Only One Thing Certain These Days: Bengals Still Covet A.J. Green

A.J. Green: still in the plans.
A.J. Green: still in the plans.

With challenges ranging from fitting the right number of people into Paul Brown Stadium to re-signing their best player, the Bengals continue to battle the kaleidoscope of unknowns posed by the pandemic unleashed on America.

The one known heading into the 2020 training camp season is this: the Bengals are still riding the wave of one of their most successful offseasons ever. Between a consensus A-rated draft that yielded franchise quarterback Joe Burrow and a record-breaking haul in free agency that remade their defense with a half dozen players fresh from the playoffs, players and coaches have continually expressed their desire for the next chapter to start unfolding.

That could be as soon as next week.

Such is how the electricity of a once-a-decade re-boot has been heightened by massive uncertainty. Report dates are pending until Friday's call among the owners, which may finalize training camp details.

Or it may not.

The Bengals are tentatively scheduled to welcome their rookies at PBS on July 21 by giving them a test for the coronavirus with the hopes they'll be on the field July 23.

Veteran quarterbacks and injured players are set to report and be tested July 23 with the rest of the veterans set for July 28.

Even though the Bengals didn't get an extension by 4 p.m. Wednesday with wide receiver A.J. Green, designated their franchise free agent back in March, there are still hopes to strike a long-term deal after the season and that he'll report with rest of the vets to sign his one-year tender offer of $18 million.

It's believed that as late as this week there was an open, productive dialogue between the sides in an effort to keep one of the franchise's all-time greats for an extended period. It's the kind of deal the Bengals have routinely made for their all-timers, but this is a time for all-time. These particular negotiations were complicated by the unknowns, leading off with the fear next year's salary cap could dip far below this season's $198 million.

As one club insider characterized the problems of planning in a pandemic, "It's like putting together a puzzle without the frame."

Although Green and the club now can't negotiate until after this season and he hasn't played a full game since Oct. 28, 2018 because of foot and ankle injuries, the Bengals' desire to keep him in the re-boot beyond Burrow's rookie year remains intense.

Green, who turns 32 the last day of this month, is reaching the stratosphere roamed by only the greatest Bengals receivers, where thirtysomethings rarely take off. For instance, two of the greatest, Cris Collinsworth and Carl Pickens, caught their last Bengals balls at age 29.

Chad Johnson finished breaking the Bengals' career receiving records at age 32. The great Isaac Curtis was believed to be only the second Bengals wide receiver after Chip Myers to catch a ball in his 30s when he retired at age 34 in 1984, the oldest Bengals wide receiver to catch a ball before Terrell Owens.

Brian Brennan, Tim McGee (in his second Bengals stint) and Michael Westbrook all played their final NFL season at age 30 in Cincinnati and combined for 37 catches.

T.J. Houshmandzadeh was their next 30-for-30 wideout, but he did it in a much bigger way and ushered in for the Bengals the era of ageless receivers with 21st century workouts. He shared the NFL receptions title with Wes Welker with 112 at age 30 in 2007. During a one-year deal in Cincinnati in 2010, Owens caught his last ball at age 37 to conclude his Pro Football Hall of Fame career with a season just 17 yards shy of 1,000.

The Bengals see Green in that same kind of mold as one of those great modern receivers that continues to produce into their 30s.

Next on the agenda is running back Joe Mixon, heading into his fourth and contract season with back-to-back 1,000-yard years making him the offense's Most Valuable Player in the absence of Green. During the second half of last season Mixon gained more yards than anyone in the NFL except Tennessee's Derrick Henry.

Henry, the Titans franchise player, beat Wednesday's deadline with what was reported as a four-year, $50 million deal with $25 million guaranteed. The Bengals traditionally make such long-term deals during training camp, but the pandemic has thrown tradition for a loop and, plus, there's the annual NFL conundrum about what to pay a top back. It remains to be seen if Henry's deal can be used as a road map for Mixon, but he's another guy the club has insisted it wants long-term with Burrow.

The Bengals haven't expected snags signing Burrow, a process that figures to mirror the arrival of him in the facility. They seem prepared to follow the contracts signed by Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray, quarterbacks and the last two overall No. 1 picks.

The on-site physicals are the first signs of football and ignite many contracts, but to even get to that point the details have been exhausting. Green may be the franchise player, but the offseason's indispensable players have been director of operations Jeff Brickner and director of security Mark Herren.

With all employees now back in the stadium for the past month or so, the pair has been juggling numbers and spaces to keep pace with local and state guidelines as well as NFL regulations.

When the players return, Brickner and Herren must fit the entire organization in three separate tiers in order to keep players and coaches safe. The coaches also undergo tests when camp begins.

Currently at PBS, staff members practice social distancing and wearing of masks if they're not in an office and get their temperature taken before entering the building. Employees can't leave their floor and there are no meetings with conference and break rooms off limits. There are no visitors unless contractors are called to require maintenance.

And there is still game day planning for a stadium that hopes to have at least a portion of fans.