Cincinnati Bengals: mike brown

It's been a rough free agency period for Cincinnati Bengals fans envious of the free-spending moves by other teams.

I can't tell you how often I've been asked in the past three weeks about the Bengals signing free-agent center Alex Mack, or possibly pursuing Philadelphia receiver DeSean Jackson, or if they had any interest in entering the DeMarcus Ware sweepstakes a few weeks ago.

That's a no, no and no.

[+] EnlargeJason Campbell
Matt Sullivan/Getty ImagesIt wasn't the big splash fans wanted, but adding QB Jason Campbell was a good move by the Bengals.
Just Wednesday, one Bengals fan I've come to know in Cincinnati lamented to me his lack of interest in reading each day about the team signing a backup offensive tackle or a backup cornerback. Like many others, he wants a big name from the outside. He wants a fresh, new free agent to be excited about.

Yep, and Mike Brown wants Jerry Jones' annual cash flow.

I understand it, I definitely do. But the reality is the Bengals operate on a different financial model and personnel philosophy than many other teams. It's been written ad nauseam, but it's true: the Bengals like building from the ground up with draft picks and cheaper, younger free agents. The veterans they typically bring in are past their earning prime and help serve as mentors for some of the younger players they are trying to cultivate and keep before other teams start luring them with bigger contracts than the Bengals care to pay.

This offseason the Bengals don't have quite as many needs at key positions as some of their counterparts. They have no need to sign a new starting offensive tackle. They have two. They have no need to sign a new starting cornerback. They have a fleet of first-string-caliber corners.

So the Bengals really didn't need to make a big splash in free agency. That's a big reason ESPN NFL Insider Mike Sando gave them a "C" in his team-by-team free agency grades Insider.

"The Bengals got worse in free agency when [Michael] Johnson found riches in Tampa Bay, [Anthony] Collins got away and [Andrew] Hawkins landed in Cleveland after receiving the lowest possible tender as a restricted free agent," Sando wrote. "Cincy didn't necessarily need to step up for any one of these players, but losing all three wasn't ideal."

It's true. As good as Johnson was, the Bengals still have quite the reserve at defensive end. Adding Marshall Newhouse ought to give the Bengals enough experience at offensive tackle to make up for losing Collins. And Hawkins was in the middle of a receiving pack that still brings back a number of playmakers.

To help illustrate his point, Sando spoke to ESPN NFL Insider and former Indianapolis Colts general manager Bill Polian.

"They didn't do much, but they didn't need to," Polian said.

The Bengals' departures might have displeased some fans as much as the lack of signing big-name free agents, but just know that the Bengals still have made their share of key moves this month.

Jason Campbell's signing was the smart and right move to make at quarterback. Starter Andy Dalton finally has that veteran mentor he has missed his entire career. Keeping Mike Pollak gives Cincinnati depth on the offensive line's interior. Keeping Vincent Rey stabilizes a linebacking corps that lost "Sam" backer James Harrison this month.

A "C," in my opinion, is probably right on target. What do you think? Is a "C" the right grade? Or do the Bengals deserve something else?
Cincinnati Bengals president and owner Mike Brown shared his admiration for longtime Buffalo Bills owner Ralph Wilson late Tuesday.

Wilson, 95, died at his home on Tuesday afternoon. NFL team executives like Brown were told of Wilson's death during an afternoon session at the league's owners meetings in Orlando, Fla.

"His voice carried weight in our meetings here," Brown told Bengals.com. "He was an important voice in the National Football League. He had strong opinions and he wasn't afraid to voice them. He was his own and a very successful man beyond football, and a man I admired."

Wilson founded the Bills in 1960, helping establish the team with the start-up AFL that same year. He has been the Bills' only owner.

The Bengals, founded in 1968, have a similar longevity in leadership in a league that has undergone a series of dramatic changes over the years. Brown has been both team president and its second-in-command since its inception. He is only the Bengals' second president. The first was his father, Paul Brown, who established the franchise after a split from the Cleveland Browns, an organization named after him.
Andy Dalton and Marvin Lewis David Kohl/USA TODAY SportsLike it or not, coach Marvin Lewis' insistence that Andy Dalton (14) be extended sooner rather than later is in the Bengals' best interest.


CINCINNATI -- This may come as a shock to many of you. It may even disappoint some of you.

But like it or not, Cincinnati Bengals fans, it's best you resign yourselves to this simple fact: Your team views Andy Dalton as its quarterback of the future.

Dalton, the third-year signal-caller out of TCU who has started every game for the Bengals since the first preseason contest of 2011, is expected to be behind center not only this season, but next season and for the foreseeable future.

We've known for some time about the trust the Bengals' ownership and coaching staff has in Dalton. But when some of those same officials go on record and continue to proclaim their faith in the quarterback, we have to take note.

Tuesday at the NFL owners meetings in Orlando, Fla., Bengals coach Marvin Lewis expressed to reporters present his hope that the club can re-sign Dalton sooner rather than later. Bengals fans, you better hope Lewis gets that wish. There's nothing worse for a team than a quarterback forced into playing through a season with contract uncertainty looming above his head.

That is, unless that quarterback is Joe Flacco and can drown out the outside noise en route to having one of the best seasons of his career. Flacco ended up signing a six-year, $120.6 million deal last offseason after playing through his own lame-duck year. But is Dalton capable of doing that? Maybe, but given his background of inconsistency under pressure, it’s doubtful.

Astute followers of the Bengals blog know that such sentiments about signing Dalton sooner rather than later go slightly against what I wrote about Dalton's future what I wrote about Dalton's future the day of the Bengals' wild-card round playoff loss in January. But time -- not to mention a few changes to offensive personnel and philosophy -- have me thinking a little differently.

