From hoops vs. a HOFer to pingpong, Bengals QB Ryan Finley wants to win

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CINCINNATI -- Ryan Finley and Andy Dalton stood 10 feet apart from each other in the middle of the Cincinnati Bengals' locker room, unwilling to concede defeat.

The two quarterbacks gripped their paddles, winged their arms and fired shots back and forth at the team's pingpong table, the rookie Finley taking on the veteran Dalton, who held a valid claim as the Bengals' best player.

On this day in August, Dalton's throne was in jeopardy. The ever-competitive Finley won game after game. At one point, Dalton smacked a ball in frustration in the direction of the showers. Finley wasn't going to lose.

"He got me more than I'd like to say," Dalton said on Aug. 20. "Ryan's really good. Before Ryan got here, I was kind of the top dog."

Ask those who know Finley best and it doesn't take long before the 24-year-old's competitiveness comes up. But starting Sunday, Finley will find himself in a different kind of competition.

The Bengals' fourth-round pick will make his NFL debut when Cincinnati (0-8) hosts the Ravens (6-2). For the foreseeable future, Finley will be the starting quarterback instead of Dalton, who held that role since 2011.

Over the final eight games of the regular season, Finley isn't just competing against others on the roster to prove he should be Cincinnati's quarterback of the future. He must also show he's better than any available quarterbacks in the 2020 draft, including Alabama's Tua Tagovailoa and LSU's Joe Burrow.

Luckily for Finley, he's wired for the challenge.

"I've coached a long time," said Donnie Yantis, Finley's former high school coach who is now an assistant at Arizona State. "He's probably the most competitive player I've ever coached. If it's pingpong in the locker room, it doesn't matter. He doesn't like to lose."

It's not just pingpong. At Arizona's Paradise Valley, he won practice drills where the prize was a freezer pop. As a guard, he led his high school basketball team to a state championship. And because of his hardwood prowess, he earned an invite for a pick-up game at Hall of Fame quarterback Kurt Warner's house during Finley's time at NC State.

According to Rudy Carpenter, Warner's friend and Finley's longtime private quarterback coach, Finley didn't back down from Warner. The two battled all night, to the point that the session had to be stopped.

Worried he offended one of his heroes, Finley texted Carpenter asking if he made Warner mad. Warner texted Carpenter to see if he and Finley could come back for another game the next morning.

Carpenter, a former quarterback at Arizona State who spent four seasons in the NFL, said Finley's penchant for winning isn't loud or boisterous. But it's definitely there.

"If he was playing checkers or chess with a 6-year-old girl, he'd win," Carpenter said. "If he was playing H-O-R-S-E against my wife at the gym, he would try to win. It's kind of what he does."

Eliah Drinkwitz, Finley's offensive coordinator at Boise State and then North Carolina State, said Finley's internal drive was one of the reasons he won the starting job after he transferred to the Wolfpack in 2016. In his final two years, Finley led N.C. State to back-to-back nine-win seasons, something that hadn't at the ACC school since 1991-92.

"There's a little bit of that maturity in his competitive nature now," said Drinkwitz, who became Appalachian State's head coach after Finley's senior year. "I think that occurred over the course."

While he harnessed that competitiveness at NC State, Finley's internal drive never waned. Bengals rookie linebacker Germaine Pratt, who played with Finley at N.C. State, said the quarterback was always trying to score during tempo drills at the start of practice. Finley was a menace during team dodgeball. It even extended to his own receivers, Pratt said. Finley and his wideouts used to see who could make the most one-handed catches or go the longest without a drop on the JUGS machines that spit out footballs.

Bengals assistant coach Dan Pitcher said Finley's desire to win was the No. 1 thing that jumped out during the scouting process. Finley was the lone quarterback from the draft combine who came to Cincinnati for an additional workout.

"Everyday he's keeping score," Pitcher said. "He's competing. It's in a good-natured way, but it's in a serious way. You can tell he's wired to win."

Whether in pingpong or on the practice field, Finley's Cincinnati teammates have gotten a good glimpse of the rookie's itch to win. That includes Pro Bowl wide receiver A.J. Green, who had a paddle in hand even when one foot was on a push scooter while he recovered from ankle surgery.

"I love Ryan, man," Green said. "Ryan is a competitor. He wants to win. He has that edge. He has that leadership."

Winning is not something the Bengals have done this season. With a loss Sunday, they will match their worst start to a season since 1993, when they lost 10 straight.

One could argue winning this season isn't the most important objective. Part of the reason Finley is playing is so Taylor and the front office can evaluate his long-term prospects as the starter.

Finley is part of a high-achieving family. His sister, Sydney, was the president of her sorority at the University of Denver and is now in law school at Arizona State. His brother, Ben, is a senior in high school and has committed to play quarterback at N.C. State, just like his older brother.

They will be among the contingent inside Paul Brown Stadium on Sunday, cheering for the guy who will want a victory as bad as anybody in Cincinnati.

"I'm competitive and this team is competitive, and we're excited for a fresh start," Finley said. "We're treating this like a new season, and we have a lot of energy and a lot of juice. We're going to try to win some football games."