CINCINNATI -- Jake Browning thought his moment had finally arrived.
When Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow reinjured his right calf at the end of the team's Week 2 loss to the Baltimore Ravens, Browning prepared as if he was going to be the starter for Cincinnati's ensuing game against the Los Angeles Rams on "Monday Night Football."
After previously being the team's practice-squad quarterback, Browning worked to become the team's top backup option. But when Burrow showed he was healthy enough to face the Rams, Browning went back on standby, waiting for the next moment.
That time has arrived.
Browning is Cincinnati's starting quarterback after Burrow suffered a season-ending wrist injury in Week 11. Before Burrow got hurt in Thursday night's loss to the Ravens, Browning had thrown just one pass in a regular-season game in five seasons. But after years of preparing, he's looking forward to his opportunity to show he can be a viable NFL quarterback.
"He's a big part of this team obviously," Browning said of Burrow on Friday. "But I'm not gonna hide the fact that I'm excited for my opportunity. I think everybody in here, including Joe, kind of knows that."
Browning has carried the confidence as far as he can remember. As he put it, he has always been pretty good at being a quarterback.
Browning entered the NFL after he posted prolific numbers in high school and college. At California's Folsom High, Browning was named the Gatorade Player of the Year in both his junior and senior seasons and set state records for passing yards (16,675) and touchdowns (229). He played his college ball at Washington, where he threw for 12,296 yards and 94 touchdowns, both of which were school records.
But after a shoulder injury in 2017 that required surgery, his pro stock fizzled and he went undrafted. He spent two seasons with the Minnesota Vikings before they waived him on final cuts ahead of the 2021 season. He signed with the Bengals seven days later and remained on the practice squad for the last couple of years.
During that span, other NFL teams were interested in poaching him off Cincinnati's practice squad. Browning presented those overtures to the Bengals' front office, and they responded by elevating him to the active roster. That came with a game check and an implied vote of confidence.
"It was good to kind of say, 'Hey, here's what I've got on the table, match it,'" Browning said. "And they did every single time. I feel good here."
When previous backup Brandon Allen signed with the San Francisco 49ers in the offseason, the battle for Cincinnati's No. 2 quarterback job opened up. Browning beat out veteran Trevor Siemian, who was signed in the offseason to compete for that spot.
Browning won the job after he completed 71.1% of his passes for 277 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions. Bengals coach Zac Taylor saw Browning's sense of urgency increase during this year's battle with Siemian. But just as importantly, Browning had a strong rapport with Burrow and the coaching staff.
"We're very similar people," Burrow said on Friday. "That's why I'm such good friends with him. He's very even keeled. No moment is too big for him."
After Burrow exited the game with a torn ligament in his right wrist, he watched the game on the sideline, earpiece in place, as Browning went 8-of-14 passing for 68 yards and a late touchdown to make the final margin look more respectable in a 34-20 loss.
Usually, Browning is the one giving Burrow feedback on the sidelines. But against the Ravens, Burrow was the one who was confirming Browning's decision-making and ball placement, bolstering Browning's confidence.
Not that he has ever needed it.
"I've got a lot of confidence in myself," Browning said after the game. "I think I'm borderline delusional when it comes to optimism. Like, 'Hey, I'm going to go win the game.'"
It's not just Browning's inner belief that is important. In the preseason, Taylor praised Browning's leadership qualities and the confidence players had in the quarterback as well.
If Browning succeeds, he'll keep the Bengals in contention of clinching a playoff berth for the third straight season. The backup must also reverse a trend that shows Burrow's importance. Since 2020, when Burrow was drafted with the first overall pick, the Bengals are 2-5 when Burrow hasn't started.
The odds are stacked against the Bengals. As of Sunday afternoon, Cincinnati had a 10.6% chance to make the playoffs, according to ESPN Analytics. But even with Burrow gone and Browning at quarterback, Cincinnati isn't ready to write off its 2023 campaign just yet.
"We've got a lot of talent on this roster and this season is far from over," Taylor said.
And Browning is looking forward to showing that all that preparation wasn't in vain as he finally gets his big break in the NFL. Browning recalled watching Bengals wide receiver Trenton Irwin go from a practice squad player to someone who is a trusted part of the 53-player roster.
"It was like, 'All right, that was pretty cool to see, that's gonna be me at some point,'" Browning said. "Now that opportunity is here and I'm looking to make the most of it."