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Bengals Plan Cautious Return To Work After Football's Longest Season

Joe Burrow (9) and head coach Zac Taylor head back to work in May.
Joe Burrow (9) and head coach Zac Taylor head back to work in May.

In the history of football, no strength and conditioning coach ever got a team ready to play so deep into the calendar than the Bengals' Joey Boese and his counterpart with the Rams.

Which is why he's quite pleased his boss isn't officially opening the weight room until after they select their draft class. It's an old-school timeline that fits into head coach Zac Taylor's new-school approach when he officially opens Boese's weight room at Paul Brown Stadium on May 2 for the start of voluntary offseason workouts. That's two days after the draft and two weeks later than usual.

"You've got to remember," Boese says, "we played five more weeks than most of the teams. By the time those players had their two to four weeks of rest and started training for next season, we were still playing this season. It's a great decision to push it back. We've got plenty of time."

After playing three preseason games, 17 regular season games and four postseason games concluding with the latest Super Bowl ever played on Feb. 13, Boese and assistants Todd Hunt and Garrett Swanson are looking to ease the Bengals back in.

It's significant because it's not only the debut of the defending AFC champions, but it's the first time since their first spring of 2019 that Boese and his staff have all three phases of the offseason at their disposal. There was none in 2020 and the first two phases were wiped out last year.

But you can't blame them for using last season's plan as a road map.  

According to Football Outsiders, the Bengals ranked seventh in the NFL in fewest adjusted games lost. The web site says it came up with the stat from weekly injury reports. Adjusted games lost "doesn't just add up total injuries but accounts for both absent players and those playing at less than 100 percent and it gives more weight to injuries to expected starters and situational players than to expected back-ups."

The numbers match success. The team the Bengals beat in the AFC title game, the Chiefs, were ranked first. The Rams, who beat the Bengals in the Super Bowl, were fifth. The Bills, another playoff team, were second. The Ravens, a game ahead of the Bengals in the AFC North heading into December, finished last in adjusted games lost while losing their last six.

And yet Boese says the biggest part of the offseason program is probably more about intangibles than aerobics.

"We're very mindful of the long grind of the season and we will proceed accordingly," Boese says. "We're trying to re-establish the chemistry we had last year. Just getting the guys back around each other in the locker room and starting to build that camaraderie is the main focus in the offseason."

Boese runs the nerve center of the team. His predecessor, Chip Morton, used to call a team's weight room, "The Boiler Room." It's where you can gauge a team's heart and mind and Boese could tell something special might be brewing before the magic of the last two months.

About mid-season he noticed guys coming into his office early on the Tuesday off day, sipping coffee and talking about how their wives had got together. Or he'd hear guys talking about grabbing a burger together after one of those early Fridays. Or maybe he'd look over from his office and see ten guys shooting baskets after practice.

He believes that chemistry began to bubble last May and June, when the Bengals were one of the few teams in the league that had virtually perfect attendance for the voluntaries. Boese senses it is because Taylor's deft feel for the modern player produced a regimen with the proper work load.

"Zac's philosophy on practice and how we do things is extremely intelligent," Boese says. "I think our players understand that. It's different in places where it's not the way it is here. The trust factor. They know what we've got going. They know when they come back here we're not going to run them into the ground. Those days are done."

Think back to 2019, Taylor's first spring. They had all three phases, but no Joe Burrow, D.J. Reader, Vonn Bell, Mike Hilton, Tee Higgins, Trey Hendrickson, Ja'Marr Chase …

"I don't expect our guys to be very far off where they should be. You saw it last year, you saw the high locker room character," Boese says. "Look at what we did last spring and that's a testament to our players, our leaders. Guys like Joe Mixon, Tyler Boyd, Jessie Bates, Sam Hubbard, D.J., Vonn, Burrow. The list goes on."

Phase I, which starts May 2, involves lifting and running with Boese. He's getting them ready for Phase II, which is positional work and football movements. That leads into Phase III in late May, which is light practices in helmets and shorts. The emphasis is on chemistry, but they'll be plenty of eyes on physiology.

"The biggest thing in any conditioning program is communication," Boese says. "Not only listening to each other, but realizing that different guys need different things."

Boese says he'll be looking to see if there's any fatigue left over from the season or any lingering bumps or bruises. He'll be looking at everything from body language to the on-field warmups when the tempo picks up.

But, like he says, there's plenty of time. He says it's way too early to know if Taylor is going to cut back on training camp because of the late run.

"We'll see how it goes," Boese says. "The great thing is we've got so many guys returning who are used to the scheme and the coaches. And our new guys were leaders where they're coming from. I can't wait to get this new team together and get the chemistry going like we did last year. These guys are pros."

After the season Boese told them to take about a month off from training. It depends on how much they played and how their body feels. But, really, it's more mind over matter.

He shakes his head when he thinks of the cell phone.

"I told them to disconnect. Go on vacation," Boese says. "There's a lot of stress on these players in this league. It's important to get time away. They have to have that balance in their lives. We've stressed to get away for three to four weeks, relax and then slowly progress to get back into shape."

It's not a late timeline. It's the right timeline because it started with a Super Bowl.

"I wouldn't have it any other way," Boese says.