A few vignettes as the Bengals closed up shop Monday and left Paycor Stadium for the offseason:
If Joe Mixon is the heart and Joe Burrow is the soul, then that must make DJ Reader the conscience of these 2020s Bengals.
Reader is the first major addition of a decade that has been so prolific, signing what was then the biggest free-agent deal in Bengals history the week the pandemic shuttered the country and six weeks before they drafted Joe Burrow.
Now, three weeks removed from surgery on his torn quadricep tendon, Reader, the massive nose tackle, stands in front of his locker. He leans into his crutches and how Bengals head coach Zac Taylor keeps it going through what promises to be an offseason of change. Like all offseasons. And he's a free agent in this one.
"I don't see the core group dying off. You always have certain guys and maybe those guys were meant to be those types of guys," Reader says. "They're drafted, they're here in important positions and that's going to be freaking awesome for years to come. There's really no core guys leaving."
Reader, of course, won't put himself in that category even if he is. He looks at quarterback Joe Burrow, his linebackers Germaine Pratt and Logan Wilson, his ends, Trey Hendrickson and Sam Hubbard.
"Joe, Germaine, Logan. You've got all these guys. Trey, Sam. These guys are still here. Teddy K (arras) is now a core guy. They've been through it. There'll be people here for a long time that are a part of this. Young guys. CTB. (Cam Taylor-Britt). Guys who played and are now a part of the core. You can't ever change that."
If you had gone on social media back on, say, July 4, and tapped, "Look, Joe Burrow is going to get hurt on the second day of training camp, miss the next 34 days, not be right until early October, suffer a season-ending wrist injury before leaving the last seven games to Jake Browning for his first NFL starts at the end of the league's toughest schedule and they're going to finish 9-8 and not get eliminated from the playoffs until the evening of week 17," well, chances are someone would have called you a bad name.
But here we are. Browning went 4-3 and only Chad Pennington has a better completion percentage than Browning's 71.5% in his first seven NFL starts in the last 74 seasons.
It turns out that his 99.1 passer rating wasn't quite efficient enough to get them in the playoffs, but it's better than Aaron Rodgers, C.J. Stroud, and Dan Marino in their first seven NFL starts.
Not to mention Tony Romo.
"To do it on a team with so much expectations like ours, that's a tough situation. Especially for a backup quarterback. I thought he carried himself really well. Confident but humble," says right tackle Jonah Williams, who knows Browning better than most. "I think he proved to the organization and the league that he can play quarterback in the NFL as a starter or backup. And he's a great locker room guy."
Williams should know. They were teammates when Browning threw a national record 91 touchdown passes at California's Folsom High School. Now add his first 12 NFL touchdown passes and Williams had seen that demeanor once before.
"Exactly the same, which is funny," Williams says. "He was a very mature guy in high school. Always just really laid back, confident, cool. That's what he did here and I think that helps."
Browning did the coolest thing you could do after throwing three touchdowns on a Sunday. He headed to Houston to watch Monday's national title game between alma mater Washington and Michigan.
The appearance of Burrow at the podium Monday signaled Browning's relief stint, one of the best Bengals bullpen performances of all time, is at an end. This is Burrow's team and not just on the field. Burrow, Zac Taylor, director of player personnel Duke Tobin, and ownership are on a first-name basis.
"We'll continue what we've been doing. We'll have our postseason meetings and talk through and collaborate and go from there," Burrow says. "Going about the process in the way we have in the past has worked out well for us. There's a great collaboration between me, Zac, the coaches, Duke, ownership. I'm excited about the way the organization is run and what we've built here so far. We've got to keep building on it."
There is a sense as they go into this offseason that the team that was built in 2020 and 2021 and went to back-to-back conference championship games and a Super Bowl is going to undergo its biggest facelift since Burrow was drafted.
Besides Reader, the man drafted in the round after Burrow, two-time 1,000-yard receiver Tee Higgins, is a free agent. So is the most-tenured Bengal, Tyler Boyd, the bridge between A.J. Green and Ja'Marr Chase. So is Chidobe Awuzie, a Pro Bowl-caliber cornerback with a Super Bowl interception before he tore his ACL, on the way back.
Burrow says he wants Higgins back and so does the locker room, but he also knows an NFL offseason is "crazy." Like Reader, he says it is all about the locker room.