Just hours after witnessing Dalton's second-half collapse I wrote:
"A performance like Dalton's latest playoff dud certainly doesn't engender much external confidence. It probably shouldn't engender much internal confidence in him, either. With his contract expiring after next season, the Bengals seriously have to question whether they want to extend him ahead of the 2014 season or let him play next year as a lame duck."
Harsh, but at the time, true.

In the months since, the Bengals have made it clear numerous times that Dalton is their man. They also have changed offensive coordinators and seem on the verge of having a scheme that will allow others, namely running backs, to take control of the offense on occasion. That effectively relieves some of the pressures that Dalton has shouldered his entire career.

Along with getting an upgrade at offensive coordinator, Dalton got a boost last week when veteran Jason Campbell was signed to a one-year contract. The nine-year veteran should give Dalton the locker-room mentor he's never had.

"I remember when I first came into the league and the most important thing to me was having a veteran guy in the room," Campbell said at his introductory news conference. "Someone you can relate to when there's questions."

There's a chance Dalton's deal won't come before the NFL draft. There's a stronger chance the Bengals will draft a quarterback, possibly raising the level of doubt in Dalton's mind. If that all happens and he is still without a deal by June and July, he might begin wondering if the Bengals really want him to be their future quarterback, or if they're just paying him lip service until his contract runs out.
Campbell knows exactly how such uncertainty can feel.

"Nobody wants to feel like you are out in la-la land," Campbell said, specifically referring to his free-agency experiences. "You want to be sure of what you are going to do and the things you are going to be doing."

Lewis understands that. It's why he wants a new deal for Dalton right now.

"He doesn't have to go into the season and worry about this contract thing where every week someone is going to ask him a question and then it gets to there, then you are franchising -- all those things that come into play later on," Lewis said to reporters Tuesday. "Let's get it behind us. Let's get something that works for everyone and enables us to keep tackles in front of you, receivers on the outside, and guys on the other side of the football so it works for everybody."

Team president and owner Mike Brown expressed frustration over the Bengals' mostly quiet free-agency efforts this year. With Dalton's big second contract looming, the franchise hasn't been able to re-sign free agents it wished to keep and been forced to cut others.

Brown may not know exactly when Dalton will get his deal, but it's clear he doesn't want another loss-filled March like this one.

"At some point we are going to have to do something more than just let everyone else leave waiting to get something done with that situation," Brown said Sunday in Orlando. "We held back this year trying to put ourselves in a position to get him done. If it turns out it can't be made to work we will do something elsewhere. I don't think we plan to go another year the way we did this year."

Plans to ultimately go in another direction are an act of last resort. Brown and Lewis both want to get Dalton out of his rookie contract and into a fair new deal that keeps him in Cincinnati for the foreseeable future.

Those are your team's plans, Bengals fans. So you better hope that new deal gets done as soon as possible. If not, "Bad Andy" could turn into "Worried Andy," and you certainly don't want to see him at all.
When Jason Campbell visited last week with Cincinnati Bengals coaches, they made their intentions for wanting him clear. They were looking for him to push starting quarterback Andy Dalton and to be the extra voice of support and criticism that they feel will be crucial for the young player's development.

Campbell
A nine-year veteran, Campbell has just about seen it all on the professional stage. He has experienced the bitter taste of postseason defeat. He has felt the disappointment, shame and anger that is associated with having a season ruined by a major injury. He has had to adapt to being the older journeyman backup after years of being a starter.

Those are just a few of the lessons they'd like Campbell to share with Dalton during downtime the two may have between now and the start of the 2014 season. They also want Hue Jackson's former quarterback to impart his wisdom about playing for the new Bengals offensive coordinator. In 2010 and 2011, Campbell played for Jackson when the latter was the offensive coordinator and head coach of the Oakland Raiders.

Since the reasons for Campbell's signing last week have so much more to do with off-field benefits than on-field concerns, the veteran quarterback was not expecting to get a major windfall of cash on his one-year deal. Nor is he getting one.

According to Campbell's contract details obtained by ESPN Stats & Information, the signal-caller will be making $400,000 of guaranteed money this year. That's slightly down from the $500,000 of guaranteed cash he agreed to last season when he played in nine games with the Browns. Much like his overall salary from Cleveland, Campbell this season will boast a cap value in Cincinnati of $1.5 million.

He is now just barely the second-highest paid quarterback on the team. Dalton's cap value for 2014 is slated to be about $1.66 million. There's a chance that number could change this offseason, though, as the Bengals try to extend Dalton's contract. His rookie deal will expire after the 2014 season. Much of the talk around the Bengals already this week has dealt with owner and president Mike Brown's insistence that Cincinnati is committed to making the re-signing of Dalton their focus, but that he just doesn't know exactly when such a deal can be feasibly brokered.

It's for that reason that you probably shouldn't be surprised if the Bengals still end up drafting a quarterback in May, even after signing Campbell to the one-year deal.

Here is how the rest of Campbell's 2014 contract breaks down:

Cap value: $1,500,000
Cash value: $1,500,000
Signing bonus: $400,000
Roster bonus: $0
Workout bonus: $100,000
Base salary: $1,000,000
Guaranteed money: $400,000
Cincinnati Bengals owner and president Mike Brown is prepared to take at least one loss at this week's NFL owners' meetings in Orlando, Fla., but he hopes others might end up sharing his thinking.

Brown has never been a proponent of the league's push for replay, and he's staunchly against its proposed changes for centralization; changes that are expected to be made during Tuesday's meetings. The league would like to have all reviewed plays in games across the country reviewed in real time at a central location in New York. It would be staffed with NFL officials, who would watch review-worthy plays as soon as they are challenged either by a coach or the on-site booth. That group would also communicate with the referee in charge of the game where the review is occurring.

