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Two Years, Four Days Later At Combine Find Bengals Stable And At The Top In Age Of Burrow

Duke Tobin meets the press in Indy Tuesday.
Duke Tobin meets the press in Indy Tuesday.

INDIANAPOLIS _ This year's opening day of the NFL scouting combine comes two years and four days after Heisman Trophy winner Joe Burrow emerged in Indy from Baton Rouge to assure the NFL press corps here he would not only play for the Bengals if they took him with the overall No. 1 pick, but even joked, "I could go home for dinner," in his hometown of Athens, Ohio.

Let's see. In no particular order, this has happened to the Bengals since that day:

A Super Bowl appearance. A once-in-a-century pandemic. Burrow's devastating ACL injury that cut short his rookie season. A shortened training camp. An Opening Day in front of zero people. A Wild Card win in front of the biggest Paul Brown Stadium crowd ever. A sweep of the Steelers, Ravens and Chiefs. Burrow's designer glasses. Burrow's 525 yards against the Ravens for the fourth greatest passing day of all-time. Burrow's chain. Burrow. Burrow. Burrow.

Two years and four days? Head coach Zac Taylor, who went from the hot seat to a five-year extension in that stretch, agrees. It seems like two decades and four eras.

"Feels like a lifetime ago to be honest with you," said Taylor after Tuesday's podium appearance. "Was probably the last time we were at the combine, right? In this league every year feels like dog years, feels like seven. How much goes by and how many things change with your team.

"Just really proud of the job the personnel department has done adding the right pieces to the puzzle. The job the coaching staff has done making the pieces fit and getting the most out of them. The players buying in to everything we have asked them to do and taking leadership and making it their own team. We've got our offense, we've got our defense, we've got our special teams, but there are moments we ask the players to take it over and make it their own and have great ownership in it. We are really at the stage this year where they did that. Really proud of them."

Bengals director of player personnel Duke Tobin, who preceded Taylor to the podium, could only shake his head. Two years and four days ago since all those stories about Burrow not wanting to play in Cincinnati, the Bengals are one of the most stable franchises in the league.

Just check the headlines coming out of here Tuesday.

Falcons don't commit to Matt Ryan as the 2022 starter.

Colts GM has no answer on Carson Wentz.

Giants put Saquon Barkley on table as possible trade bait.

"You know that it was just a fake news story. I didn't hear a lot of fake stories so far this year so that's good," Tobin said with a smile of the 2020 Burrow combine clicks.

"It feels like a while ago. It was an exciting time for us because we knew what we were getting. We knew what was going to be coming to our organization and what we knew and what we thought showed up, and it's rewarding when that happens. But he's been great for us and he's what everybody's looking for."

Tobin, one of the driving forces behind the hiring of Taylor before the 2019 season, now has coach with an AFC title and a message.

"We have not had easy years to be a head coach. We've had COVID, and we've had no combine. He's at everything thrown at him that could possibly be thrown at a new head coach," Tobin said. "His ability to organize and function under that stress is amazing. And so yeah, everything we thought he was, he was, and he is. It's the same thing with Joe Burrow. Everything we thought he was, he is. And when that comes together, that's great. And it's fantastic to have him under contract. And he's our head coach going forward, and that's what we want."

The only thing close to a headline in Bengaldom is the contract status of free safety Jessie Bates III. But there's no drama. Both want him to be here. The conventional wisdom is if there's no long-term deal by the March 8 franchise tag deadline, they'll put it on him with the hope to get him long-term before training camp.

"He's a guy that developed and that has played well that has a real role on our team in a lot of different areas, particularly in leadership and play-making skill. He's a guy we want going forward," said Tobin, who called locking up Bates front and center. "We want him to be a part of our group, so we'll see what we can do to get that done."

While acknowledging the Bengals need to improve on the offensive line as well as all areas on offense, Tobin and Taylor didn't prioritize the Bengals' needs and defended the offensive line from the crushing narrative stemming from the 70 sacks Burrow absorbed this past season that included the Rams Super Bowl onslaught.

"I know it's a big story, I know they've taken some heat but I'll just give you some data points that I think are worth considering," Tobin offered. "We had two receivers go for over a 1,000 and a third get close. We had a running back go for over 1,000 yards, our quarterback was (second) in the league in passer rating, we're a top-10 scoring team and I think we're a top-10 yards per play team.

"The five guys up front, that's all on them too. There's a lot more to it than just the sack numbers. We weren't the only ones to get sacked by Tennessee, Oakland, Kansas City and especially the Rams. Those guys did a lot of good work this year but in terms of analysis and whether we can improve, we're obviously going to look to improve but it's not just that position."

The Bengals still have big plans for the three offensive linemen they drafted last season, second-rounder Jackson Carman, fourth-rounder D'Ante Smith and sixth-rounder Trey Hill, but they also indicated they are looking at more players there to add via the draft or free agency.

Another thing Taylor isn't going to get rid of are the tough feelings around the last-minute 23-20 loss to the Rams filled with heartbreak and might-have-beens. He's seizing them instead of burying them.

"The reality is, it's in our past. It will be a part of our future because we need it to be. We need it to fuel us," Taylor said. "We need to harness those memories of watching them celebrate on the field, watching the confetti fall, what the locker room felt like, what the post-game interviews felt like, what the flight home felt like.

"Those are memories I don't want to fade. You want to be able to harness that and fuel you when you get those moments last year, you take advantage of it and capitalize on it and don't let those opportunities slip away."