Camp Bates broke early at Paul Brown Stadium Tuesday and free safety Jessie Bates III, the Bengals' NFL Players Association rep who along with other team leaders helped facilitate the workouts with Bengals head coach Zac Taylor, couldn't have been happier.
While some teams balked at participating in the voluntary workouts for a variety of reasons as the country began to bounce back from the pandemic, Bates coordinated the players' feedback with Taylor and they came up with a plan that yielded a month of basically perfect attendance.
"It's critical for our team. Specifically, you can go through a Zoom meeting and talk about installs and stuff like that," said Bates in what could be a historic interview if, indeed, the Bengals Communications Department has just had its last Zoom media session for players.
"I know when we put in a new defense, I'm in an awkward position. I know what I'm doing, but just being in that position, being able to push though No. 2 and go to No.1, just being able to be put in this position and practice it is what will give us a jump going into the camp instead of just going out there and not knowing the alignments and stuff like that and the feel and the checks. There's a lot that goes into it. I'm excited we got the majority of guys here for the OTAs and minicamp. It was very productive."
It went so well that after Tuesday's first workout of the mandatory minicamp that Taylor cancelled the Wednesday and Thursday practices and sent his team rollicking into summer break. While Taylor cited the attendance and success of the camp as reasons for the early exit, incentive to get the COVID vaccine appeared to also be a big factor.
There is no NFL policy, but speculation is teams with 85 percent of their players vaccinated may be able to get back to some kind of normalcy with in-person meetings and full locker rooms as just some of the incentives. But no one really knows yet what is next.
(For the media, it could mean no open locker room sessions, but media room availability and no Zooms.)
Bottom line? The only thing that seems to be known is more vaccinations means more normal.
"One of the things that is really going to help us in training camp is the more guys that we can get vaccinated," Taylor said. "So we've offered several opportunities for our players to get it done here in the stadium. We had a fair number of our players (on Monday) who said they would get it (Wednesday). I said, 'Hey, we're well on our way to making life pretty easy for ourselves in training camp in terms of scheduling and all the protocols. That combined with the work we've gotten done we decided to move on until training camp."
Taylor has approached the sensitive subject sensitively, so he's made sure the players have access to all information possible, using resources ranging from himself, other coaches, trainers and director of player relations Eric Ball.
"The last thing you want to do is tell somebody what to do with their body, so part of the process is just educating guys," Taylor said. "Just letting them know what the protocols are going to be, so the pros and cons of doing it or not doing it just from the NFL protocol standpoint and making sure they have all that information. It's a very personal decision for a lot of guys … I think we've had a lot of really productive conversations and I'm certainly sensitive to a lot of the things the guys go through, but ultimately I think our team is in a pretty good place right now with where we are headed."
Bates agrees. The more the better for the team.
"He did an awesome job getting the information we needed and I don't know whether that was the decision-maker between guys getting vaccinated to leave early or not," Bates said. "But it's a good deal. We're riding on a high note right now leaving mandatory minicamp. Hopefully we can continue to build that as we come in for training camp."
LOCKING IT UP: When Taylor rang the bell early, it kind of overshadowed the other reason he did it.
"Guys have really shown up and done everything we asked them to do," Taylor said. "We've had tremendous attendance throughout and got a lot accomplished. We could have gone another day or two, but I really felt good about the health of our team and where we're at right now.
"It wasn't just guys checking a box. It was guys here with a purpose. They had intent in everything that they did, and really proud of them from that standpoint."
Here's the big thing. The Bengals are simply 10 practices ahead of where they were last year and in the third season of both offensive and defensive systems, that means just about everything.
A look at some of the best images from the Bengals 2021 Minicamp held at Paul Brown Stadium.
"I just think overall scheme wise, it's year three for some guys, year two for others and obviously we've got some rookies and new vets," Taylor said. "But we've really taken strides there. It makes sense to the guys. They're making it their own. They're not just out there trying to remember what to do, they know exactly what to do and now they can take the next step there. That's the part that I think is most exciting as you look at it from a head coach is to see the ownership the players have taken in the systems and the leadership that has really emerged and put us in a really good position."
BACK HOME IN INDIANA: Bates deserves a nice break after all his hard work the last month on and off the field. He says he'll go somewhere, but for most of the six weeks he'll be home in Fort Wayne, Ind., with family and he'll be a fixture at his younger brother's summer events.
"My little brother is playing baseball. That's the stuff that I value. So, I'm going to go home and all be at all the flag football games and all the softball games, just everything. I think that's my No. 1 priority when I go home," Bates said. "I think it's different for a lot of people, depending on what your priority is during the offseason.
"Just be able to spend time with my family. A lot of times we focus so much on football that you're not even thinking about the family part of it. So being able to go home and visit my grandmother every week is something that I value. That five weeks will look different for other guys. Some guys may be in Cabo every week, which is completely fine. That's what this is for, that five weeks, just to get your mind off, turn it off a little bit."
He may not be in Cabo this year, but let's see about next year. Bates and left end Sam Hubbard are not only two of their best leaders, they are both headed into their contract years and training camp is when the Bengals usually do the big extensions.
Bates is already preparing. He's made an agent change and is committed to the deal not being a distraction.
"I think a lot of guys focus too much on it, but I feel very comfortable with the change that I made," Bates said. "Obviously, I feel like I'm a core piece in Cincinnati. My family is three hours away, so I would love to be here. My main goal is to take that next level that I keep saying as a leader on this team. The money part of it will come. I just want to win. That's all I care about is winning. The money part of it will come. Not just for me, but for everybody in this program."