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Thinking Aloud As Bengals Pause Before Training Camp

Joe Burrow during Super Bowl week.
Joe Burrow during Super Bowl week.

Nine (for Joe Burrow) things we think we know (in honor of NFL mega columnist Peter King and Cincinnati Talkmaster Lance McAlister) as we mull the start of the Bengals' fan-fested training camp that begins in a month on July 27:

1.     Stability at the top suggests the Bengals are going to keep busting out. As head coach/play caller Zac Taylor heads into his fourth full season with the same offensive coordinator, Brian Callahan, and defensive coordinator, Lou Anarumo, history says continuity is going to pay off in a big way.

The last time the Bengals had stability like that was the late '80s and 1990, when they won two division titles and an AFC championship while racking up top offensive rankings.

And when head coach Marvin Lewis had offensive coordinator Jay Gruden and defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer for three straight seasons, their final year in 2013 saw them win the AFC North with the NFL's No. 5 defense and No. 10 offense. Plus, quarterback Andy Dalton was in his this third season, which is where we find Joe Lee Burrow.

(Although Lewis served 16 seasons and offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski was with him for half of them, the Bengals had three defensive coordinators from 2003-2010.)

When the Bengals hired Sam Wyche in 1984, like Taylor, he was his own play-caller and, like Taylor relies heavily on Callahan, Wyche had Bruce Coslet. Before Coslet was elevated to offensive coordinator in 1986, he had been Wyche's receivers coach the previous two seasons.

From 1986-89, the Bengals led the NFL in total offense twice and finished in the top five the other two seasons while winning two rushing titles. Along with winning the AFC in '88, they barely missed the '86 playoffs despite winning ten games with the No. 1 offense and the '89 playoffs with the No. 7 defense. That '89 team massively outscored their foes by 404-285 and went 8-8 racking up the biggest point-differential in history by a team without a winning record.   

Continuity is one of the big reasons why in 2019 the Bengals went looking for a head coach who would keep his system intact even if there were staff changes. That has worked, historically, too. When Coslet became the Jets head coach in 1990, Wyche had things running smoothly enough with a top ten total offense boasting the fifth-ranked run game for the AFC Central champs.

2. It's the 10th anniversary of the Bengals Stay-at-Home training camp and downtown Cincinnati figures to be humming like never before with 12 open practices. The Kettering Health Practice Fields have bleachers sitting 1,200 fans, along with some standing room, and if there was a crowd on The Bridge watching Burrow's closed practices the previous two seasons, that bodes well for some snap-crackle-and-pop.

These social media Bengals are no doubt the most popular Bengals in history. In one of their last training camps at Georgetown College in Georgetown, Ky., they smashed attendance records when Terrell Owens signed a 12th-hour deal to join Chad Ocho Cinco in 2010. They were also coming off a starring role in HBO's Hard Knocks and an AFC North sweep.

But the '21 Bengals upstaged them with Burrow, who has the Chad charisma without the drama, leading them as the darlings of a month-long national miniseries ending in one of the most riveting Super Bowl finishes in recent memory. Should be an interesting sight and site.

3. When it comes to coordinators, don't forget special teams sultan Darrin Simmons, heading into his 20th season here as the NFL's longest-tenured kicking game supervisor. Talk about continuity.

Not only that, Simmons is looking at going into this season with the NFL's most prolific rookie kicker of all-time and the franchise's all-time leading punter. That is, of course, if Kevin Huber holds off Drue Chrisman in the punting competition.

He's looking for some return help, but he usually figures it out. People forget that last season, about mid-year, he lost his best player, gunner/kick returner Brandon Wilson, and one of his most important, the punt team quarterback in personal protector Ricardo Allen. And yet, Football Outsiders had the Bengals ranked eighth in special teams.

Now he's got everyone back, plus three rookie DBs that run under 4.4 seconds in the 40-yard dash.

(Here's another intriguing vet-rookie training camp battle for Simmons: vet safety Michael Thomas vs. fifth-rounder Tycen Anderson, one of those 4.38 guys. Both are safeties and play personal protector, where Thomas was solid in the postseason.)

4. One of those rookie DBs, first-rounder Dax Hill, doesn't turn 22 until after he plays in this season's third game and he walked around here this spring like he was 31. He carries himself like a seasoned pro and appeared to have no problem with the playbook when he worked with the starters in the six OTAs against the offense.

They knew all about his maturity and brains before he showed up and you put him next to Vonn Bell, a meticulous, knowledgeable and vocal veteran safety with nine playoff starts at age 27 under his belt and that's what you get.