"We feel it will be more efficient. It will tie into our communication system. The officials will be able to communicate wirelessly," head of officials Dean Blandino said during a news conference Monday afternoon. "Then the referee is going to be able to communicate to New York and the replay official [in the stadium]. As soon as he makes his announcement, we can start that conversation, versus, now he has to make the announcement, run over 30, 40 yards and put the headset on. So we feel we can certainly speed up the process."

According to Bengals.com, Brown doesn't think that will be the case.

"They've come up with restraints that should prevent it from taking longer, but whether that's how it works out, in fact, is not certain, in my mind," Brown said, according to the team site. "I've seen over time a lot of assurances about what it would and what it wouldn't do and the one thing I do know is that our games are longer and I don't like that."

He has a point. What happens if the centralized location gets blitzed with three or four reviews going on in games at the same time? It's happened before where multiple games have had review-worthy plays around the same time. Do the replays then get placed into a queue? How long might it take for the last reviewed play to get looked at?

Perhaps the most salient point about replay that Brown had -- in my mind -- were his comments on the "justice" that is inherent in a football game. They are some of the same thoughts many -- like me -- share when it comes to most of the uses of replay in baseball. While there are inherent equities in sports, there are inherent inequities, too, and they aren't all bad.

"I don't know if there is ultimate justice in football any more than there is in real life," Brown said. "I can accept officiating error. It balances out over time. Some of these calls are so close, you really can't tell even after you see the instant replay. It happens very fast oftentimes. I would just be content to let the referees call the game the old-fashioned way and make it go faster."

While I do think some replay is necessary in football (heck, coach Marvin Lewis probably does, too, after last season; the Bengals had nine plays reviewed and seven were successfully overturned), too many complexities, like having it all centralized, could create more headaches than are intended. I'm like Brown. Just leave replay be.

Here are this Tuesday's Morning Stripes:
  • First, here is more from Brown on the replay changes, as reported from Orlando by Geoff Hobson of Bengals.com.
  • Brown had an extensive talk with the Cincinnati media's Orlando contingent Sunday (it's a group that this year includes Hobson and the Cincinnati Enquirer's Paul Dehner Jr.). We posted some of what was said Monday about Andy Dalton and A.J. Green and their upcoming contract changes. Here is a little more from that from Dehner and the Enquirer.
Andy DaltonRob Carr/Getty ImagesThe Bengals face a difficult decision in determining how much Andy Dalton is worth.
CINCINNATI -- The Cincinnati Bengals find themselves at a crossroads.

When they drafted Andy Dalton with the 35th overall pick in the 2011 draft, their goal was to make him a star. Carson Palmer's career had begun stagnating, the locker room was fracturing and a new direction was needed for the franchise. The powers that be believed Dalton gave them the best chance of making that happen.

Three years and three playoff berths later, Dalton has lived up to many of those expectations.

But losses in all three of his playoff games and a penchant for throwing interceptions have cast doubt over whether he ought to be given the long-term reins to the team's offense. Doubt or not, the Bengals remain convinced that Dalton is the man for the job, and want to make sure they hold onto him for years to come.

It is the very nature of Dalton's play -- sometimes really good, sometimes really bad -- that has made agreeing on a contract extension difficult this offseason. Bengals president and owner Mike Brown reemphasized Sunday at the league owners' meeting in Orlando, Fla., that the top personnel priority moving forward is to get Dalton locked up. When that will happen is anyone's guess, he said.

While performance will play a big role in determining the length and amount of Dalton's contract, there are also other factors to take into account -- namely trying to balance what the starting quarterback market has done in recent years with what it could soon be doing.

That conundrum is at the crux of what the Bengals are facing.

"When you go forward in this league it is not clear which is the better way to go. Do you have a high-priced quarterback and less elsewhere? Or do you try to have as many guys as you can have and maybe a quarterback that is young and not so highly paid?" Brown said at the meetings Sunday, according to Bengals.com.

The 49ers and Panthers are probably pondering the same question in varying degrees. Soon, the Seahawks, Colts and Dolphins might be facing the same question, too. Each of these teams has starting quarterbacks who were drafted after the latest collective bargaining agreement changed rookie contracts in 2011. As a result, they either already started or will soon start trying to balance the old model for paying and playing quarterbacks, with a new system that Dalton and the Bengals could be the first to christen.

All players who were selected in the second through seventh rounds of the 2011 draft were inked to four-year deals, per the new CBA. Those selected in the first round are eligible to have fifth-year options exercised and won't necessarily be playing out the final year of their rookie contract in 2014.

Where this gets tricky for quarterbacks -- namely those taken in the second round like Dalton and San Francisco's Colin Kaepernick -- is that the money this post-CBA class will receive on its second contract likely will look much different from what quarterbacks were getting. They likely will get paid significantly less. With fewer restrictions on rookie contracts before 2011, first- and second-round quarterbacks were walking away with rookie deals that paid them upward of $9, $10 and $11 million a year.

Dalton's rookie deal was for four years at $5.2 million total. Carolina's Cam Newton, the No. 1 overall pick in 2011, received a four-year deal for $22 million total. That's a big change from what quarterbacks were commanding before.

Remember, in Dalton's case, that salary was for a second-round, post-CBA pick who was also joining a team that already had a starter in Palmer. Even though Palmer was eventually placed on the reserve list before ultimately getting traded to Oakland in the middle of the 2011 season, he had been Cincinnati's big earner. At that time, he was entering the sixth year of a 10-year, $119.5 million contract that had been signed in December 2005, on the heels of the Bengals' first playoff berth since 1990.

Dalton will not be seeing a $119.5 million contract.

But a closer look at his statistics after three seasons, shows perhaps he has deserved a modest second-contract bump that could compete with what his recent quarterback counterparts have received.

