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Bengals Get Lift For Opener As Joe Burrow Gets Nod With New Deal

QB Joe BUrrow throws the ball during practice at the Kettering Health Practice Fields on Thursday, September 7, 2023.
QB Joe BUrrow throws the ball during practice at the Kettering Health Practice Fields on Thursday, September 7, 2023.

New Bengals left tackle Orlando Brown Jr., now believed to be the only man to block for two $50 million a year quarterbacks, got the news like we all did Thursday night as it blinked off a phone.

At the first offensive line dinner of the season at Carlo and Johnny's, where coach Frank Pollack picked up the check, the guys had just been talking about when quarterback Joe Burrow would get that check of all checks. When word came it was a record $55 million per year deal, it was affirmation for Brown signing his own four-year, $64 million deal back in March.

"Like all the great ones, he's a leader. He's different," Brown said after Friday's practice in a locker room reacting to the richest deal in NFL history.

"I don't know how to describe him to you. He's got a lot of swag, a lot of confidence. Giving him this deal is one of the best decisions this organization has made in extending him. Keeping him happy, keeping him confident, it's not going to do anything but make us a better football team."

Burrow leads a veteran locker room even though, by average age, they are the third youngest team in the league. There have been Super Bowl runs and 10-game winning streaks and record-book days and this was another highwater mark in the fourth year of the Joe Jillenium.

Still, it caused a buzz in the room just 48 hours before the season opens.

"Well-deserved, well-earned," said defensive captain Mike Hilton. "We've got a job to do Sunday, but we get excited for each other when something good happens."

Or, as the most tenured Bengal on offense, wide receiver Tyler Boyd, said, "Every guy in this locker room wanted to see the quarterback happy before he stepped foot on the field. So, yeah, we'll be ready."

They're hoping the momentum of a record contract that stops all the speculation is going to help lift them past the Browns in Sunday's opener (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12) in Cleveland. They also got a lift when head coach Zac Taylor confirmed after practice that Burrow is going to make his first Opening Day road start in his 43rd game.

Back 43 days ago when he stumbled out of the pocket with a strained calf, that wasn't a given. Or when he returned to practice nine days ago. But he is, as they say, good to go. Indeed, the only Bengal Taylor ruled out is defensive end Joseph Ossai (ankle).

"I'm very thankful for the front office, the coaches, everybody that made that happen, because without him out there on the field, we don't feel the same," said defensive end Sam Hubbard, another defensive captain and Burrow's closest friend on the team. "We're not the same Bengals. And he's our guy, our quarterback. He inspires this locker room, this team, this city. And you know, they made him the quarterback for the future for a reason. I'm happy to have him."

Hubbard, the Moeller High School product who has known him since they both were at Ohio State, sold Burrow on Cincinnati and the Bengals even when Burrow was going through his Heisman trophy season at LSU. On Friday, Hubbard wore the Cheshire cat smile of someone who saw this day coming.

"We were looking to be top of the draft. He was looking to be a top draft pick," Hubbard said. "And Zac was asking me about him. Joe was asking about the Bengals. I was trying to broker that relationship. I knew it'd be a perfect fit. I knew he was going to be the guy that turned it around. And I got somebody who is very like-minded and can inspire a whole locker room and change the direction of the whole franchise. And it came to fruition and I'm happy to be a part of it."

Taylor and Burrow have formed a formidable partnership. With them at the helm, they've guided the Bengals to five postseason wins, the most to come out of the AFC North in the last decade.

And when you give a guy $55 million per, he's your partner. Even before agreeing to the deal, Burrow has held sway in the halls of power with the open door policy of Taylor and director of player personnel Duke Tobin.

"I'd say there are a lot of times I give the players a lot of information. And him more so. Your quarterback," Taylor said. "A, it's the person I talk to the most because I'm also the offensive play caller, and then sometimes I'm in the quarterback room and always talk to him about the plan. So naturally other conversations come up because I'm around him the most.

"But also just wanting him to understand we want him here forever. So you want him to understand why decisions are made, get his input in all facets of it. I think when we were hiring a trainer, making sure he was aware of the direction we were headed because he deals with that staff. There are just a lot of things that come into play that you want him to be a part of and you want his feedback. I know that he and Duke have a great relationship … he and Duke always have conversations."

Burrow's receivers were pumped for their guy. Tee Higgins got a text from his agent ("Wheew, see what Burrow do?") and with Higgins now at the plate in his contract year he theorized Burrow can now buy an island.

"I am so happy for him. He deserved it," Higgins said. "He's playing like the best quarterback in the league. It's well-deserved for him."

Higgins, the 2020 second-round pick, has seen the first-rounder (Burrow) and third-rounder (Logan Wilson) get deals, but he's not sure what this one means for him. All he knows is he's trying to win the Super Bowl while going to his first Pro Bowl.

Tyler Boyd, in the last year of his own extension, knows what a boost that second contract can be for a player. Particularly a guy like Burrow going into Opening Day.

"I was just kind of relieved because a lot of guys play better, and it's more stress relief knowing that you got your back secure and the organization believing you, trusting you," Boyd said. "Now you go out there just kind of loose and fluid."

Taylor saw enough from a physical standpoint to send Burrow out there as he tries to win for the first time in Cleveland. Thursday is the toughest practice of the week and Taylor said, "He looks good to me. We don't necessarily talk about it. We just talked about the game plan and he had a great day of practice."

When asked what Taylor needed to see to give Burrow the go, he eschewed a list like consistency, etc., etc …

"He's fine," Taylor said with a wave.

He really is now.

"Any time's a good time. We were hoping for the game. I'm just glad it's over with. I know how the focus is on football and how you can put that behind you and really focus on this team," said Hubbard, who saw this day years ago. "And this game is what I know he wants to be focusing on. And that's what he's going to be doing."