CINCINNATI — We had our first chance to chat up Bengals owner Mike Brown, head coach Zac Taylor, Director of Player Personnel Duke Tobin, Offensive Coordinator Brian Callahan, Defensive Coordinator Lou Anarumo and Special Teams Coordinator Darrin Simmons Monday as the Bengals hosted their annual media luncheon inside Paul Brown Stadium.
Here are 10 takeaways of note with players set to report Tuesday and camp opening on Wednesday.
- Joe Burrow probably won’t play until season opener against Minnesota on Sept. 12
“We probably aren’t going to put him out there until we get to the season because we don’t want to risk anything with him,” Brown said. “But his effort rehabbing was A-plus and our people are all cognizant of it, they appreciate him doing that, working as hard as he did because we’re dependent on him and we’re counting on him being ready to roll. I think he will be when it counts.”
- Zac Taylor has the most urgency to win now
How this team responds to Taylor and his staff to open the 2021 season is the second-biggest question to be answered after Joe Burrow’s knee. All parties know it, including the owner. I asked Mike Brown what kind of hopes he has for his coach, entering his third season in Cincinnati.
“Well, Zac is a very smart, good young coach,” Brown said. “He’s had a couple years to get his feet on the ground, get established. We’ve got a team that is three-quarters his players, new players that have come since he came. It’s his team now. And my hope is the same as his hope, which is to have a winning team. And we all have the same goal, which is to have a Super Bowl winning team.
“We know how hard that is. We have yet to manage that, and we’ve been trying for a long while. So, for him, he’s aware of all this that we’re talking about now, obviously, and he’s got this opportunity. It’s critical to him and us both. I really feel good about our chances. But I’m fully aware that you have to go out on the field and prove it. You can’t just talk about it.”
“(There’s) extreme urgency. You can’t waste a day,” Taylor said. “That’s the approach that we have to take. Just because you add Trey Hendrickson and you add Trae Waynes coming off injury doesn’t mean they’re just going to walk out there and look exactly how they did on tape when you signed them. They’ve got to develop that chemistry within the system, with the guy lining up next to them. And that’s going to take a lot of work, and some extra work. We’ve added guys that have the right approach and are willing to do that. But again, there’s got to be an urgency to get that done sooner rather than later.”
- Team sees Burrow as a transformational leader in locker room
“He’s extraordinary. He’s won over everybody on this team, me included,” Brown said. “And he does it with his intensity. He focuses of learning his responsibilities, carrying them out in a way that other players see and want to emulate. He has real effort there and when this happened, he had the same effort with rehabilitation. That’s a hard injury to rebound from, and ACL, and he’ll still be going through some of that.
- Burrow’s ability to read the field is perhaps his biggest strength
“He has a really unique ability to process what he sees,” Callahan told me. “Not everybody can do that. That’s kind of an innate thing. You can teach guys what to look for. You can teach guys how to diagnose what’s happening. But at the end of the day, either they can process it and then have an answer. And I think that’s what the great quarterbacks in our league do. They can take all the information, process it, and then what is it telling me? Do I need to change the play? Do I need to get to a different protection? How do I get this blitz picked up? And he can do it like that (snaps fingers). To be that young of a player who ultimately didn’t have a ton of playing experience coming into the league, to be able to do it the way that he has is very unique.
“And there’s only a handful of guys that process the way he does. He has the ability to get to any play any time he wants. He’s only going to grow in that regard as he gets better at the line of scrimmage and diagnoses defenses, and you get to a point where you see everything that’s been presented to you. Now, guys that have played forever, they know immediately, and they can take advantage of it. That’s the goal you want to get to — the point where you can see and process and then take advantage of whatever you’re seeing. He’s got the ability to do that.”
- With Sam Hubbard signed long-term to a four-year, $40 million deal, the team is now working on Jesse Bates III
“It’s a constant turn and burn,” Tobin said. “We’re always looking. We’re always trying to get guys extended and we’d like to make more hay there as we go here. Maybe something can come together with Jessie. It was great to get Sam on board. Katie did a great job with that contract and getting it done. He’s the type of guy that we like to have, that we like to reward. I think it resonates well in the locker room. What he’s done is show versatility, durability, production, effort, leadership and I can say all of the same things about Jessie.
“It’s great to have Sam on board for four more years. So that’s exciting. And then in terms of the bottom of the roster stuff, we’re always looking. We’re at 86 (players on the roster) so if they’re guys out there that we think can compete for some role and at this point the guys you’re looking at are probably competing for practice squad roles or maybe back end of the roster roles. As the preseason goes and teams start to cut down, maybe there will be some opportunities to get better there, too.”
As far as progress with Bates?
“That’s something that Katie is handling—hopefully something can come together,” Tobin added. “We’ll see. We’ll see.”
