A.J. Hawk says players know.
They know what NFL locker rooms are mined with malcontents and malaise and which teams to avoid when free agency beckons.
"It definitely gets around the league because guys are coming and going and they talk about where they've been," Hawk said Wednesday during his first day as a Bengal. "They know places aren't good that might have had a reputation for having a tough locker room where guys don't get along. This place has always been on the top of the list when I've talked to anybody that has come through here. They say it was a good spot and they wish they had still been there."
The Bengals may not be big players in free agency, but they are popular in free agency, or what left guard Clint Boling calls, "a desirable place." It may not be the honeymoon destination that awaits him and his bride after they tabled the trip for free agency. But Paul Brown Stadium has become a showcase for Marvin Lewis' main strength as a head coach. With the help of the front office he continually stokes the chemistry of a solid locker room and a winning roster to make it attractive to not only join, but stay.
Hawk has been a Super Bowl champion and played in 13 post-season games and when the Packers cut him last month his first thought and choice was the Bengals. And not just because he grew up 45 minutes from Cincinnati.
Even though Boling had attractive feelers from other clubs in the first weekend of free agency as one of the top five guards on the market, he told agent Pat Dye his first option was staying and to focus on a deal in Cincinnati.
"There's a good foundation. There's A.J. (Green) and Andy (Dalton) who came in with me," said Boling of that 2011 draft. "And there are a lot of other good guys in this building. It's a place where guys want to play.
"The grass isn't always greener. You might take more money, but you might not see it all. You never know how these things work."
Which brings us to Michael Johnson.
A year after he left the Bengals for a five-year, $43 million offer in Tampa, the Buccaneers cut Johnson Wednesday and, according to some former Bengals teammates, it came none too soon for him. He has been telling them from nearly the day he left that he wants to come back to Cincinnati
and has told them, "You don't know what you've got there."
It's believed he's still on the mass text for the Bengals defensive line, Johnson's unit so central to the two AFC titles they won in Johnson's five seasons here. At least he was the week the Bengals played Tampa back in November.
"They're my brothers and going to work with them every day, it was fun. It didn't feel like a job," Johnson said for media consumption that week. "We had fun every day, especially on Sundays. We had a special group there and I'll always have very fond memories of our time there."
As of Wednesday night, there is mutual interest but it's unclear what kind of money Johnson is going to command and if the Bengals can counter after using up much of their salary cap room in signing Boling and linebackers Rey Maualuga and A.J. Hawk.
But what is clear is that players want to come here or come back.
"It's the culture the players created," Lewis said as he watched Boling and Hawk meet the media with easy professionalism. "It's done by the whole group, not by one person. It's the atmosphere. The eye toward the future that the franchise has and the players have. It keeps them fresh; it keeps them motivated to keep the spiral upward. Winning breeds winning. Guys want to be around each other. Everyone has worked real hard here to create that atmosphere."
Lewis sees the addition of Hawk in the Terence Newman mold. A wise, experienced NFL vet on his second run mixing with kids like Vontaze Burfict and Emmanuel Lamur in the linebacker group. Kicker Mike Nugent, who played with Hawk at nearby Centerville High School and then Ohio State, says Lewis has it just right. Actually, Nugent first played with Hawk in sixth grade because Hawk played a year up.
"He was the kind of guy that a lot of young guys looked up to because you knew he was going to be successful," Nugent said. "He was always in the weight room, in the film room doing the extra stuff. He won a Super Bowl and he played nine years in Green Bay, so I imagine it has been the same kind of thing."
Hawk checked in with Nugent Tuesday night and got the full report.
"He said, 'You'll love the locker room here. They don't have any bad guys,''' Hawk recalled. "'They don't have any cancers.' Nuge said they don't have guys like that and everyone gets along and has a good time. I think you can see that when you watch them play."
As if on cue, Maualuga and Burfict texted Hawk welcome and offered to get together when they get into town. He can't help but identify with those two guys and how they play with fury and abandon.
"First things first," Hawk said. "I'm a football fan. I like to watch great players, especially defensive players. Both those guys, how physical they are and how they run around. And they're so productive.
"I've been a fan of Rey's since he was back at USC. I played with his good (college) buddy Clay Matthews. You watch him on film and you can see he's having a good time."
If the locker room is straight, then so usually are the contracts. Rarely do the Bengals cut a guy early in his deal for cap reasons or ask someone to take a pay cut, which is why you never see them in the news cycle leading up to free agency. They released long-time defensive lineman Robert Geathers last month with one year left on a three-year deal. But that was after he got every cent of his six-year, $30 million second contract.
Look at cornerback Leon Hall staring at a near $10 million cap count in the last year of his second contract. Hall struggled last season coming off his second Achilles' surgery, but there has been no hint of a reduction or an extension to lower the cap count. The Bengals don't like to push money into future years, but they also know building up trust with respected leaders like Geathers and Hall is noticed in the locker room. Plus, they've got great regard for what Hall has meant on and off the field and the commitment he showed to both rehabs.
And, of course, they believe he's still a solid player.
Free agents also see it. While other teams offer guarantees, the Bengals have balked because of how it can mortgage the future. They feel like they can guarantee a player money early in the deal to soften the future cap hits and players realize the lower their cap deal is in the future, the easier it is to get the entire contract.
A real deal, as the Bengals like to call it.
"It's observed throughout," Lewis said. "It's observed by the people that represent players and that makes a big difference to them as well. We'll make a deal and we'll make a deal right for both parties…We've done a good job drafting well and developing our guys and we continually extend guys into their second contracts."
Boling is the seventh player drafted since '09 to get a second deal and that's not counting the undrafted Burfict, who parlayed his first two years into a four-year, $19 million extension.
Boling wouldn't get into how much he had in guarantees from other clubs or even the other clubs. Just that he felt comfortable enough with Lewis, offensive line coach Paul Alexander and offensive coordinator Hue Jackson and that they had a very real shot to win in the playoffs.
Boling's deal, as reported by the web site spotrac.com, is how the Bengals like to do it. He gets nearly 50 percent of the deal ($12.5 million) in the first three years with $4.2 million coming this year on a $2.5 million signing bonus and $1.7 million salary. And the cap counts stay steady, ranging from $5.1 million this year, to a low of $4.7 in '16, to a high in the last year at $5.7.
There are no crazy numbers that would cause him to get cut. Many times big deals have huge salary figures that inflate the total package even though everyone knows the player will be long gone before they count, or the deal is re-done.
Boling, who turns 26 in May, is one of these solid guys on which the Bengals have built their '11 re-boot. Mr. and Mrs. Clint and Kelly Boling had been married 11 days when he inked the deal Wednesday and he is, like a typical smart offensive lineman, still waiting on her to pick the honeymoon destination. Suddenly, the wedding and free agency have come and gone.
"I knew what I was going to get here," Boling said. "It's a good organization. They are loyal to our guys. I feel confident in that. Whether I sign a deal for more money somewhere else, maybe I don't see all of it. You don't know how those things work. That's part of the reason I felt comfortable with this organization and how they felt about me and how I feel about them. There are a lot of different factors that have to play into it. It's not solely about I'm going to take every single penny I can. There are a lot of different things you have to weigh in."