INDIANAPOLIS _ What we hear about the Bengals as we prowl the halls of the NFL scouting combine this week:
BURROW MOVING THE CHAINS: Jim Miller, the old savvy Bears quarterback (a career-high 120.4 passer rating in a 2001 win at Paycor Stadium when he sifted the Bengals on 77-percent passing) and versatile, canny football man Pat Kirwan (a disciple of old Bengals head coach Bruce Coslet) have been one of the best tandems in the NFL for a dozen seasons as host of Sirius NFL Radio's "Moving The Chains."
This is why: We catch them behind Radio Row's curtain prepping for Thursday's show with briefing books that look like they were lugged out of the last presidential campaign. They kindly take a break to talk Bengals, as they do often with their vast network of regular listeners such as Kevin and Cincy Dave.
"Kevin has the best pregame locker room speech," says Miller, who needs no pep talks when it comes to Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow. "We talked to some of the Bengals coaches and he inspires them. He revs up the coaches. He's just that guy. An unselfish guy."
Miller loves how director of player personnel Duke Tobin makes no bones about talking the roster with Burrow.
"Duke told us with Joe you have that confidence in him," Miller says. "We'll just bounce ideas off each other, Duke says, and Duke will say it kind of gives thoughts in his mind to make him think about stuff. He challenges Duke. I thought that was really good to hear. But he's selfless about it because he's such a good leader and he inspires confidence in everybody."
Kirwan says Burrow is the first quarterback he'd take right now because, "Burrow is my No. 1. I love (Patrick) Mahomes, but his style of play, he may not last as long as Joe. That why." He's also a big Tobin guy and this is a man who broke into the league as a scout for the Bucs during the 1980s when they took Vincent Edward Jackson No. 1 overall and "I was there turning in the card and I said to them, "Bo Jackson just told me he's not coming no matter what we do."
"We talk about Duke Tobin a lot," Kirwan says. "I don't care where you are and Cincinnati is no different You have to understand your environment. Your owner. What works there. What the head coaches wants. So you've got to all these pieces that are the intangibles that have nothing to do with the 40 (yards) time and the production and everything else and I think that guy has figured out how to get Bengals players and that's a tribute to him."
Kirwan's first NFL coaching assignment was on defense with Coslet's first Jets staff, which made his first NFL game against the Bengals on 1990 Opening Day at Riverfront Stadium. He learned a lesson from Bengals head coach Sam Wyche in that 25-20 Cincy win he still teaches.
"We ended up (dressing) four cornerbacks and we lost one on the opening kickoff," Kirwan says. "And your head coach was smart enough to with four wide receivers because he knew we had to keep a linebacker on the field. That's the last time we went into a game with four."
Now Kirwan has a question for Bengaldom.
"The question to you really is, when you go pay Joe, what's the sacrifice? That's what intrigues me. He's a $50 million a year guy."
Here's how Kirwan, via the late, great Hall-of-Fame coach Bill Walsh, sees what they need to do this offseason and with their free agents.
"First off, they can't afford to lose everybody. A safety has to come (back). I would think a corner or two (would be added) as well. Right from Bill Walsh. You have to recognize when you're really good and you have to build your sub-defense first because you are going to make them play catchup football most of the time. (Walsh said) once I saw (Joe) Montana could score, we just spent our time and money on extra DBs and pass rushers."
Miller thinks they should take a looking at drafting an offensive lineman or two, but both think they found a left tackle Jackson Carman off his two starts in the postseason.
"Put it in the post office," Kirwan says as their photo is snapped.
AGENT OF CHANGE THORNTON: It was 20 years ago this March when Titans defensive tackle John Thornton walked out of Patriots head coach Bill Belichick's office and told rookie Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis he was signing a Bengals-record six-year, $26.5 million deal in free agency, the first shot in Lewis' culture war that made the Bengals relevant in the 21st century.
When Thornton became an agent, he got an even better deal from the Bengals for defensive end Michael Johnson 12 years after that (four years, $24 million), so if anyone has a sense for what is going to transpire with the Bengals in this offseason of economics, it is Thornton. He has no questions that Bengals president Mike Brown is going to roll out the money because he saw him do it before and after the Bengals won the 2005 AFC North with an offensive line anchored by tackles Willie Anderson and Levi Jones and skill players such as Pro Bowl quarterback Carson Palmer, Pro Bowl wide receiver Chad Johnson and record-breaking franchise rusher Rudi Johnson.
"I think it is (similar)," says Thornton, one of the leaders of the Roc Nation football wing, says as he finishes a lunch with some fellow agents in a hotel restaurant. "We had two of the top five highest-paid tackles. Carson was the highest-paid (player), Rudi was one of the highest paid running backs, Jeremi (Johnson) was the highest paid fullback. T.J. (Houshmandzadeh) was the highest paid slot. They've got a similar situation. If they make the receivers the (richest) position, they'll have to start to chop. You have to change your team if you're going to pay those guys top money because you'll have somewhere that's lacking."
What isn't the same, Thornton says, is the defense still has a playoff core despite four starters headed to free agency and he thinks this defense ("They play so well together") can continue to play like it has with rushers Trey Hendrickson and Sam Hubbard and their top cornerbacks in the fold with the linchpin playing in defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo's proven scheme. Thornton had three defensive staffs in his six Cincy seasons.
Thornton, who changed the culture in 2003, says Burrow and head coach Zac Taylor have led the 2020s version. Another big difference: Thornton had both the talent and the intangibles, but he needed a little more help on a defense that lacked big names. Thornton, 46, settled in Cincinnati and plans to keep at the agent game for a few more years. He has to be one of the most successful player-turned-agent ever. He recently inked Jaire Alexander to the richest cornerback deal ever and he reps the fourth pick in the 2020 draft, Giants tackle Andrew Thomas.