- Team believes Sam Hubbard is a foundation block of this franchise on and off the field going forward
“Sam Hubbard is the kind of guy you want on your football team,” Brown said. “He has sound ability but he’s really a good person. He’s an example for the other guys. He’s a leader in that sense. He does everything the right way. He practices the right way. He behaves himself the right way. If you knew him as a person, you would really admire him. I like him a lot. I would like to have 53, Sam Hubbards, at the end of the day. But the fact that we have him, pleases me, and I think he makes our team better.”
- The middle of the Bengals defense should be much improved and Trey Hendrickson’s role will be huge
“I think you always look every offseason and evaluate where you’re at and if you can improve, whether it’s on offense or defense at each level, at each position, so D line, linebackers DBs,” Anarumo said. “Last year, we put a huge emphasis on the linebacker group. This year we improved both the back end and guys up front. I was happy with both areas.”
Trey Hendrickson’s role as bookend edge to Sam Hubbard should play a key role to Bengals defense, especially on obvious pass situations.
“Just do what he did last year, beat the guy in front of him like any other great rusher,” Anarumo added. “I’ve been around some really good rushers in my career and basically a guy like Cam Wake, who had 100 sacks in his career, you whip the guy in front of you one on one. That’s what the great, elite rushers do, and Trey has shown that he’s able to do that. We’ll help put him in the right positions to do that for sure, but the great ones they beat their guy one-on-one, that’s what they do.
“He’s just a tenacious rusher. He never gives up. Even if he is initially blocked, he prides himself on being a technician. He’s going to win with pure effort and his great techniques that he uses. He has great quickness, quicker than even what I thought I saw on tape, and then when we saw him going only half speed in the spring, he’s a guy that’s going to win that way.”
Anarumo has flexibility in his calls that he hasn’t enjoyed in his first two seasons in Cincinnati.
“Overall, just the amount of flexibility the group will give us. You can get pigeon-holed a little bit when you send a grouping of guys out there and you only do a few things and the offense knows. If you can leave the same guys out there and do a bunch of different things that adds to the offense’s issues. So just the flexibility and what these guys can bring, that’s what I’m most excited about.”
- Mike Brown wants fans back at PBS and made it known that his Bengals understand why winning now is everything.
“I want the fans back,” Brown said. “It was a spooky season, if you will, last year. You would sit there, and no one is there but you. It looked like a practice almost. We have to get the excitement back and that only comes when the fans are in the stadium. We’re cleared to go forward. I think the public is aware of all that and we’re trying to do everything we know how to best protect them and our players.
“But I’m very anxious to see this thing working on the level we have seen in the past. We have to bounce back. We’re a team that didn’t do well and we disappointed our public. We’re well aware of that. That’s part of it. We have to show success. Give them hope. We have to convince them this is the place to be and that’s our job.”
- The NFL has “put the teams and players on notice” regarding COVID.
“The league has tried to put the teams and players on notice,” Brown said. “We have to take this matter seriously and part of that is trying to get our guys vaccinated. The coaches, the staff are all vaccinated. The players, we’re over 90 percent vaccinated. I’d like to get it up to a full 100 percent. But people have to agree to do this. We’re not compelling them to do it. We’re asking them to do it. We’re trying to convince them to do it and we’re making good progress at that.
How does Brown feel about the possibility of games being forfeited and checks being lost?
“About the way you suspect. I like to think we could work through this cooperatively,” Brown added. “We all want the same goal. I don’t know that I appreciate being threatened. Nobody does. The players don’t either. But I will say this. I’m aware of it and probably that’s what they wanted. They wanted us to take notice and that might incentive us to do the things we need to do to give us the best chance to have a complete season.”
- Despite the Bengals being more aggressive the last two offseasons in free agency, Mike Brown made it clear he’s still not a big fan of NFL’s current free agency structure. As a matter of fact, he wishes he could see it go away.
“Well, I don’t want to disappoint you, but I don’t think (my philosophy) has changed. There are a lot of factors involved in the free agency,” Brown said. “If I had my ideal situation, there wouldn’t be free agency, players would go to teams and stay with the teams throughout their career. That would allow the fans to identify with them better. That’s what I grew up with, and remarkably that system, which is denigrated by many most of whom have their own self-interest involved when they do so, paid the players the same percentage, or more of the revenue generated by the teams as the free agency system does. The free agency system is out of whack in this regard, it awards, just a small percentage of the population. There are guys that have to be here for five years before they get the free agency and then when free agency comes about 300 guys, or whatever it is, every year a hundred of them get real deals, a hundred of them get rehired close to the minimum and a hundred of them, a third of them, they just exit.
“And now that maybe somebody’s idea of the perfect system, it isn’t mine. In recent years, we have signed more of these free agents. We’ve tried to use our cap money each and every year. We have done that, we try to explain that every year to the media, we have a session where Troy (Blackburn) and Katie (Blackburn) go through our cap and present how we are using the money in the cap or the cap room. Yes, we’re using every bit of it and sometimes a little more carries into the following year, which lessens your chances in the future, but it’s something that I don’t think is as different as some of you may perceive it. Yes, this year we have added guys, we’ve lost some guys, we’ve added some guys, and I like to think we came out ahead, but we’ll see.”