By midnight Thursday, A.J. Green will have officially taken the next step in his football career. Actually, it'll probably be sooner than that: Given that nearly every draftnik has projected Green to get snatched up in the first five or six picks, the chances are good he'll be gone by, oh, 9 p.m. or so.
But long after that, Georgia Bulldogs fans will be wondering, and arguing: Was A.J. Green the best receiver in Bulldogs history? Or did circumstances conspire to make him a might-have-been?
We can dispense with one argument right now: It's hard to make a case that A.J. wasn't the most physically gifted receiver to ever don a Georgia uniform. Terrence Edwards holds UGA's career receiving record, but A.J. amassed 80 percent of the yards Edwards did in only two-thirds of the time. Hines Ward had the toughness, the never-say-die attitude, but even he didn't make the circus-act catches that A.J. did. The leaping end-zone grab against Kentucky in '08, the ridiculous one-hander against Colorado last year -- those are the kinds of plays that make the pre-game Jumbotron highlight reel at Sanford Stadium and stay there for years.
Yet both of those comparisons also hint at reasons why Green's Georgia career could've been so much more. The reason A.J. only played in two-thirds of the games Terrence Edwards did is because he missed three of 2009's last four regular-season games with an injury, then had to sit out the first four games of 2010 because of his ill-fated jersey sale, then left early for the NFL. Mind you, none of that is meant to imply that A.J. was a bad guy or didn't love playing for the Bulldogs, but they're the kinds of discrepancies that mean the difference between a Hall of Fame career and a merely great one.
And the end-zone grab against Kentucky, the one-hander against Colorado . . . the former was a desperate last-minute throw to beat a 7-6 team the Dawgs should've handled from the get-go, while the latter wasn't enough to prevent a loss to a terrible Buffalo team that capped off the longest losing streak of the Mark Richt era. Again, this isn't a knock on Green as either a person or a player; if anything, it's the fault of a coaching staff that inadvertently wasted Green's talents by not addressing the problems around him. But with the draft re-igniting the ongoing debate between Georgia and Alabama fans over who was better, A.J. Green or Julio Jones, you can only scratch your head at how Julio will head to New York wearing a national title ring, while A.J.'s best piece of football jewelry is a three-year-old ring from the Capital One Bowl.
No Georgia fan can deny that A.J. was a thrilling player to watch. Few fans of any team will deny that, actually. Nor can they deny his vital importance to the team, giving Georgia the first true game-breaker of a wideout they'd had perhaps since Edwards. But it'll be just as hard for many Georgia fans to deny feeling a twinge of regret as they watch him take the stage tonight to accept a #1 jersey, whether it's from the Bills, Bengals, Browns or someone else. A.J. certainly will have every opportunity to represent Bulldog Nation well -- and make loads of money -- in an NFL career that could span many years and several championships. But it's unfortunate that all his hard work didn't manage to earn him the same sort of career in Athens.