Off back-to-back playoff appearances and at the end of a three-week run his team has committed an estimated $32 million for the 2013 salary cap on its own free agents, Bengals president Mike Brown is standing by the club's plan to eschew free agency's first wave in favor of its own.
"The heart of this team," he says, "is in place."
Speaking earlier this week at the NFL meetings in Phoenix to Bengals.com and The Cincinnati Enquirer, Brown, along with executive vice president Katie Blackburn and vice president Troy Blackburn, said the most proven way to win in the NFL is developing continuity with not only coaches, but players. They say one only has to look at Baltimore and Pittsburgh in the AFC North.
Since Marvin Lewis became head coach in 2003, the Ravens and Steelers are the only teams to win the division besides the Bengals with general managers Ozzie Newsome and Kevin Colbert, respectively, investing heavily in their own rosters.
"We are planning to spend our cap money and we're hoping and we're intending to spend it on our own people," Brown said. "People we know, people we understand, people that we think will make this team get better. There is no single silver bullet. We're shooting a lot of small shots. That doesn't mean that it isn't going to cost the same amount of money. And it doesn't mean we aren't going to have the best team possible."
While fans are screaming for the Bengals to sign free agents from other teams, the Bengals targeted primarily free agents on their defense that carried them to the playoffs with a 7-1 finish in which they allowed 13 points per game on the way to ranking sixth in the league.
The Bengals franchised right end Michael Johnson for one year at $11.1 million and re-signed two starters in left end Robert Geathers and middle linebacker Rey Maualuga, as well as third cornerback Adam Jones. They're also hopeful to re-up another starter in cornerback Terence Newman.
Part of the Bengals plan is to roll $10 million from this year's cap into next year in anticipation of re-signing their marquee players on each side of the ball in wide receiver A.J. Green and defensive tackle Geno Atkins, as well as left end Carlos Dunlap, quarterback Andy Dalton and tight end Jermaine Gresham.
"If you look at teams that have sustained high-end success, they have done that by investing in their own players that were creating positive results on Sunday. The most recent example would be Baltimore," said Troy Blackburn, one of the club's contract negotiators.
"If you look at where they invest, their heaviest investments are all in their own guys. I just picked them because they won the Super Bowl this year. Pittsburgh has historically done that. The reason we're pursuing the path we're pursuing is because it has the highest chance of high-end success."
On Thursday night reports had the Bengals signing their first free-agent outside the club in veteran backup quarterback Josh Johnson, a product of offensive coordinator Jay Gruden's last days at Tampa Bay.
"Our plan is simple. We are focused on our own people. We want to keep our young players and we are trying to. We've had some success along those lines but we aren't at the end of the process. We still have more to do," Brown said. "There is no correlation between winning March and April in the National Football League and winning on the field when the season comes. We are striving for continuity. We have this good core of young guys and we want to give them the chance to get better. Probably by the time we're through we will bring in some others as well."
But that has made Bengaldom restless with the thought of a status quo that has yet to yield a postseason win despite trips to the playoffs in three of the last four years. Asked why the Bengals are taking heat for not being proactive while the Reds were praised for growing and developing and paying Brandon Phillips and Joey Votto, Brown said he's not concerned about winning the March signings but winning over the fans during the season with victories.
"Maybe there isn't as much pizazz in what we're doing as some wish. But I do think it's the best course for our football team both in the short run and the long run," he said. "I think what we're trying to do is grow in the best way possible. That isn't necessarily going out and proving you can spend more money than you should. Most of these deals in all probability, at least that's how it's been in the past, prove out to have lot of misjudgments."
A Reggie Bush signing was talked about, but in the end it didn't fit into Bush's plan of being an every-down back or Cincinnati's plan of keeping its own and going with a two-back rotation.
"Reggie is a fine player and we have a high regard for him and everybody in the organization respects him," Troy Blackburn said. "The truth is that BenJarvus Green-Ellis has had more 1,000 yard rushing seasons than Reggie Bush. We went out and signed a marquee free agent, BenJarvus Green-Ellis, he came in and had a 1,000-yard season, did everything you wanted him to do. I think we hit on that one. I think hitting on that one we're better served investing in our own guys."
Cincinnati's biggest priority is still out there, but the agent for right tackle Andre Smith and the club don't seem to have had any substantive talks even though the team says it has been wanting to do a deal since free agency began 10 days ago and Smith's name hasn't surfaced much.
"Ongoing. They know that we want to make a deal and we want them to engage and get it done," said Brown, who doesn't plan to give Smith a deadline. "We're not going to make any threats."
The Bengals didn't exercise a $6 million option on Smith before the start of his third season that would have turned his rookie contract into a six-year deal. Now he's emerging as a powerful player, but before his third season he had broken the same bone in his foot and had played just 13 games with five starts.
"You have to base it on the information at the time," Troy Blackburn said. "We're going to be thoughtful about how it unfolds."