In an effort to figure out which recent quarterback Dalton's second contract might mimic, we looked at statistics of players who had credentials like his: Drafted in the first or second round, started Week 1 of their rookie seasons and continued to play a true starter's role throughout their first three years. We went back as far as the 1998 draft class led by Peyton Manning:

Of the quarterbacks across those 14 seasons who matched that criteria, only Atlanta's Matt Ryan and Baltimore's Joe Flacco had more wins per season than Dalton. Only Manning averaged more passing yards and more touchdown passes in the first three seasons of his career than Dalton did. Along with Dalton, Flacco is the only other quarterback who went to the postseason in each of his first three seasons.

Dalton struggled with interceptions, though. His 16.3 per season average was higher than Flacco's, Palmer's, Newton's, Sam Bradford's, Matt Ryan's, Matthew Stafford's, Joey Harrington's, Derek Carr's, Tim Couch's and Charlie Batch's.

He may have played better into his second contract than many of these other signal-callers, but it's clear Dalton won't see the financial windfalls they did. So how big will his raise be?

The Bengals, stuck at a crossroads, are busy trying to figure that out.

Good Monday morning, everyone.

It's been a few days since we've had a Morning Stripes installment here on the Cincinnati Bengals blog, but with a potentially busy week in Orlando, Fla., now is as good a time as ever to bring the series back.

The NFL's owners meetings are being held in Orlando this week. Already, Bengals president and owner Mike Brown has held court with Cincinnati media who are attending the week's meetings, and he's provided some confirmation to some news we've been expecting to hear. I should note that I'm not physically in Orlando myself. While there are a few NFL Nation reporters in Central Florida, I'm back in Ohio making sure all remains well at Paul Brown Stadium.

Perhaps the biggest news nugget from Brown's session in Orlando pertained to his starting quarterback, Andy Dalton. Brown made it clear that re-signing Dalton to a longer-term deal is the highest personnel priority the team has going right now. About a week and a half ago, the Bengals extended head coach Marvin Lewis' contract one year, through 2015. They also have made a few additions and subtractions on the periphery, trying to free up as much cash as they can to make the Dalton signing happen sooner rather than later, and to start preparing for doing the same with receiver A.J. Green and linebacker Vontaze Burfict.

As much as they'd like to make the deal for Dalton this spring or summer, Brown knows that things sometimes move slowly in the NFL, and that they may not be able to get the deal done in the time frame they have in mind. Here's some what he said Sunday, according to Bengals.com:

"We are going to try to get something done, but I don't know if we are going to be able to or not. At some point we are going to have to do something more than just let everyone else leave waiting to get something done with that situation. We held back this year trying to put ourselves in a position to get him done. If it turns out it can't be made to work, we will do something elsewhere. I don't think we plan to go another year the way we did this year."

The end of that quote reveals something quite interesting. Brown seems to be admitting that he felt the Bengals were a little too inactive this free-agency period, but he believed they had good reason. They were trying to move around other contracts in a way that would let them get Dalton the deal they think he deserves. That also should give you a better idea as to why Michael Johnson and Anthony Collins weren't able to be retained.

As of early Monday morning, the NFL Players Association's league salary-cap report shows the Bengals are operating nearly $28 million under the cap.

Along with re-signing Dalton, Brown said the club would grant Green the option on his contract to keep him through the 2015 season. They have until the beginning of May to make that decision formal. As a top-10 draft pick in 2011, Green has the right to be optioned at the end of his first contract, thanks to stipulations made in the latest collective bargaining agreement. If they still need to work out his longer-term money, the Bengals could end up placing a franchise tag on Green after the 2015 season.

What to read from all this? Dalton is the higher priority for now. There's plenty of time to get Green done.

Here are a couple of quick links from Brown's chat Sunday:
  • Geoff Hobson of Bengals.com outlines his biggest takeaways from Brown's session in this collection of notes. Again, notice the emphasis being placed on keeping Dalton.
  • The Cincinnati Enquirer's Paul Dehner Jr. offers a more detailed explanation of what the next couple of years could look like for Green, given the option and franchise tag possibilities that could keep him a Bengal at least another two years.
Occasionally, we'll pause here to take a quick look back at a select few moments in Cincinnati Bengals history.

As you well know, on the field that history has mostly been fraught with pain and defined by losing. But there have been many a joyous day, too, in the nearly 46 years the franchise has operated. We're here to relive it all; the happy times, the sad ones and the ones that simply make the Bengals one of the more unique teams in all of football.

March 19, 1996

It was on this particular election day that the idea of Paul Brown Stadium became a reality.

On the ballot for Hamilton County, Ohio voters was a resolution that asked them for a half-cent sales tax hike in order to build new stadiums that could separately house the Cincinnati Bengals and the Cincinnati Reds. Until that point, the Bengals had only played in a home stadium that wasn't theirs outright. For the first two years of their existence, 1968 and 1969, they called the University of Cincinnati's Nippert Stadium home. In 1970, they moved into Riverfront Stadium along with the Reds.

In the years before the 1996 election, the Bengals started hearing from a group in Baltimore that was desperate to bring in a team that could take the place of the Colts' franchise that had moved to Indianapolis just 12 years before. At the time, the idea of the Bengals picking up and moving to a new city wasn't a far-flung one. In the two previous years, the Rams, Oilers and Browns had all closed down operations in Los Angeles, Houston and Cleveland, respectively. Ultimately, it was the Browns who moved to Baltimore, becoming the Ravens a month before the 1996 election in Cincinnati.

That put Cleveland in play as another city in need of a football team. With owner and president Mike Brown's familial ties to the pre-1968 Browns -- his father Paul Brown founded the organization in 1946 and coached the team until his controversial departure in 1963 -- many thought he wouldn't hesitate at packing up the organization and sending moving trucks up Interstate 71 to Cleveland.

Brown wanted to keep the franchise in Cincinnati, though. He felt the 61 percent vote in favor of the tax increase helped him prove that.