"The locker room. That's really why we've won, in my opinion. We have the right guys to do it. You've got guys that never fold," Burrow says. "We've been through a lot of adversity the last couple of years. When you go through that kind of adversity, it's the people that you have around you to help you bring you out of it.
"And we had all the right people in the locker room. We'll see who's back and who's not. The offseason is an ever-changing thing that you go through every year. And so once you get to OTAs, you've got to go through that process again. You've got to build the trust. You've got build that relationship in the locker room so it translates onto the field."
Reader, who would like to come back ("I love it here. I love the people"), gets downright poetic about the first four years of the decade.
"Meeting these guys in a year there was so much uncertainty in the world and getting the chance to bond with them," he says as he ticks off the memories. "And then come back next year for that Super Bowl run. Watching the city bloom and grow with us and start to light up. That playoff game, that Raiders game was just so electric. Those are the types of memories that stick with you. That makes the game emotional. That's what makes the game fun. In those moments, those people in the stadium, I carry those (memories) with me the rest of my life."
Reader has been through free agency, but it's like he never has. His first chance came as COVID descended. Now this one comes on crutches. It's always been new but never normal.
Here's a guy who has been a beast in seven playoff games. Everyone's biggest Pro Bowl snub. He came back from a similar injury in 2020. Running in four months. Feeling great in nine months. Winning the Ed Block Courage Award. And yet, when he went down, all he could hear were the whispers.
"Now you get tagged with the injury-riddled thing. Whatever. That sucks," Reader said. "You know people are going to question your work ethic. If you're going to do this, if you're going to do that. Is this going to slow him down? At his age (30 in training camp). Blasy, blasy, blasy."
Now he's over that initial malaise and knows what's ahead. It's a tough injury with a hard rehab and that is now what is front and center. He has no idea what waits with free agency. He just knows the work ahead.
"The questions are natural and valid. This is the hard part. This is the tough part," Reader says. "Where you have to not prove people wrong, but just put the work in and let that work show over time. This is God's plan, now I just have to go execute that plan."
Jonah Williams has never been through free agency. Normal or not. But the man who played next to him for nearly every snap this season, right guard Alex Cappa, gave him wise counsel.
"They know you. Everybody around the league knows who you are. Your film is your resume," Williams says. "There's nothing I can do to change the way people think about me based on my film or based on conversation person to person. That made me feel better. I am who I am. I think people will like it, but I can't control it."
Williams is a proud, bright man. He talks thoughtfully of "broad strokes," and "small bites." It means something to him that he was Taylor's first draft pick in 2019. That he started 64 games and played hurt. That when they moved him from left tackle to the relatively new position of right tackle last offseason, he responded by playing every snap.
The birth of his daughter in March helped change his perspective. He has moved from uncertainty to some top free agent lists.
"They gave me the chance to do this and I gave them everything I had," Williams says. "All I could do is be the best right tackle I could be. That's what I was doing at left. I've proven I can play both. What I end up doing in the future is kind of unknown right now."
Veteran safety Nick Scott is not taking his wife and child back east to start the offseason, but they're off to their home in California so he can begin working out. He couldn't do that last year because when he signed with the Bengals, he was just out of shoulder surgery and wouldn't be cleared until training camp started.
"I'm frothing at the mouth to lift and run and do what I couldn't do," Scott says. "If you look at the course of my career, I've never come back the same player. I've always ascended and always improved and that's what I expect to do this year."
Scott came over from the Rams with the Super Bowl ring that belonged to the Bengals for about 59 minutes. He was part of a transition in defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo's young secondary that saw third-round pick Jordan Battle replace him next to first-year starter Dax Hill in the middle of a season big plays bit them.
"We gave up explosives at the worst times. The game that stands out is Houston. The offense kept giving us points, but we couldn't come up with that one stop," Scott says. "I knew what I signed up for, that I was going to be in a room with young guys and being a new guy myself. I think Dax, Jordan, and myself made some improvements, but we have to get better.
"I could see the writing on the wall and to (Battle's) credit, he was doing a good job in practice. Part of my job was to help so he could be in position to contribute. That's why they brought me here. To help lead these guys and get them ready."
Scott came away convinced it's the same program he thought it was when he signed. He thinks the proof is in the last seven games.
"It's a winning program with winning coaches," Scott says. "I want to give tremendous credit to Jake for what he was able to do for this team. He gave us life at a time when a lot of teams would have crumbled. That's a testament to what kind of player he is and I think Lou did a tremendous job keeping us motivated as a defense fighting for more."