Katie Blackburn, who manages the salary cap and is the club's lead negotiator, is in charge of crunching numbers that are all in the shadow of the big deals looming for Green and Atkins, the top players, if not the top player, at their positions.
"I think we're fortunate we're in the position where we don't have some glaring hole where we feel we have to go out and sign some free agent," Katie Blackburn said. "There is always the perception that these guys save your team somehow."
One big free agent hasn't saved the Bengals (Antwan Odom, Laveranues Coles, Antonio Bryant, Jason Allen), but several second-, third- and even fourth-wave signings or season-eve trades have helped them immensely in the past few years. Newman, wide receiver Terrell Owens, safety Reggie Nelson, and right end Wallace Gilberry all came in the post-March spree.
The Bengals have their supporters in the national media. On Friday in his first dispatch after departing the league meetings, Clark Judge of CBSSports.com wrote the biggest winners of the cap/age problems in Baltimore and Pittsburgh are "Tom Brady and the Bengals." He also noted that Baltimore's biggest pickups last season came several weeks after the market withered and yielded wide receiver Jacoby Jones in a trade and Cary Williams via free agency.
But Brown knows that there is going to be criticism. Particularly without that postseason win. Everyone, he says, gets criticized.
"I think there is also a perception generated by the modern technologies that we have," Brown said. "The whole world has a say. And there are naysayers out there and they're welcome to their opinion. There is more criticism everywhere. It just isn't with us. This is pretty well a common experience."
The Bengals also touched on a variety of other topics.
» They plan some enhancements to Paul Brown Stadium and are looking at melding some of the new HD technology into the scoreboards, keeping in mind that they feel PBS offers the most replays of any other stadium.
"We're looking at enhancing some of the club lounge spaces and some of the audio/video," Troy Blackburn said. "I don't think it's going to be something earth shattering, but we have tried consistently over the years to continue to refresh aspects of the building and I think we'll continue to try and do that."
» One of the big topics at the Phoenix meetings was how to make the stadium experience more attractive than watching the game at home and Brown likes the replays to run.
"One thing we have done ever since we've been in the new stadium is we run our replay on a broader basis than others," he said. "And now the league as a whole is shifting over to this, which is good. We try to get as many replays as possible. We have more replays at the stadium than you'll get at home watching it on TV. We replay almost every play and we try to do it with a view that isn't so tight that you can't understand what's happening. I think it's a good thing."
» For the second straight season the Bengals have reduced prices of some seats and it's believed about a third of the seats have been reduced at least once as they try to sell out their first home schedule since 2009. It's too early to say to make a call on the response.
"We're going through the renewal process now. The time period where you start to get the final payments," Troy Blackburn said. "What we have done in the past is give people great flexibility with payments. It's early to get a good sense of how renewals and new sales are going. That is something we won't know until late May or early June. We'll start to break things into multi-game packages in June."
"There was a good bump at the end of last season and then it plateaued," Katie Blackburn said. "We're hoping when the schedule comes out and then the draft that there will be a bump again."
The Bengals had two of the NFL's 14 blackouts last year. Tampa Bay (five), San Diego (four), Buffalo (two) and Oakland (one) were the others and Brown says it is important to keep the stadium experience at the forefront of the product.
"At the stadium there's a feel, intensity, an emotion that you can't get anywhere else. At home you can watch and get a good look. But you're by yourself or with a few people. When you're in stands full of fans, there's a charge to that. There's a thrill to it. That can't be duplicated anywhere other than at the stadium," Brown said.
"Some of what is impacting the league, and it isn't just the Bengals, it's league-wide, it's the economics of the time. We have not had a booming economy for as long time. That's one aspect. The change in technology is another aspect to it. We have to make people understand what's going on down at the stadium is an exciting thing that they should want to go to and I think for the most part they do."
» The Bengals appear to have no plans to build an indoor facility, but plan to continue to work with the University of Cincinnati to exchange dates at various times for practice. The Bengals used the Bearcats bubble the entire week leading up to the Jan. 5 Wild Card playoff game.
"We've always had that kind of relationship with them over the time I've been around; forty-plus years," Brown said. "We are thankful that we have people at UC that work with us and we want to return the favor as much as possible. In Cincinnati, the way our schedule works is you need an indoor facility perhaps at the end of the year. For most of the year, you don't. Fortunately for us when we get to the point when we need it is when it tends to be after their season. So it meshes. It was a nice thing for them to help us out this year. I'd like to continue that relationship."
» The club plans no major changes to training camp at PBS after the first year went pretty smoothly, it says.
"I think it went well. It gave the local people easy access. It was good for us internally. We didn't have to make a move," Brown said. "We're set up on site to do the things we need to do better than anywhere we could possibly go. There's a convenience about it that is good. As the public gets accustomed to it we'll see more people come down to watch. I hope that it will develop along those lines."
With the Reds again lined up for two long homestands during camp, look for the Bengals to again avoid scheduling conflicts and work opposite the baseball games.