So, on this date in Bengals history, the seed of Paul Brown Stadium was planted, as was Great American Ballpark's. In some ways, it was a bittersweet moment for the city. Yes, an NFL franchise was able to continue operating there, but the vote also signaled the death knell for a venue that held so many rich sports memories for the region. It was at Riverfront where the Bengals braved a minus-59 wind chill to beat the San Diego Chargers in the 1981 AFC Championship Game. It was at Riverfront where coach Sam Wyche got on an in-stadium microphone to berate trash-throwing fans, famously telling them, "You don't live in Cleveland, you live in Cincinnati."

It was also at Riverfront where the "Big Red Machine" hummed. The Reds appeared in five World Series while playing there, winning three.

The Bengals completed their move to Paul Brown Stadium in 2000. Since then, they have been in a few disputes with the county over issues concerning the building. Most recently, county leaders and Bengals officials have butted heads over the funding of a new high-definition scoreboard. The scoreboards haven't been upgraded since the stadium was built. Several teams have entered brand new stadiums in that time, while others have had their old scoreboards upgraded.
CINCINNATI -- The Cincinnati Bengals still have about $27.1 million in cap space to work with, according to a report Friday from the NFL Players Association.

This time of year the group regularly updates each team's salary cap figures and numbers as players get cut, traded, re-signed or signed by other teams. The $27.1 million figure isn't too far off the $27.6 million ESPN's Stats & Info shows in its latest cap estimates.

With more than $27 million still in their cap reserves, the Bengals rank ninth in the league in available cap space. They also have about $7 million more than the league average of $19.9 remaining cap space, per the NFLPA report.

So the big question is why aren't the Bengals spending any of it?

Cincinnati has only re-signed three of its own players, cut another two and watched three more sign with other teams. Another free agent, Andrew Hawkins, appears to be on his way out, too, as the Bengals seem poised to avoid matching the four-year, $13.6 million offer sheet he signed with the Cleveland Browns. Coach Marvin Lewis said on a conference call with reporters Friday that the Bengals have not yet decided what they're going to do with respect to matching Hawkins' Browns offer.

The short answer to the question about why the Bengals haven't spent much has to do with future contracts. They have a number of players whose deals will be expiring after next season, and they want to rework some of them now. Among the players who could see extensions this offseason are quarterback Andy Dalton, receiver A.J. Green and linebacker Vontaze Burfict.

Basically, the Bengals are trying to save as much cash as they can in order to keep the few remaining 2014 free agents they want to re-sign, and start working on deals for the more expensive 2015 targets.

The long answer about why the Bengals aren't spending much is the idea behind it is that they just don't really have the funds to pull off some of the extravagant deals that may intrigue fans the most.

The thing about cap dollars is this. Yes, the NFL has set a spending limit of $133 million per team this year, but that exorbitant figure can be misleading. When you factor in the more than $8 million the Bengals have rolled over from last season, putting their current spending target closer to $141 million, it can seem like Cincinnati is rolling in money for its players.

But it's when you add in a series of mandatory, non-salary payments and projections for injury costs and future bonuses, that you see the number shrink. It especially shrinks when you consider that those funds get pulled from the slice of cap space (in Cincinnati's case, the $27 million) that isn't already devoted to paying existing player contracts. In theory, the Bengals are operating with a good bit less than $27 million with which the league says they can sign free agents.

So, understanding where the Bengals currently stand from a cap standpoint, we can imagine what their next signing steps will be. It's likely they will continue trying to bring back several of their remaining free agents while also adding a couple of comparatively cheap players from the outside. It's also likely they will set aside a considerable chunk of salary-cap money for draft picks, particularly with a rather high number of compensatory picks potentially headed their way. The leftover amount of cap money ought to be just enough to end up going to one -- if they're lucky, two -- of their big-money 2015 free agents.

Yes, like everyone else, they have money to spend, but what they have won't go as far as it might seem at first glance. If you want to know one big reason why the Bengals have been content acting in the draft instead of free agency, that's primarily it.
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CINCINNATI -- It was the timing of the announcement that made Marvin Lewis' contract extension with the Bengals a little odd.

It came four days into a free-agency period that the Bengals have mostly watched from the sidelines.

That's it. Nothing else made it seem strange or out of the ordinary.

After all, Lewis did candidly tell reporters at the NFL combine three weeks ago that he and Bengals president and owner Mike Brown were working on a deal that might prevent him from being a lame-duck coach in 2014. Back then, an extension was far from complete, but both sides were at least talking about it, and they seemed encouraged about it getting done.

So we knew a deal was coming. Now that it has, was it smart for the Bengals to renew their playoff win-deficient coach for another year?

Yes.

Why? Because as much as Lewis' contract extension was about Brown's loyalty to a coach he has increasingly put more trust in, it also was about wins -- postseason wins. Not a single victory of that kind has come in the five postseason trips Lewis' Bengals have made during his 11-year tenure. Each time they have been to the postseason, they have been one-and-done.

As a franchise, Cincinnati hasn't won a playoff game since the 1990 season.

That might help explain why it's hard right now for many to see that there really is an urgency to signing Lewis in the first place. The one-year component of the signing enhances that urgency, providing Lewis a short-window-to-win ultimatum. By not giving him a longer deal of two or three years, the Bengals have sent a message: We want to win with you, but we want to win now.

"This is what we felt good about and it's just the way it's worked out," Lewis said on a conference call Friday when asked about signing an extension for one year.

In order for the Bengals to win, and to do so soon in the playoffs, Brown and the rest of his front office believes it is best their team stick with as familiar a formula as possible.

Since the infamous Bengals reboot of January 2011, something obviously has gone right. Within months of fielding a 4-12 team, the Bengals started changing their locker-room culture. They've seen that translate to success. Lewis was a big reason why.