"The coaches have to leave it to the players to handle the locker room. Zac came in and changed it from Marvin's philosophy and that was hard because there were Marvin guys still here," Thornton says. "It probably made him a better coach. I think they got it right. They were playing with guys at the end of who were backups and they were still winning. That's culture to me. What they did in Buffalo, that's culture. To go up there and beat a good team on the road with backups at a lot of positions on offense, that was a culture win."
WARD HEELER: Anarumo's defense relies on versatility and if you're looking for a draft prospect that fits the Bengals, look no further than LSU defensive back Jay Ward. And you have to say "defensive back," because Pro Football Focus said he played 100 or more snaps in the box, at free safety, in the slot and at corner. You know how they love production in big programs and Ward played 37 games racking up 156 tackles, 102 solos, 17 passed defensed and six interceptions.
And he may be there on the last day.
They'll certainly have plenty of research on him. As a freshman Ward played 77 snaps on the 2019 Burrow-Ja'Marr Chase national champions.
"I watch them quite a bit," Ward says of the Bengals during his media availability Thursday. "I played with two of them, so I like to watch my former teammates see what they're doing. Going against (Chase) my freshman year was very competitive. It made a big impact. I don't like to lose and Chase is very competitive. I battled him my freshman year. We had a few battles."
Ward, who opted to go against the grain and play in LSU's bowl game as well as the Senior Bowl, certainly drips with the football mindset they covet. At 6-2, 190 pounds, he says, "I'm going to show you up and demolish you," and "I wanted to play in the bowl game. Let the boys know this is my last game and I want to go out with a win. When I signed at LSU, I wanted to play in all the games. I wasn't trying to opt out."
Ward says NFL teams have told him different things. "Some see me at corner, some see me at nickel, some see me as a high safety." Asked where he prefers, he says, "Where I get on the field."
Ward also has some experience scout teaming against Burrow in his flawless Heisman Trophy season.
"He's great," Ward says. "You saw what he did with us my freshman year."
PET PEEVE: Greg Cosell, who breaks it down like no other for NFL Films, is on his way to the workouts at Lucas Oil Stadium when he's asked what he thinks the Bengals need this offseason. If Germaine Pratt leaves in free agency, he says they need a linebacker.
"The way they play defense, they need a linebacker opposite (Logan) Wilson," Cosell says. "Even though he plays in certain packages, I don't think (Akeem) Davis-Gaither can fill that role. He's more of an athletic, lighter, almost hybrid safety type. They'd have to find a guy to replace Pratt."
He also thinks an offensive lineman or two would help, but there's no question the skill players are in elite and keep them in contention. Particularly Burrow.
"My pet peeve is everybody says a quarterback has great traits because he can throw it hard and run fast. To me those are not the traits you're looking at to be a great NFL quarterback," Cosell says. "You're looking at more subtle, nuanced traits. To me, Joe Burrow is that kind of guy. Joe Burrow can move, we know on third and seven he can get nine yards.
"But he has more subtle traits. He has unbelievable pocket movement. Moving efficiently in a smaller area. He's really good pre-snap, understanding what he's looking at. He's outstanding in post-snap if there's any change and being able to go beyond and the structure and timing of the play. His ball placement is high level, he sees the field really well. These to me are quarterback traits, not the ability to throw the ball through a wall."
TO THE MAX: Former Steelers tackle Max Starks, Jr., who won two Super Bowl rings in Pittsburgh during his 10-year NFL career that ended 10 years ago, is doing one of his many media gigs. As the Steelers sideline reporter, he is on the Steelers Nation Radio network helping hosts Gerry Dulac and Dale Lolley grill a Bengals reporter.
As the son of the late, great Bengals defensive end Ross Browner who blocked some good ends himself, Starks has a unique view of Bengals edgers Trey Hendrickson and Sam Hubbard as the defensive descendants of Browner, still one of the top sackers in Bengals history even though 61.5 and last came 36 years ago.
"It's one of those things where it's a matchup nightmare. One of them can go off at any moment," Starks says. "Very rarely do you have two tremendous tackles that can take on what those guys can do. And the scheme will also be geared toward their strength game by game.
"Of the two, Hendrickson is definitely the lead dog, but Hubbard is not far behind him. So you have a lot of tremendous talent and because they both can play either side, I think that's what makes both of them dangerous when you think about how you deploy against them. I really like them."
Browner died too young at 67 on the fourth day of 2022 and his son misses that perpetual Ross smile. But his step-mother gave him one of the great gifts that was in his dad's trophy case: The plaque signifying the 1977 Lombardi Trophy he won at Notre Dame, emblematic of the nation's top lineman. The Bengals then drafted him with the eighth pick.
THEY HAVE TO PLAY FOR US: Bengals senior defensive assistant coach Mark Duffner made a bit of a name for himself this past season during the 10-game winning streak. Zac Taylor's post-game speeches were often punctuated by Duffner's distinctive repeat of the team's mantra, "They have to play us."
Duffner, participating in his 27th straight combine, is making his way to the field to watch the defensive line and linebacker drills with his signature energy. He loves being on the field, especially with prospects he will soon Zoom the maximum times allowed.
"It's a good opportunity to see how well they pay attention. How well they listen, how well they follow
Directions," Duffner says. "You get an idea of who has energy, who has a passion for what they do, you're right there with them. That gives you a chance to talk to them a little bit further and get to know them as much as you possibly can. It's a huge win."