It was Labor Day, last September, and Pro Bowl defensive tackle Geno Atkins had just signed a five-year, $55 million contract extension that was to keep him in Cincinnati through the 2017 season. It also was the first official day of the new regular season. The Bengals had played their final preseason game several days prior and were beginning to implement their game plan for the following Sunday's season opener at Chicago.
Upon walking into the Bengals' locker room for the first time, I stopped at one locker, pausing to join an interview scrum. It was Domata Peko's locker.
Peko and his massive beard and flowing locks served as my unofficial welcome committee.
I couldn't help but think back to that day as the 29-year-old defensive tackle signed his own contract extension on Thursday. It's a two-year deal that will keep him in Bengals stripes through the 2016 season.
The Bengals will tell you that Domata Peko's value goes well beyond his on-field production.
Many of the questions to Peko that early-September day revolved around Atkins' extension and what it meant for a now older and more experienced defensive line. Some seven months later, the questions about the line are now about whether Peko really is a good fit for the longevity of the unit.
It's easy to come to such a conclusion when you consider the driving force behind Peko's extension: continuity.
As the Bengals go through several personnel changes this offseason, including one rather big alteration at their right defensive end position, they are hoping to otherwise maintain as much of their previous identity as possible. After all, it has been with Peko serving as its most vocal leader that the defense has gone from ranking 30th in 2006 -- his rookie season -- to third in 2013. Cincinnati's best defensive teams in that time span have come in the past five seasons. Sure, former defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer had an enormous hand in that, but Peko played some part in it, too.
"Peko is a great player. A fantastic player. I love Peko," Zimmer told Bengals.com at the owners meetings in Orlando, Fla., this week. "His character, his toughness, his leadership. All he cares about is winning. He doesn't care about himself. He [would ask] me every single week, 'Coach, how should I play this guy?' Every single week. People don't know it, he's one of the best leaders in the room.
"He was always good for me."
So were the other players who are expected to comprise the Bengals' starting defensive line next season.
Atkins has been part of the line since 2010. Aside from the seven games he missed in 2013 with an ACL injury, he has appeared in every other Bengals game of his career. Carlos Dunlap also has seen his share of playing time since 2010 at defensive end. Robert Geathers' playing time has been muted in recent seasons because of Michael Johnson's presence at the right end position, but with Johnson now gone to Tampa Bay, Geathers figures to head a right end rotation that will include Wallace Gilberry and Margus Hunt. Ultimately, Hunt may end up getting the most playing time of the three, depending upon situations and how well he develops into his second season.
In addition to attempting to fill Johnson's massive shoes, the Bengals also are weathering changes on their coaching staff. Hue Jackson was promoted to offensive coordinator after Jay Gruden took the Washington head coaching job, and Paul Guenther was elevated to defensive coordinator following Zimmer's departure to Minnesota.
With so much change on an already comparatively successful team -- one that still had a first-round playoff loss despite winning 11 games and the AFC North -- continuity can be a coach's best friend.
"Domata has been a significant and productive player for our defense for many years now," head coach Marvin Lewis said. "He is a leader among our veterans and a mentor for our younger players, and securing his future as a Bengal through the next three seasons is another positive step in continuing to improve our team."
Much like he was during his Labor Day interview session, Peko has been one of the more reflective Bengals the past seven months. He has spoken often recently about how his defensive line has been key to making the organization finally look like a legitimate postseason contender. He was there for two four-win seasons. He saw a 7-9 year in 2007, and an 8-8, playoff-less showing in 2006. So he understands all too well the effort that has gone into turning around the franchise.
His sentimentality isn't only for the football field, either. He's quick to share his still raw emotions to new and old reporters alike when thinking back on the pain of losing two good friends, Chris Henry and Thomas Howard, to automobile accidents. He continues to keep momentos that remind him of Henry in his locker. Following Howard's death in November, he had hats with Howard's number "53" made for teammates to wear.
There's value in keeping around someone who knows what it was like before the good, playoff-hungry feelings existed in this locker room. There's value in keeping around a player who understands the pain the franchise has endured and the frustrations its fans have felt. Beyond his play as a defender and as a blocking fullback on offense, that's the value the Bengals continue to see in Peko, and why they felt they needed to keep him around at least another three years.
He is their great defensive motivator, and entering a pivotal season that has already seen enough change, they need his veteran presence. They need him to keep continuity.