Before Geno Atkins wore No. 97, John Thornton (above) wore it as the glue of the defensive line.
This week last year, just before the beginning of free agency, we ranked former defensive tackle John Thornton as the Bengals' third best free-agent signing of all-time behind only right guard Bobbie Williams and cornerback Terence Newman.
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Then two weeks later, Thornton the agent negotiated one of the more remarkable reunions in Bengals history with a four-year deal for right end Michael Johnson that can max out at $24 million after his one-year exile in Tampa Bay.
So who better to take the pulse of free agency then and now, an enterprise with a salary cap of $62 million when the Bengals moved into Paul Brown Stadium in 2000?
(Change? PBS cost about $350 million. When this year's cap went up $12 million, the combined caps of 2015 and 2016 counting benefits add up to $375 million.)
"A lot of people envy them. I know that," says Thornton of the word around the league about the Bengals this time of year. "Just from being an agent on the other side there's a lot of people asking about how they do things in Cincinnati. They wish they had the patience."
That patience is going to be tested next week when 11 of their starters and regulars go on the market in free agency with what is believed to be about $15 million to spend of the NFL's $155 million salary cap.
The Jones Gang of starting wide receiver Marvin and Pro Bowl cornerback Adam lead a list featuring long-time starters at safety in Reggie Nelson and George Iloka, right tackle Andre Smith and cornerback Leon Hall, and a regular wide receiver in Mohamed Sanu.
Yet Thornton senses the Bengals feel pretty good about their situation after they drafted offensive tackles in the first two rounds last year and took a corner in the first round of two of the last four drafts.
"The biggest contracts they're going to do are for their own guys a year before they're up," says Thornton, alluding to the mega deals for wide receiver A.J. Green, defensive tackle Geno Atkins, defensive end Carlos Dunlap, and quarterback Andy Dalton. "They rarely find themselves in panic mode . . . They're a successful team. They seem to manage the cap.
"I don't think they are (panicking) now. Because they draft well. I'm pretty sure they've got a plan for everything. They don't have major holes if you have coming back your quarterback, your top tight end, top wide receiver, and young guys on the offensive line waiting to play. They have a good defense coming back."
The gears have started to grind on the way to $155 M when the NFL's new financial year opens next week. Backup center T.J. Johnson is expected to be tendered a $600,000 exclusive rights contract. Their allotments for injury protection, incentives, and draft choices add up to about $12 million. Another $3.5 million or so is earmarked for potential dead money; players cut, the off-season workout program, and practice squad salaries.
But the Bengals and Thornton know all the planning in the world can't prepare either side for the first 48 hours of free agency. They are a whirlwind and the time frame is a bit blurry. Players and teams are allowed to start talking Monday, but no deals can be announced until Wednesday.
Whatever it is, Thornton calls those first few days "The Wild, Wild, West," and acknowledges "it's an environment the Bengals aren't comfortable . . . but it will settle back in a couple of days and the teams get back some leverage."
But the Bengals hope to use their patience to stay within their cap parameters during that tumultuous window of bottomless spending as they try to keep as many of their own free agents as they can.
Thornton says that window is the biggest difference between now and when he went on the market in 2003, the first year of Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis' re-building project.
The salary cap stood at $75 million and they outbid the Patriots and Cardinals for Thornton's services with a six-year, $22.5 million deal yielding a key veteran to help Lewis change the locker-room culture.
The Bengals weren't Thornton's first choice. But his meeting at PBS with Lewis, the rookie head coach and formerly one of the league's more high profile assistant coaches, quickly swayed him. Then while he visited in New England, Thornton cancelled a visit to Minnesota because they weren't in financial range and then he took a phone call from Lewis to make sure the Bengals were still on the radar. When he ended his three-day sojourn in Arizona during free agency's turn-of-the-century version of the Wild, Wild West, he decided on Cincinnati.
"That would never happen now," Thornton says of the extended time period. "Teams don t know who they're signing. They're just negotiating with agents. They don't know if the player really likes them or responds to coaching. They just don't know. You don't do any visits anymore. You don't sit down and eat with these guys. The deal is already done. You have this period where you can negotiate and people just don't want to wait. They don't want to wait on missing their No. 2 guy because the No. 1 guy is on a visit. Players would know more about their team if they sat down with the coach."
Cornerback Leon Hall, who signed a big second contract before the '11 season, could be headed to free agency for the first time.
When Michael Johnson left the Bengals to sign with Tampa two years ago in one of those classic quick strikes in the first hours of free agency, he didn't visit the Buccaneers. But Thornton says that's not why his year with the Bucs turned sour.
"Mike made a great business decision. Tampa had a lot of good things to offer and there were multiple teams interested," he says. "But it just didn't work out and he was able to come back to where he was comfortable."
Thornton says there is more movement and more money in the pie as well as the quicker strikes. But, like '03, money is still the overriding factor for most. The Bengals sell their own free agents on familiarity, winning, and their efforts at front-loading contracts to offset cap-casualties in later years with big salaries.
But, as Thornton says, "It's hard on a first big contract to sell them on anything but money . . . They lean to the money. And they should. It's an unforgiving game. Once you're done, you're done.
"Understanding security, what kind of team are you on, the city, how do you get along with the coaches, players don't think that way when they come up on a (second) contract. Especially a mid-round pick. They're thinking, 'I've got to get the money,' and they should. It's easier for everyone else to say it's not about the money."
But Thornton also understands the kind of comfortability factor that drew Johnson back after a one-year hiatus and the loyalty the Bengals showed to guys like him, Hall, and Robert Geathers, all guys that received every penny of their second contracts.
"It worked out for me," Thornton says. "I got paid. I went to a place I was a leader. I played out my contract. I never had to take a pay cut. I retired here. That rarely happens. In Cincinnati it's more likely to happen the way they structure things.
"There's a perception you can't get a big deal from the Bengals and it's not right," Thornton says. "There are guys who have walked away with a lot of money from there . . . That might not be as sexy as elsewhere, (but) ask Leon Hall. Would he have played out his contract (five years, $39 million) anywhere else after ripping both Achilles and some team being as loyal to him? Probably not."
Thornton knows how free agency is such a delicate balance. For both sides.
And despite all the planning and talking and projecting on both sides, there is the unknown of those first 48 hours.
"The Wild, Wild West," Thornton says.
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