CINCINNATI — The moments following Cincinnati’s regular-season finale were supposed to be a time to relish the Bengals’ first-ever back-to-back AFC North division titles.
But before quarterback Joe Burrow smoked his celebratory cigar, he went out of his way to reset conventional knowledge around the NFL.
When quarterbacks like Burrow are on rookie contracts, teams have the financial flexibility to spend freely, before a massive quarterback deal causes significant constraints under the league’s salary cap which can usually serve to limit a franchise’s Super Bowl window.
On this day, Burrow turned that idea on its head.
“The window’s my entire career,” Burrow said after the Week 18 win over the Baltimore Ravens. “Everybody that we have in that locker room, all the coaches we have, things are going to change year-to-year, but our window is always open.”
Heading into their divisional playoff game at the Buffalo Bills on Sunday (3 pm ET, CBS), the defending AFC champs do so with the belief that as long as they have Burrow, deep runs in the playoffs will be the expectation, not the exception . While that may be true, the quality of the roster around Burrow – who is eligible for a top-of-the-market contract extension this season – could begin to change as soon as this offseason, when star wideouts Tee Higgins (2023) and Ja’Marr Chase (2024), among others, will be up for new deals. But however those decisions shake out, with Burrow in tow, Cincy’s outlook appears bright.
“This perceived ‘window,’ it’s always great quarterbacks that are a part of [the Super Bowl], that win the whole thing,” Bengals coach Zac Taylor said. “We know we’ve got a great one. I agree with him. There’s going to be opportunity here as long as he’s here.”
‘Yeah, he’s different’
Cincinnati’s front office has been consistent in its message that having a quarterback on a premium salary makes signing other quality players a difficult task.
“We’re trying to get ready for our cap as we go down the line,” team president Mike Brown said at the team’s media luncheon in July 2022. “We’re going to need room for our quarterback, for our receivers and for some other people who are going to want to get paid at the top level, too. It’s not easy to fit all these in.”
But what Cincinnati has seen from Burrow over the past few years has given the team confidence that he can elevate those around him to play at a championship level.
When Chase and Higgins battled injuries this season, Burrow made the offense tick with the other options. Trent Taylor and Trenton Irwin each made key catches that helped the Bengals sustain an eight-game winning streak that lasted all the way to the end of the regular season.
The belief in Burrow became even more prevalent in last weekend’s wild-card playoff win over the Baltimore Ravens. Despite injuries to three of his starting offensive linemen, Burrow – and Sam Hubbard – did enough to lead the Bengals in a 24-17 win over their AFC North rivals.
After the game, wide receiver Tyler Boyd said no matter who Burrow has around him, he will find a way to make them work effectively.
“And I’m not just saying that because he’s my quarterback, my teammate,” Boyd said after the win. “But yeah, he’s different.”
Bill coming due
After drafting Burrow No. 1 overall in 2020, Cincinnati has retooled the roster around him.
The Bengals drafted top receivers (Higgins and Chase in 2020 and 2021, respectively), swapped out four starters on the offensive line after Burrow was sacked 70 times last season and continued investing heavily in the defense — a process they started before Burrow’s arrival.
Although the salary cap is expected to continue rising, there will be little relief for Cincinnati.
Chase, who has reached the Pro Bowl in both of his NFL seasons, will be eligible for a contract extension in 2024, one year after Higgins.
They are just a couple of the names the front office will have to discuss. Linebacker Logan Wilson, who had a big performance in last year’s Super Bowl loss, is also eligible for an extension. Free safety Jessie Bates III played this season on the franchise tag and will continue seeking a lucrative contract.
Others may have to leave in order for the Bengals to stay under the cap. For example, if the Bengals cut wide receiver Tyler Boyd, Cincinnati will get $8.9 million in cap savings while incurring just $1.4 million in dead money.
“That’s the process of dealing with your team and putting together a roster,” Bengals director of player personnel Duke Tobin said at the team’s media luncheon in 2022. “We ultimately are going to have to do what is right for us to get the best 53 guys possible with the resources and salary cap we have.”
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‘I wouldn’t trade him for anyone in the world’
When Burrow made his boast, it hinted at his assurance in the front office’s ability to put good teams around him, and addressed his value to the team.
“I know the guys that we have in the locker room,” Burrow said. “Like I said, it’s going to change year-to-year, but I’d like to think that a lot of guys in there will be around for a long time. We’ve won a lot of football [games], played a lot of football together. We’ve got great players in there.”
When Brown was recently asked about Burrow’s looming extension, he pointed to Kansas City quarterback Patrick Mahomes, who is the favorite to win his second MVP and a Super Bowl and led the Chiefs to the past four AFC title games.
Although Mahomes’ accomplishments have surpassed those of every quarterback around the league over the same span, Cincinnati believes Burrow’s value is unmatched.
“He’s playing at the level we need for him to lead us to be confident that we can go win every game we play,” Taylor said after beating Kansas City in Week 13. “Whatever those [MVP] conversations are like, there’s no doubt as I’ve said before, I wouldn’t trade him for anyone in the world.”
After Cincinnati beat Baltimore last weekend, Taylor mentioned a play to describe his quarterback. On third-and-1 in the third quarter, Burrow lined up with what Taylor called a “disaster” of a playcall. Burrow scrambled out of pressure and rushed for a first down before later finishing the drive with a QB sneak for a touchdown.
“If we don’t get that drive, who knows how the game goes from there,” Taylor said. “It’s a three-and-out and we’re punting.
“But he just makes plays like that to will us to victory.”