Decades from now, the 2021 Bengals are the ones the kids are going to remember.
The Joe Burrow Improbable Dreamers transformed the way their city and the NFL views their Bengals, so it was fitting that a bunch of Cincinnati kids greeted the newest Bengal and symbol of the Super Bowl spoils when massive La'el Collins filled up the Paul Brown Stadium lobby door this past Sunday.
"All that played a factor," Collins said of the Bengals' barely month-old appearance in the big game. "You just look at that roster. Look at this team. They are loaded everywhere. Just needed guys up front to do the job. I always felt like as the O-line goes, the team goes."
They were kids from head coach Zac Taylor's Mount Lookout neighborhood, all around the same age of his grade-schoolers Brooks and Luke who were playing basketball down the street.
Also in the group was the similarly aged son of offensive line coach Frank Pollack. The dads were keeping a vigil, waiting for the puff of smoke from the stadium spires that Collins had agreed to terms.
"I know my kids were fired up," Taylor said. "They'd heard me on the phone for a couple days now. So they were ready for a resolution as well and they were excited that it ended the way it did."
Taylor and Pollack and kids got there a few minutes ahead of Collins. But more kids were on the way.
Also on call this weekend was the Bengals director of pro scouting, Steven Radicevic, point man of another headline making free agency.
Along with doing many of the deals, Radicevic is also charged with the nuts and bolts of overseeing the signature of the contract and lodging and travel arrangements. So he and wife Sheena and their two pre-school children were having a late lunch near the stadium when the text came from director of player personnel Duke Tobin.
"We've got him."
"We had just ordered and ten minutes later we powered through the tacos," Radicevic said. "Then we threw the kids in the car and rushed to the stadium."
Which is fitting because the Collins signing capped off another free agency period where the family-run Bengals showed they're not kidding around. In six days they did exactly what the pundits said they had to do. They signed three starting offensive linemen, re-signed their healthiest and most versatile defensive tackle in B.J. Hill and re-upped one of their starting cornerbacks in Eli Apple.
Total against the 2022 salary cap: Roughly $35 million.
"It's team effort," Radicevic said. "There's was a lot to do trying to get B.J. and Eli done and fielding other calls. You can't do it all. Total team effort."
Once Radicevic got the logistics set up with Collins and flew him in from Dallas for his first visit after he was cut by the Cowboys, Bengals executive vice president Katie Blackburn and her husband, vice president Troy Blackburn, with Tobin the point man, worked on the deal for Collins. Earlier in the week, Troy Blackburn worked the deal for Tampa Bay right guard Alex Cappa while Radicevic worked it for Hill, Apple and Patriots center Ted Karras.
Karras. Cappa. Collins. The Bengals' new center, right guard and right tackle. Led by Radicevic, even before they played in the Super Bowl, the Bengals had been eying Cappa and Karras because of their affordability as well as ability. And Collins' name was also on the grease board because of the rumblings the Cowboys could cut him if they didn't trade him.
"Drawing it up, if you could get those three, you'd feel really good about it," Radicevic said. "Cappa ($6.75 million cap hit) and Karras ($5 million), they hit us where we thought we would be and still be able to get a tackle."
That tackle, Collins, became the subject of intense scrutiny in Cincinnati during three days of negotiations with agent Peter Schaffer. A) The Bengals desperately needed an upgrade at right tackle and B) Collins is one of the best in the league.
That made Collins more recognizable than Macy's when he visited Kenwood Mall Saturday afternoon. The negotiations had gone on for so long that he needed clothes other than the natty suit he wanted to wear to sign in the 'Nati.
He thought he could slip anonymously through wearing his mask, but everyone in town seemed to know him well enough to make a pitch for their AFC champs.
"For me, it was special," Collins said Wednesday. "They still saw the big fella. I just said hey, they were asking me if we were close yet or done. I just said we will get there, we will get there. The whole time I was optimistic we were going to get it done. I was really just trying to get a feel for my new home because I was very optimistic they were going to get it done. And we did. I couldn't be (happier)."
But it was the big kids who were the guys that got it done. Quarterback Joe Burrow made it clear to Taylor that he was ready to do what was ever needed to get the deal done. He didn't really want to go out again like he did the night before when he helped host Cappa and Karras and others at The Precinct after showing up in a sweat suit.
"I stopped being surprised by anything Joe wears on any occasion so Joe is his own man, and he can pull off anything," Taylor said.
So he offered his own home, complete with crackers and cupcakes, and it turned out to be just as effective as The Precinct's Steak Burrow. Cappa and Karras were there with new tight end Hayden Hurst and their significant others.
For all of the work Radicevic had gone into setting up the visits of Thursday and Friday, it turned out to be Macy's and Ritz that won the day.
"For me, that was everything in the world," Collins said. "I know I was scheduled to go eat dinner with coach Frank and coach Taylor, but I just told them I wasn't really there to be wined and dined. I wanted to just kind of get this thing done. I was able to go spend time with those guys, Joe and the rest of the guys. For me, that really put it over the top. That really stamped it. That really showed me this is where I wanted to be. These are the guys I want to be around. That moment was probably the biggest moment."
The reported three-year, $30 million deal was pretty meat-and-potatoes. Knowing the Bengals have got the Burrow mega extension coming next year while trying to balance the 29 games Collins has missed the last six seasons because of injuries with the crushing need and his talent, the sides crafted a deal to protect both.
It's believed the deal eventually puts the Bengals about $5 million over this season's salary cap, to be accounted for in the carryover room from last year. In an effort to maximize this season, about $5 million from Collins' cap figures to spill into 2023.
As Schaffer and the Bengals worked, Collins figured it was close enough he didn't want to leave. While outlets wrongly fished around that he had left town, he checked out the fishing.
"You know any time you are playing the waiting game you are letting the guys that do the contracts do the contracts. They have to take their time to do their job and everything like that. You got to give them time," Collins said. "During that time, I just spent a lot of time seeing the city. Just going by the river. I met some cool people who like to fish, which was cool. They were showing me all the big fish they caught out of the river. Might catch me down there on a Monday or Tuesday with my fishing pole on the water."
The Bengals had set their lures well enough that they only needed a Plan B just once last week and that was when C.J. Uzomah pulled a surprise when their starting tight end left for the Jets. When they ended up with Hurst, the former Ravens first-round pick, Taylor sounded as if he can't wait to put his speed in the middle of the field.
"We think that that's a great fit for us and a great fit for him," Taylor said. "The more research we did on him and really dug into it, we feel like that guy can be a real weapon and asset for us this year. Went to dinner with him and (tight ends coach) James Casey and Drew Sample and I feel like he really hit it off with the group in that tight end room. We've got high expectations for Hayden to come in here. I think he's made of the right stuff and he's really going to be able to help us at the tight end position."
But it was the big kids who heralded just how big this post-Super Bowl era could be.
"Just look at the roster now and the draft hasn't even come yet," Collins said. "I can only imagine how stronger this team is going to be by the time the season starts."