The Free Agency Files
While the Marvin Lewis-era drafts have brought little better results than ones under prior regimes, free agency has been much more productive on Lewis’ watch. His arrival in Cincinnati clearly elevated the team in the eyes of free agents, and his no-nonsense approach to free agency was a welcome change from years past.
During the Long Dark stretching from 1991 to 2002, the free agent period was an annual embarrassment. Every year, groups of quality free agent players would troop through town, meet with the Bengals, chat up the local media and generate excitement among the fan base. Then, their ticket stamped with “Bengals are interested,” those players would fly off to another city and leverage the Bengals’ interest into more money there. After which the Bengals would trot out their usual litany of excuses. Blah blah blah small market blah blah blah no money blah blah blah build through the draft. Blah blah blah whatever.
One of Lewis’ first actions as head coach was to pull the welcome mat off the front porch and declare that there would be no free agent visits unless a deal was basically done. While that didn’t increase signings, it did decrease opportunities for the Bengals to showcase their status as “the Siberia of the NFL.”
Lewis was also successful at getting free agents to take the plunge into Siberian waters. Credit must be given to the front office, who in 2003 engaged in what by their standards was a wild spending spree, inking DT John Thornton, DE Duane Clemons, CB Tory James and LB Kevin Hardy. While James would be the sole home run, Hardy was the only clear flop. In ensuing years, Lewis would bring other valuable free agents into the fold, including G Bobbie Williams, RB Kenny Watson, TE Reggie Kelly and K Shayne Graham. Throw in the draft-day trade for CB Deltha O’Neal and this year’s free agent class, TE Ben Utecht and DE Antawn Odom, and it’s clear that, given the constraints he’s working under, Lewis has done a good job on the free agent front.
Those constraints are, of course, the penurious ways of the front office. Bengals owner Mike Brown has never liked free agency and is notorious for lowball negotiating tactics that poison negotiations with free agents from the start. Brown is especially set against the kind of routine money manipulation tactics used around the league to give free agents ego-boosting but essentially bogus big-money deals. In 2005, for example, speaking of negotiations with then-free agent LB Jamie Sharper, Lewis famously remarked that the team had “offered him a structure.” By which he meant a contract Sharper could earn in its entirety, and which had no “funny money” years on the back end to boost its apparent (but not real, since the player would be cut or re-do the deal before then) value. Sharper ended up in Seattle.
The low point in Bengals’ free agency under Lewis came in 2004 when, according to legend, Mike Brown decided to sleep on a done deal that would have brought future Hall-of-Fame DT Warren Sapp to Cincinnati. Sapp’s deal in Tampa had run its course, and the Bucs showed no interest in offering him a new job. In fact, no one showed much interest in the then-31-year-old Sapp, and for a while it looked like his career was over.
Ever on the lookout for a bargain, the Bengals front office opened talks. Tension mounted. Leaks abounded. Finally, the unofficial reports began coming in. It was a done deal! Warren Sapp was a Bengal!
Except, of course, he wasn’t. Sapp was a Raider. Apparently the Raiders had been interested in Sapp all along, but didn’t believe Tampa would actually let him go, and weren’t interested in doing the Buccaneers’ negotiating for them. When the Bengals entered the picture, Oakland’s judgement was initially confirmed — after all, the Bengals were traditionally used to leverage deals elsewhere. But when reports emerged that the deal was all but done, that Tampa indeed was going to let Sapp walk, the Raiders couldn’t get on the phone fast enough. For Bengals fans, left once again with egg on their faces, it was a flashback to the bad old days.
Exactly what happened remains a question mark. All Bengals fans know is that Sapp, per agent Drew Rosenhaus, was “very close” to signing a four-year, $16 million deal Friday night; Saturday morning, he had a seven-year $36.6 million offer from the Raiders. The Bengals’ and Raiders’ deals actually gave Sapp about the same amount of money over the first four years. The last three years were bogus money years that Sapp never saw. Sapp would later say that the Bengals offer was one he didn’t feel comfortable with, implying that there wasn’t yet a final deal Friday night awaiting the sleeping Brown’s signature but, true or false, the story lives on in Bengals lore.
Bengals fans rode the roller coaster again this year with the aborted trade for DT Shaun Rogers, who ended up in Cleveland, rapidly followed by the signing of Odom to a five-year, $29.5 million deal — which I believe is, money-wise, the Bengals biggest free agent acquisition ever. How that plays out remains to be seen.