for 193 yards and an interception and managed an overall rating of just 66.1 en route to a 16-13 loss.
With just a little bit of help from the running game, things might have turned out differently for Browning. But that was not to be.
Running back Joe Mixon carried the ball just five times in the first half as Cincinnati went into the locker room with a 7-3 lead. Mixon ran just three more times in the second half and finished with 16 yards.
As a team, the Bengals finished with 25 yards rushing on 11 carries, their lowest output in the last three years.
“Any time you can make a team one-dimensional, it’s definitely in the defense’s favor,” Browning said. “But that’s not really my focus. I need to work on being better in the passing game.”
As good as Browning was, he made one pivotal mistake. Cincinnati took the second-half kickoff and drove 57 yards to the Pittsburgh 18-yard-line, where the Bengals faced a third-and-seven with 9:30 left in the third quarter.
Browning fired a pass toward the left sideline intended for Ja’Marr Chase that was intercepted by the Steelers’ Trenton Thompson.
Pittsburgh turned the mistake into the go-ahead touchdown and never looked back.
“I thought he handled some things really well for us,” said Bengals’ coach Zac Taylor. “It’s a tough task to play a divisional game versus a good defense for your first game. There’s gonna be plenty of things he can learn from. This is just the first chapter in his story. We still have all the confidence in the world in Jake.”
And Browning still has plenty of confidence in himself.
“Just the overall experience I will build from,” he said. “What do I need to do better in order to help us win?”