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Signed, Sealed, Delivered: Burrow, Bengals Complete Unfinished Business

QB Joe Burrow shakes hands with Bengals Prsident Mike Brown during his contract signing on Saturday, September 9, 2023.
QB Joe Burrow shakes hands with Bengals Prsident Mike Brown during his contract signing on Saturday, September 9, 2023.

With a photo of another Ohio State transfer looming over him in the library of the Bengals offices, Joe Burrow used the right hand that has changed the course of franchise history and proceeded to change his life.

When he was done signing the biggest deal in NFL history Saturday morning, the Bengals' 17-page Magna Carta,  Burrow asked if he could keep the pen. Katie Blackburn, the Bengals executive vice president who negotiated the deal with her vintage invisible efficiency, said of course. Her two daughters who flank her in the front office smiled at each other.

"You lost your pen," Elizabeth Blackburn told Caroline and they were both just fine with that because who else would you want to have the pen?

And, it wasn't just any pen. Caroline, the team's manager of digital strategy, had been in her mother's always busy office recently and plucked a pen with football leather out of a 20-year-old Corey Dillon cup. When Elizabeth, the director of strategy and engagement, saw it on Caroline's desk Saturday morning, she thought it would be cool to use in the signing.

"I don't know," said Burrow when asked what he was going to do with it. "Put it in a drawer and use it. I've got a new pen."

And the Bengals have their Ohio-bred franchise quarterback for the next seven seasons. Burrow even added, "Hopefully a lot more than that," as he declared a mutual partnership.

Down the hall, Bengals president Mike Brown had the same thoughts. He spoke to Burrow on the field during Friday's practice, showing his appreciation with a simple thank you. And, of course, urging him on in Sunday's 100th Battle of Ohio (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12) that opens the season in Cleveland.

He was struck when Burrow told him he hoped the next time it wouldn't take as long. The five-year extension averaging 55 million per year runs through 2029, but Burrow, the NFL's first player drafted in the 2020s, is clearly looking at being with the Bengals into the 2030s.

"Means a lot," Burrow said later Saturday in a news conference. "I work really hard to perform well on the field and think a lot about how I handle myself and how I can be the best me for this organization. And so to be rewarded for that, it means a lot to me. But, a lot more to do. "

Burrow can still feel the fit he felt when he met the Bengals two months before the 2020 draft. Mike Brown and head coach Zac Taylor led a contingent that took just 18 minutes to sell him on the franchise.

"As soon as I met with Zac at the combine," said Burrow of when he felt at ease with the Bengals. "I saw his vision immediately, saw how he verbalized his vision and there were a lot of people in the room as well. Mr. Brown, Katie, Troy (Blackburn), everybody. And the vision was very clear. After that meeting, I was bought in. I was ready to be the best me I could be for them. I'm going to continue to do that."

Burrow wore his Athens High School playoff sweatshirt, "because that's kind of where it all began."

Mike Brown, meanwhile, beamed as he wore his Bengals tie preparing to get on the plane for Cleveland. The old Ohio quarterback who played his ball at Shaker Heights had his guy.

"Great fit," Burrow said.

Maybe the only fit. Bengals founder Paul Brown stared down from the library wall, first from a frame recognizing him as a coach on the NFL's 100th anniversary team. Then from a photo when he presented Bill Willis to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

But before all that, quarterback Paul Brown, like Joseph Lee Burow, transferred from Ohio State.

There was a reason, Burrow revealed Saturday, why he was drawn back home after winning the Heisman Trophy at LSU.

"I had some unfinished business in Ohio. My one athletic failure so far in my opinion is my time at Ohio State," Burrow said. "I didn't get to play. To come back and kind of redeem myself in that way has been important to me."

That's why Paul Brown came to Cincinnati from Cleveland. Unfinished business after the Browns fired him.

"I wouldn't change my, my life, my story for anything," Burrow said. "You never know how it's going to work out."

Certainly, Athens' last-minute loss to Toledo Catholic Central in the 2014 state title game more than lingers.

"Of course it does. Of course it does," Burrow said. "Whenever you lose a game like that, you know, you think about it, you think about it forever."

But it was his three years on the Ohio State bench that probably shaped him more than any one season he won an AFC North or the AFC or the national title.

"It just felt like nothing was ever going my way those three years," Burow said. "And you really learn a lot. A lot about yourself and you have to be mentally tough in that situation, otherwise you're not going to come out the other side. "

So it was fitting that Katie Blackburn did the deal with Burrow rep Brian Ayrault. She didn't go to Ohio State, but she was born in Cleveland, raised in Cincinnati and grew up with the Bengals.

Born as her grandfather Paul Brown and father Mike Brown made the first moves to head an AFL franchise in Cincinnati, she painted signs for their first Super Bowl team before becoming a woman sports pioneer as her father's point person. She emerged as one of the NFL's first salary capologists as the centuries changed and the Bengals moved from Riverfront Stadium to what is Paul Brown Stadium. She also oversaw the naming rights deal with Paycor.

So she's accustomed to days like this one. Seventeen years ago she did the NFL's biggest deal, too, when they inked Carson Palmer. Not exactly an easy feat when the Bengals are challenged by the size of the market. That's Blackburn's forte. She has been able to keep the small-market Bengals in the league's upper bracket of spending while not getting swallowed by cap hell.

The size of the Burrow deal reflects that annual cap flexibility.

"It's a real number," Katie Blackburn said. "You have to work with it and the goal is always to keep competitive. To be able to put the best team out there."

Blackburn is never one to show emotions. There have been too many high-rise-no-blink negotiations for that. She began talking with Ayrault in January and thought there might be a deal early in the offseason. When it didn't come together that quickly, she and Ayrault calmly put their heads back down. That calm dictated that the negotiations would stay, at least publicly, silent and upbeat. Mike Brown said he never thought the negotiations would fail and Burrow indicated the same sense.

"The last couple of weeks. I think we were in a good place negotiations wise," Burrow said of when he knew it would be done. "I had all the faith in the world and my agent, as well as Katie and Troy and Mr. Brown to do the right thing to get the job done."

But she prefers her office to the stage. Burrow has figured that out.

"Katie was awesome. She does a lot behind the scenes for this organization that nobody ever hears about," Burrow said. "The Brown family is very instrumental in what we do here and they don't like the spotlight. That's how they want it. But to shed a little light on that, they've done a lot for this community, done a lot for me, done a lot for this team, done a lot for Zac and so I'm eternally grateful to them, excited that I get to work with them for the next seven years and hopefully a lot longer."

Blackburn, of course, is also a big No. 9 fan. The whole family is. They were all there to greet Burrow after the signing, including nine-year-old Mike Brown, the next generation of Ohio quarterbacks who was on his way to lead his Indian Hill third-graders against Reading.

But not before he took a photo with coach Sam Smathers' old third-grade Athens Bulldog.

"He just has so many qualities that go beyond what he does on the field," Blackburn said. "His dedication to football. The way he handles himself off the field. His leadership abilities. Just the fact he's from Ohio. There's a lot to like about Joe."

They showed how much with the pen from the desk of Paul Brown's great-granddaughter. The latest Ohio State transfer put it in his pocket.