Many have questioned (and rightfully so) the Bengals’ plan after a lengthy list of free agent departures. Here’s one theory as to what’s up owner Mike Brown’s sleeve.
If you’re a member of Who Dey Nation, the last week has not been kind to you. The Cincinnati Bengals stood idly by as most of their free agents found new homes.
Eleven-year veterans Andrew Whitworth and Domata Peko were part of this lengthy list of departures. Whitworth, 35, signed a three-year deal to join the Rams in sunny southern California. Peko, a vocal leader for the last decade, joined a Broncos’ defense that has been a top-five unit for three consecutive seasons.
Furthermore, Kevin Zeitler found a new club and some serious green. The 27th overall pick in 2012 signed with division rival Cleveland, becoming the highest-paid guard in league history. Other casualties included fan favorite Rex Burkhead joining New England and defensive end Margus Hunt–who donned the looks-like-Tarzan-plays-like-Jane label–inked a two-year deal with Indianapolis.
Cincinnati did retain some guys. Brandon LaFell, who proved to be a reliable No. 2 receiver, signed for two more years. The Bengals attempted to piece together a puzzling offensive line, signing veteran tackles Eric Winston and Andre Smith to one-year deals. Smith’s is a homecoming return to the Queen City after one year with Mike Zimmer in The Gopher State.
But what is the team’s plan, letting so many players go? I mean, these were guys that were key pieces in a puzzle which won 52 games over a five-year span. Here’s a theory about the direction Cincinnati’s front office is moving.
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The Lewis Factor
One offseason tradition that Bengals fans have grown accustomed to is the annual extension for head coach Marvin Lewis. Thus was the case in 2011, 2012, and 2015. By now, you know the story.
Lewis has the most wins by a Bengals head coach in the club’s 49-year history. However, regular-season success hasn’t translated into January accolades. Lewis’ Bengals have gone goose egg for seven in the postseason.
But, so far this calendar year, Lewis has yet to receive said extension. Perhaps Brown is giving Lewis an ultimatum: you have one more season — to do it with your guys.
Yes, I say “your guys” loosely in this scenario. Every member of the Bengals’ 53-man roster is one of Lewis’ guys. However, now Brown is giving Lewis next season to bring home the team’s first playoff victory since The Silence of the Lambs was nearing its big-screen release.
The same goes for other players who will be asked to fit into bigger shoes in 2017. That list, along with Fisher and Ogbuehi, includes defensive tackle Andrew Billings, who just turned 21 last week, and T.J. Johnson, who could get a shot at guard after four seasons as Russell Bodine‘s understudy.
The Dalton Factor
I’ve been an Andy Dalton campaigner since Anthony Munoz announced his coming to Cincinnati at Radio City Music Hall 2,145 days ago. But part of this plan involves the ‘Red Rifle’ leaving the team he’s led to five playoff appearances.
The initial turbulence of free agency has come and gone. Quarterbacks have been signed, traded, and posted half-felt goodbye Instagram messages with Bob Dylan playing in the background. Nevertheless, AJ McCarron remains a Bengal. Although it would be wise for Cincinnati to trade the Crimson Tide prodigy for some return, keeping him on the roster next season may indicate that it will be his offense to command in 2018.
The same message from Brown to Lewis holds water — “He (Dalton) is your guy, win with him next season because that’s all you’re guaranteed.”
In 2015, Mike Sando revealed that Dalton’s contract (you know, the six-year, $96 million deal he signed in August 2014 that sent fans running for the hills) is the least-player-friendly contract “among current quarterbacks who aren’t on rookie deals,” wrote ESPN’s Coley Harvey at the time.
As each offseason passes, it gets easier and easier for Brown to part ways with the Rose Bowl winner. Hypothetically, if Cincinnati cut Dalton right now, it would yield a cap savings of $15.7 million. If they wait until 2018, that number rises to $16.3 million and his dead cap decreases to less than $3 million. Dalton’s cap hit reaches a maximum of $17.7 million in 2020, the last year of his current deal.
Of course, there are many scenarios that throw a wrench into this proposed agenda. Lewis could get another extension from Brown. Considering it’s only March, his last re-up wasn’t until late April in 2015.
Also, there is still plenty of time for Cincinnati to find a suitor for McCarron. The 49ers, Browns, Jets, and Texans are still looking for a quarterback.
And finally, it’s not like the Bengals’ front office to have such a stern approach. For years, they’ve awarded mediocrity while the phrase “insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result” is passed around like a wifi password at a house party.
If you think this seems like a rebuilding effort, you might be right. The Bengals could be hitting the reset button with a new coach/quarterback if 2017 doesn’t go according to plan.