As Brown started relinquishing more control to Lewis following the disastrous 2010 season, the old guard that included the likes of Carson Palmer, Chad Johnson and Terrell Owens began getting phased out. Less flashy and less ego-driven high draft picks were being brought into the fold. Discounted blue-collar workhorses like Vontaze Burfict and Marvin Jones started showing up, too, and were given opportunities to become stars.

With the culture change came wins. The Bengals went from having four wins in 2010 to nine with a rookie quarterback in 2011. In 2012, they won 10, and finished with 11 last season. In January, they reached the playoffs for a third straight season, a franchise first.

"We have a group of players -- players and coaches, and front office people -- that aren't satisfied with where we've been," Lewis said, "but sometimes when you talk to others, you can't lose sight of where you have been."

That's his way of saying the Bengals haven't been as good as they want to be, but they haven't been their old terrible selves, either.

Beyond the strong regular seasons, Lewis has started watching his coaching tree grow. His two coordinators from last season accepted their own head-coaching jobs this offseason. When they left, he already had two replacements ready to be promoted. Even with the changes, the Bengals still figure to have an offense and defense that will challenge for top-10 rankings again.

Continuity is important to Brown. So, too, apparently is winning.

"There's nobody that wants to win in this building more than he does," Lewis said. "We've been able to dispel that myth that was around here that Mike Brown didn't care about winning, because really that's all he cares about."

Despite what the Bengals have lost since January -- two coordinators, a starting center, a starting linebacker, a starting defensive end and a backup offensive tackle, among others -- they have gained something important. With Lewis' extension, they regained a measure of stability that wouldn't have existed if Lewis was forced to coach for his job in 2014.

That's a good thing.

But winning playoff games is, too.
As often as we can in the offseason on the Cincinnati Bengals blog, we try to post these Morning Stripes updates to give a glimpse into what others are saying about this team.

(In case you haven't yet gotten the concept of the Morning Stripes, it is a daily blog post that links to stories from other writers who either cover the team or are national voices who have something interesting or unique to say.)

For the most part, it's been a relatively quiet offseason for the Bengals. There have been a couple of days when the external links just simply haven't been there. In that sense, you could call this the calm before the free agency and combine storm. In the next few weeks, things should pick up for all NFL teams.

Lately, we've been using a lot of links from Geoff Hobson of Bengals.com. We're using another one in this post.

As one of the veterans on a beat that has a few long-serving scribes, he's seen his share of change with respect to the franchise. He's seen players come and go, coaches breeze in and out and philosophies tweaked and turned and pulled. His perspective comes from experience. That's why as the beat's rookie, I attach a measure of value to what he writes.

Late Wednesday, he had a lengthy story about stability and why it will be important as the Bengals head into the free agency and more intensive draft portions of their offseason. Stability, it could be argued, has been the key to the franchise's recent regular-season success. Cincinnati still has yet to win a playoff game since the 1990 season, but it is now going to the postseason with regularity.

The framework for that success could be traced to the team's perhaps controversial decision to stick with coach Marvin Lewis after the disastrous 2010 season. At that point, changes had to come with respect to draft philosophy, offensive philosophy and player character evaluation. The groundwork for the Bengals' widely respected defense had already been laid; it was time to shore up the offense with young, recognizable stars and to create a less toxic locker room than what had previously existed.

Since 2011, the Bengals have had one of the smoothest sailing ships in the AFC North. Cleveland's drama the past two months in hiring a new coach and shoring up its front office has highlighted the need for stability in all ranks of the team. From the leadership on down to the players themselves.

As we get into this Thursday's Morning Stripes, we turn to Hobson for much more on the stability the Bengals have created:
  • From Bengals.com, here's the case for stability that Cincinnati has tried to make since Lewis' hiring in 2003. In the three years since the "reboot," the Bengals have started turning heads both inside the division and outside it.
  • While the Bengals have made it clear they want to hold onto as much "homegrown" free-agent talent like their former draft picks Anthony Collins and Michael Johnson, there have been charges from the outside concerning whether or not they will or should explore bringing in free agents whose deals are expiring with other teams. Paul Dehner Jr. of the Cincinnati Enquirer takes a look here at the value of doing that. His thought to those wanting external help: Be careful what you wish for.
  • Finally, the Bengals have become the latest team to be sued by one of its cheerleaders over concerns about pay. In this from KTLA, Ben-Gal Alexa Brenneman has filed a lawsuit against the Bengals claiming her $855 season wage wasn't enough for the amount of appearances, games and practices she and other Ben-Gals are required to attend. Current and former Oakland Raiderettes filed their own lawsuit last month.
CINCINNATI -- It's safe to say Mike Zimmer receives more credit than anyone else for building and shaping the Cincinnati Bengals defense, one that has four top-10 rankings in the past five seasons.

The recognition that has come his way is well deserved, but it shouldn't end with him. In addition to the recently departed defensive coordinator who is now Minnesota's head coach, Cincinnati's business and scouting offices played a key role in bringing to Paul Brown Stadium the talent that Zimmer so masterfully manipulated.

Not all of it was elite, first-round draft choice talent, either, but it was good enough to meet Zimmer's needs in his aggressive, rush-oriented scheme.

[+] EnlargeMike Zimmer
Kevin Jairaj/USA TODAY SportsMichael Johnson, left, accounted for $11.2 million of Mike Zimmer's NFL-high $69 million defense.
In 2013, it also was very well paid talent. According to ESPN's roster management system, the more than $69 million that was set aside for Bengals defenders was the NFL's most for defensive players this past season. It also was a far cry from the days when the Bengals routinely trotted out some of the league's worst-paid units, including the 2008 defense that was given an NFL-worst $33.4 million.

