PALM BEACH, Fla. – Buoyed by a Wild Card berth fueled by their young players, the Bengals are eying 2012 with momentum still brewing from the exploits of A.J. Green, Andy Dalton and Co.
As Bengals president Mike Brown relaxed during a break this week at the NFL meetings, he recalled an interlude with his rookie Pro Bowl quarterback in the moments following the 31-10 Wild Card loss in Houston back in January.
"I said 'Really, you had a good year. Next year will be a little better,' " Brown recalled. "He said 'Oh no, next year is going to be a lot better.'
"I like that."
So far it has been a lot better when it comes to selling tickets as the club looks to wipe out the six blackouts from last season. Bengals vice presidents Katie and Troy Blackburn say the renewal rate and a Paul Brown Stadium schedule that includes the Super Bowl champion Giants, the Carson Palmer-led Raiders and the Peyton Manning-quarterbacked Broncos is spicing sales.
"The renewal rate has been good. There has been a strong fan reaction," Troy Blackburn said. "We have renewed near 100 percent. It has been going positive."
"We are doing pretty well but we have our work cut out for us," Katie Blackburn said.
Four Pro Bowlers under the age of 25 are a big part of Brown's blueprint for winning back the fans vaporized in the 4-12 season of 2010. He believes the kids have struck a chord with the base.
"The amount that we improved on that scale was quite amazing and I attribute that to the young guys we brought in," Brown said. "How the fans perceive our people. I think it was a good year. We bounced back, we were really down. We reestablished the faith our fans have in the team, which is critical. We know we need to do a little better."
The kids are also dictating how the club has gone into free agency to retool the 9-7 team that secured the postseason despite having the youngest roster in the AFC.
With indications that starting outside linebacker Manny Lawson has an agreement to re-sign, it's believed the Bengals have used up about $22 million of their 2012 salary cap since free agency opened 15 days ago. Reports had them coming into the period with about $45 million under the cap, which didn't include the $7 million they're going to pay their draft picks or the $5 million they keep to account for injured players and the practice squad.
There is at least one other deal being discussed, with Cowboys cornerback Terence Newman, and the Bengals could sign a couple more of their own free agents. With the contracts for Pro Bowl defensive tackle Geno Atkins and left end Carlos Dunlap up after the 2013 season, and the Bengals unable to negotiate with Green and Dalton until after the 2013 season, the Bengals say they are looking at some big-time contracts and trying to keep some room.
(How big? Note Pro Bowl receiver Calvin Johnson's $60 million guarantee.)
"We're very aware of that," Brown said of the young players. "Next time when you look at what is published as the league cap figures, you might want to keep that in mind. We're aware of that, too. You can't sign a player you drafted the first two years you have him by league rules, but there is going to come a time when we're going to want to sign them and we're going to want to be able to sign them. So it's part of our thinking."
Brown says he feels good about the spate of activity that has netted three starters or regulars from other teams and four from his own team, plus a backup in tackle Anthony Collins with 18 NFL starts.
"As I sit here today, I feel better about our football team than I did when we started the process," Brown said. "I think we have pushed ourselves a little bit towards improvement. We're in better shape than we were than when we began the process. It doesn't mean we won every negotiation and got everyone back, but we responded in ways that improved our team on balance. I think we've done OK."
He admitted it didn't have a good start with the losses of defensive linemen Jon Fanene and Frostee Rucker in the first 48 hours, but he's particularly impressed with how the club came back to snag Patriots running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis.
"We have a plan when we start out. Then you're immediately confronted with something that goes differently than planned and you have to adjust," Brown said. "And it goes on that way for a period of a week or two and then it feathers off. In this week of free agency dealing, we started off with a surprise or two that didn't go the way we wanted it to go. Then I think we bounced back and recovered effectively."
Green-Ellis, targeted as the Bengals man in red zone, goal line and short yardage, said he was impressed by Brown in his meeting during his visit and it turned out to be mutual. Brown said he gave it to BJGE straight. Why did he want to come to the Bengals?
"I asked him some hard questions. I just put it to him point blank – 'Why do you want to come to us? Is it just for the money?' " Brown said. "And he gave me a good answer. He wanted to be in a position where he got more playing time and could fulfill his potential to the greatest degree. I think he will fit us well going forward.
"I found him impressive. He's an intelligent, young guy ... I was impressed with him talking to him face to face. He's proven that he can be an effective player in our league and is a good addition."
The one thing that Brown wouldn't address this week is the status of head coach Marvin Lewis, heading into his 10th season on the last year of his deal. Lewis has indicated he's got an offer from Brown ("I guess the ball is in my court") but has said it's not his focus as free agency and the draft whirl.
"The way I would answer that is when we get to the point that we have something to announce we will announce it," Brown said. "I'm not going into a blow-by-blow description of how we're making sausage."