Plus, Hill is able to sit back and watch Bell work with Jessie Bates III and see up close why they are one of the league's best safety tandems.

4a. It looks like Hill is the first Bengal born after Paul Brown Stadium opened. The birth of Ja'Marr Chase, last year's first-rounder, came on March 1, 2000, when the building was getting a final paint job. Same with last year's third-rounder, Joseph Ossai, born April 12, 2000.

Hill was born Sept. 29, 2000, three games into the season and two days before Dick LeBeau made his debut as Bengals head coach against Miami at PBS.

5. By July 15 we'll know if the Bengals can get a long-term deal with Bates. What we do know right now is the Bengals hold him in high regard either way and that they're banking on the safety who played so well in the postseason to help lead the charge into 2022.

That seems to be another training camp theme. By putting the franchise tag on Bates, it's a signal that while they have a young Super Bowl nucleus, the future is now. There is no such thing as big as "a window," to compete in the NFL. With all the new deals jockeying with the salary cap, there are no windows for any team. Try mail slots. And the Bengals are trying to deliver right now.

All that said, look at how young the key players are, starting with the 25-year-old Burrow and the 22-year-old Chase. You have to feel the 25-year-old Bates isn't the only clutch defender they'd love to extend beyond 2022. Even though he's played more than 100 NFL games, Bell doesn't turn 28 until the day after the Week 14 game against Cleveland. Another playoff hero, linebacker Germaine Pratt, just turned 26 during OTAs. Those are just two examples on a defense that returns everybody.

6. It doesn't sit well with Burrow he has yet to beat Cleveland in three starts. Somehow Baker Mayfield is 3-0 vs. Burrow, but 8-11 against everyone else in the AFC North. And Burrow is 0-3 vs. the Browns, but 4-2 vs. Pittsburgh and Baltimore.

But the Bengals do have a guy that beat new Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson. Backup quarterback Brandon Allen outdueled Watson in the next-to-last game of the 2020 season in Houston on a career-high 371 yards and 126.5 passer rating in the Bengals' 37-31 victory.

7. No one may quite know who is going to be playing quarterback for Cleveland. But no matter who it is, Amari Cooper, the erstwhile Cowboys receiver, is going to be his main target and that makes for a nice chess match.

Now, there are chess matches and there are chess matches. There's going to be a real chess match when Cooper lines up against old friend Chidobe Awuzie twice this season.

Awuzie, who played so brilliantly last year at cornerback for the Bengals in his first season since coming over from Dallas as a free agent, learned a lot of his chess from Cooper when they were both Cowboys. As well as learning a lot about the game, Awuzie liked all the stereotypes he and Cooper zapped when they would play in person in the locker room instead of over the phone.

"Call of Duty, 2K, Madden and there was me and Amari," Awuzie told last year. "(Chess) is helping me in just my general life. Diagnosing things. Predicting things. Protecting important things. I think it's one of the oldest games because it relates a lot to life. They call it a game of war and life every day is pretty much a war if you want it to be or whether you know it or not. You fight for love, you fight for life, you fight for the people next to you, all of that."

With his Super Bowl interception against the Rams' Matthew Stafford, Awuzie goes in with an edge on his buddy.

8. Biggest Willie Anderson-sized roster shoe to drop before the cut down? It's all in the hands of Bengals director of player personnel Duke Tobin.

Tobin, by the way, began defense of his Sporting News' Executive of the Year crown in impressive fashion in free agency, and he may be looking to repeat the B.J. Hill trade of last August this August with a deal for backups at either wide receiver or the three technique. Or, grabbing a guy off waivers like they did cornerback Tre Flowers in mid-October.

You have to feel the fourth receiver and the backup three may not be here yet. But, don't underestimate how much the coaches and organization feel about wide receiver Michael Thomas. They also feel good about third-round pick Zach Carter, the 6-4, 287-pound defensive tackle and end from Florida. They'll find out if he's big enough to be a consistent pass-rush threat inside. But if there's going to be August activity, you'd think those would have to be two of the spots.

9. Even at the end of June you have to shake your head at what these Bengals did to the franchise career postseason record book in just four games:

Evan McPherson (14) has more field goals than Bengals all-time scorer Jim Breech (nine). Burrow (97.3) has a better passer rating than Bengals all-time passing leader Ken Anderson (93.5). Ja'Marr Chase (25) has more catches than two all-time greats in Cris Collinsworth (21) and A.J. Green (18).

There is still plenty to play for. Chase is still chasing tight end Dan Ross' record 28, McPherson is four shy of Breech's record of 52 points and Burrow needs five more touchdown passes to break Anderson's record of nine.