Sometimes, spending really is winning. Even for a longtime spendthrift like Bengals owner Mike Brown.

Cincinnati's league-high cap value for its 2013 defense is far from a record. For perspective, Green Bay's 2010 defense ate more than $94 million of its overall team cap space.

The Packers, with the league's fifth-ranked defense, won the Super Bowl that season.

Even while bringing along undrafted free agents such as linebackers Vontaze Burfict and Vincent Rey, the Bengals since 2010 have added, at relatively affordable value, veteran free agents such as Adam Jones, Terence Newman and James Harrison. But with drafted players such as Geno Atkins and Michael Johnson panning out and performing as well as anyone at the top of their respective positions, the Bengals' defensive payroll has increased significantly across the past four seasons.

Johnson, as the franchise-tagged player this year, ate $11.2 million of the team's cap space. Atkins, who was given a massive five-year, $55 million contract extension just before the start of the season, claimed $7.1 million in cap value. Another Bengals draftee, seven-year veteran cornerback Leon Hall, had $8.4 million of it. Six of the top-10 highest earning Bengals in 2013 were defensive players.

The Bengals' defense was the only top-10 ranked unit to have spent top-10 money on its players. The other nine teams topping the league's defensive cap value had total defenses that ranged from 11th to 31st. The Ravens spent $56.1 million on their No. 11 defense. The Vikings spent $60.5 million on their 31st-ranked team that just hired Zimmer.

Seattle, which finished the regular season with the No. 1 defense and won the Super Bowl, spent about $52 million on its defensive unit. That's the 15th-highest cap value in the league. With young stars such as Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas and Malcolm Smith nearing the end of their contracts next season, the Seahawks' defensive cap value should jump exponentially if the team plans on retaining them and the foundation of its uniquely physical defense.

Sometimes, winning has nothing to do with spending -- until you start winning.

Without a doubt, Zimmer's coaching principles, methods and his shared philosophy with head coach Marvin Lewis were major reasons the defense was so successful when he was in Cincinnati. But the Bengals also eventually had to pay to make sure they built the framework of a group that has seen relatively few changes in the past three seasons. This spring, though, with Johnson likely gone to free agency and with others possibly flirting with it, changes could be coming.

Well-paid or not, the Bengals will be leaning on their vastly more experienced group of returning players. How well it goes next season, two seasons and three seasons from now will be impacted by how well the front office negotiates this comparative offseason of transition.

The good thing for the Bengals is that they ought to be able to make whichever moves they need this season without taking any cap hits. According to ESPN's roster management system, they are currently one of 22 teams under the salary cap for next season. At $111.3 million in total cap value, they are about $15 million under this year's $126 million limit.
With the offseason now here, let's spend the next two weeks taking a position-by-position review of the Cincinnati Bengals' 2013 season and give a sneak peek at what may lie ahead in 2014.

Up first:

QUARTERBACKS

2014 free agents: None.

Dalton
Dalton
The good: Thanks to having a healthy starter, the Bengals only gave Andy Dalton meaningful snaps in 2013. Josh Johnson did appear in two blowouts, rushing seven times for 20 yards. Zac Robinson was placed on the physically unable to perform list due to a preseason injury and remained there through the entire regular season. As has been the case for Dalton throughout his career, there was some good and some bad. This season may have been more of a mixed bag than the other two. Among the good were the franchise single-season records he set in touchdowns (33) and passing yards (4,293). He also scorched through the month of October, going 4-1 and passing for more than 300 yards in four games that stretch. It was enough to earn him AFC Player of the Month honors.

The bad: Interceptions were a problem for Dalton, who regularly forced passes into tight windows or overthrew and underthrew receivers who seemed to ad lib in zone coverage in ways he wasn't prepared for. In all, Dalton threw 20 interceptions during the regular season and had two more and a key fumble in the Bengals' first-round playoff loss to San Diego. Those three second-half turnovers had Cincinnati playing from behind in the final two quarters. Decision-making was an issue at times for Dalton, too, as evidenced as his occasional confusion with Pro Bowl receiver A.J. Green and crossed signals with then-offensive coordinator Jay Gruden.

The money (2014 salary-cap numbers): Dalton ($1.7 million), Johnson ($955,000), Robinson ($570,000). The Bengals will be keeping Dalton as starter for a fourth straight season. All three quarterbacks are scheduled to be free agents in 2015. Since the cap hit is so large on Johnson, Cincinnati will keep him this year before possibly rejecting the opportunity to re-sign him after his contract expires next offseason. The Bengals could still bring in inexpensive veteran competition as backup, but financially speaking, they probably would be better served to make an addition -- if they want to -- via the draft. Neither option really seems smart, though. They would be best served standing pat this offseason, using the extra roster spot for another position of need and accessing Dalton at the end of next year.

If Dalton puts up numbers in 2014 like he did in 2013, don't be surprised if, even after another possible first-round playoff exit, owner Mike Brown negotiates a shorter-termed contract to keep the team's 2011 second-round draft pick on board for another couple of seasons. After all, Dalton will be going through next season with a brand new offensive coordinator. Some leeway might be afforded because of the transition.

Draft priority: Low. Dalton was the last quarterback the Bengals drafted. It is possible they could use a late-round selection to send a message to Dalton that might step up the competition.
CINCINNATI -- As Jay Gruden and Mike Zimmer began filling out their new staffs in Washington and Minnesota, respectively, the former Cincinnati Bengals coordinators tried their best to sway one of their good friends to join them.

The two were going through an unofficial bidding war for the services of Paul Guenther, who has served as linebackers coach and a special teams assistant. A third team, possibly Tennessee, also was in the mix. Without divulging which team it was, Guenther admitted Thursday that talks never really were serious.

But they were serious Wednesday when the bidding hit a fever pitch following Zimmer's decision to accept the Vikings' head coaching job. As soon as Zimmer's hiring was made official, Bengals owner Mike Brown called Guenther into his office. He had one simple message for him: "You're not leaving."

Thanks to Brown's loyalty, nudges from family, and a belief that he can't walk out on his current players, Guenther decided his owner was right. He wasn't going to leave the franchise. After amending his contract and reportedly extending it another three seasons, Guenther was elevated to Zimmer's old defensive coordinator's position.

"When you looked at the whole thing, I've got young kids and I didn't have to move my family," Guenther said. "I've got good players that I really like and care for. And really, at the end of the day, that was probably the one thing I said was, 'OK, I feel bad for these guys. This guy's leaving and that guy's leaving and these guys deserve a good situation.'"

Gruden left last week to become Washington's head coach. Zimmer will be introduced in Minnesota in a news conference Friday.

"Ultimately, you can say what you want about a coach, but when you line up between the lines on Sunday, it comes down to the players," Guenther said. "And that's one of the messages I'm going to give to those guys. The defense in Cincinnati, everyone says, 'Oh, what's going to happen now?' Well, it really is up to you guys [the players]. So that was a big factor."

Guenther has been on staff with the Bengals since 2005. He once coached in Washington, serving as an offensive assistant in 2002 and 2003. Two years later, Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis brought him to Cincinnati. If he had taken either of the jobs Gruden and Zimmer were offering, he would have only coached in his third NFL city. He also might have one less upset friend.

"He's kind of mad at me right now," Guenther said, referring to Zimmer.

The choice to stay might have been an easy one to make for his family, but it wasn't that way when it came to considering what leaving would have meant to his two peers.

"The hard thing for me was to tell those guys I was staying, because they are good friends," Guenther said. "They've seen me work, which is why they wanted me to go with them. It was a tough deal. Probably the hardest thing about this other than the decision."
CINCINNATI -- Ah, the joys of reacting instantaneously to news in today's ever-evolving social media climate.

[+] EnlargeRey Maualuga and Paul Guenther
AP Photo/Al BehrmanPaul Guenther's promotion to defensive coordinator should ease the Bengals' transition following Mike Zimmer's exit to Minnesota.
It usually means that as soon as you share one news nugget or thought or idea, it's time to move on because that one has evaporated and another, more interesting item has come along.

That's exactly what happened to yours truly Wednesday.

While I encourage you to read this story about how the Bengals ought to expect growing pains for their defense in the wake of defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer's departure, I also ask you to read this particular piece about how the Bengals got it right by getting linebackers coach Paul Guenther to stay on board as their new defensive coordinator.

In the earlier piece, written within the hour of the report ESPN insiders Adam Schefter and Chris Mortensen filed announcing Zimmer's exit from Cincinnati for the Minnesota head coaching job, I mentioned how Guenther was expected to be his replacement. Naturally, the Bengals were working behind the scenes at that very moment to convince Guenther to stay, but at the time, it wasn't clear if he'd end up staying or how long it might take to convince him to decide.

So, with time being a factor, out came the earlier story.

I stand by it. It still applies even though an hour after it went live, reports from Schefter and other media outlets confirmed that Guenther was indeed staying. All of that is just to say that when you read it, disregard any references to former Lions coach Jim Schwartz or any other possible defensive coordinator candidates. There are no longer candidates for that job. There's only Guenther.

And that's the way it should be.

According to ESPN insider Adam Caplan, Guenther met with Bengals owner Mike Brown in the middle of the day Wednesday as Cincinnati tried to convince him to stay for that job. Other reports indicated that Zimmer would try to take Guenther with him to Minnesota for the Vikings' defensive coordinator vacancy, or that former Bengals assistant Jay Gruden would try to entice him to come to Washington.

As reported by Caplan, thanks to a new three-year deal and a presumably much more significant pay bump, the Bengals were able to stave off possible advances from Minnesota and Washington and keep one of their own to allow for a smooth transition.

While the growing pains still will most certainly exist on a defense that has been one of the league's best the last six seasons, they should at least be abated with Guenther's promotion. A Bengals position coach for nine seasons, Guenther has a sound understanding of head coach Marvin Lewis' defensive philosophy and knows exactly what made Zimmer's defenses so successful: aggressive blitz packages and constant quarterback pressure.

Some of the packages that have recently shut down Matthew Stafford, Andrew Luck and Super Bowl winners Joe Flacco and Tom Brady, came from Guenther.

If Guenther wants to be successful in his new role, he'll keep using them. Do that for the next few years and a bigger and better opportunity might one day beckon for him. Once that happens, the first branch of the newly planted Zimmer coaching tree might be extended.

We started this post by talking about time. With two new coordinators, a more veteran quarterback, a slew of playmakers and a fan base perturbed by a string of first-round playoff exits, the Bengals don't have much time. They have to start winning postseason games next season.

Unfortunately for Guenther, time is exactly what he's going to need in this period of transition.

"Regardless how smart your guys are, it takes a while to implement your style [as a coordinator]," veteran cornerback Chris Crocker told ESPN.com. "It takes time."

Crocker was in Cincinnati in 2008 when Zimmer first arrived. Even though the Bengals ended the year with the league's 18th-best defense, they started much worse. Poor offense and an adjusting defense contributed to their 1-10-1 showing through the first 12 games. Wins in the last three came after the defense held each of their last three opponents that season to under 300 yards of total offense.

"It helps a lot to have a familiar face take over," Crocker continued."You don't have to spend a whole offseason trying to familiarize yourself with a new playbook like we did in 2008. You could see how slow we started that year because the team had a new defensive coordinator, even if it was Zim. By the end of 2008, though, you saw where it all finally started clicking and we finally came together.

"It just shows that it takes a while to implement your style."

Growing pains are going to come.

But again, at least with Guenther around, they might not be so bad.

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