USA TODAY Sports
In order for the Bengals to mind their own business, they have to mind their division's business first.
Now that the dust has settled on the 2012 season, Marvin Lewis has once again locked himself in his tower to torment his poor drawing board. It's become a rickety thing, with its wood wearing thin and its wheels broken, but as long as its master can see his own handwriting on the caked chalkboard, it will do.
He stares at it now and wipes the chalk dust on his shirt. He narrows his eyes and shakes his head. There's still something missing. A deep sigh emerges from him and he sets the issue aside momentarily. He flips the drawing board over to its other side. It creaks painfully, but flips nonetheless. On it are written sketches of the rest of the division, each team listed with many details about them, and Marvin steps back to take it all in.
He hates this part-comparing his team to others-yet he values its prudence enough to force himself through it every year. Typically these comparisons worry him and distract him from his own flock, but this year feels better. The others find themselves with salary-cap difficulties and will be perhaps weakened as a result. "Easy, Marv" he tells himself, "you've thought this before only to have underestimated the resiliency of your foes." He sits back down and crosses his arms.
First is Baltimore. Divisional winners, Super Bowl winners. The bastards. They pummeled the Bengals in the opener, embarrassed them on national television. Then they pulled their starters in the finale and gave the Bengals a meaningless second-string win, hardly a triumph. They will be significantly different now, though.
Their spiritual leader and walking overdose of testosterone, the venerable Ray Lewis, leaves the game behind as a legendary champion, not easy shoes for his replacement to fill, and with him likely goes the all-time pirate and Bengal terror Ed Reed, maybe to another team, maybe from the game itself. The others of possible Hall-of-Fame ilk, Terrell Suggs and Haloti Ngata, are not to be discredited, but both have been hampered with injuries in the past year and are racking up the mileage themselves.
A bigger concern than age for the Ravens, however, is money. They are over that unforgiving cap number and unfortunate cuts will have to be made. To make matters even more difficult, their quarterback needs a new contract and he fancies himself pretty good even if many are still holding out on that same feeling. Joe Flacco has done what it takes to lead his team to the top. He has a strong arm, he's smart enough, and he stays healthy. The Ravens can't afford not to pay him whatever he's asking. He will hinder Baltimore financially for years to come, but he would ruin the Ravens in the short term if he were to walk away to another team.
So that means that Baltimore will need to create even more space under the cap to sign Flacco long-term. Sacrifices must be made. Veteran Anquan Boldin appears to be glued to the chopping block thanks to his high cap number. Linebacker Dannell Ellerbe is a fairly attractive player for other teams and could be lured away to places with more cash to offer (the Bengals?). Pass-rusher Paul Kruger had a terrific season in Suggs' absence and earned himself a contract the Ravens are unlikely to afford. Old grizzly-bear tackle Bryant McKinnie is large and battle-tested but may no longer fit in the rebuilding phase the Ravens would rather not admit is currently taking place. Their GM, Ozzie Newsome, is one of the best and will continue to make smart organizational moves for his team, but it's a good thing they won it all last year because it appears there is a perfect storm of front-office headaches just on the horizon.
Generally speaking, I would look for Baltimore to continue to acquire speedier receivers in order to capitalize on Flacco's big arm. On defense, they will need more linebacker depth if Ellerbee and Kruger end up leaving too. I don't see the Ravens sinking to despair and suffer from the lash of losing seasons in the near future, but they should feel a setback at best due to this salary-cap quagmire.
Things seem a bit less rosy in the Steel City. Here a proud people feel surly and deflated after their treasured football team failed to win most of their games a year ago. An 8-8 season is an outrage along the shores of the great Confluence and if the trend continues, those people will become deranged and rip their hair out, or worse yet, treat the team like they do the Pirates and ignore them altogether. Pittsburgh has no allies in the world of football thanks to the brash and verbose reminders the Steeler faithful felt inclined to constantly express throughout their glory years. There is a word synonymous with payback and that word will be felt throughout all of Pittsburgh should the Steelers continue to falter.
And why shouldn't they?
Because they too have an upper-echelon front office and scouting department and their ownership will do whatever it takes to win? Because they too have a franchise quarterback and defensive legends in place? Those are the same replies heard in Baltimore and are good answers, but they don't overcome the same cap squeeze the Ravens plan to battle this spring. Pittsburgh also has a negative cap number and have written "roster pruning" on their to-do list. They have six defensive players that make a combined $60 million bucks. Ben Roethlisberger comes into the 2013 season with a $19.5 million cap number all by himself. How are they gonna pay the other 45 guys?
Like Boldin in Baltimore, James Harrison may feel the cruel blade of the salary-cap clever. He is older, slower, more injured and less feared than only a few season ago. The Steelers front office may beg LaMarr Woodley to restructure his contract or they may have to let him go as well. Ike Taylor is a quality player, but missed four games last year, is 32 years old and costs Pittsburgh almost $10 million next year. Troy Polumalu is also over thirty, played even less games and makes more money than Taylor, but may have too much marketing power for Pittsburgh to release him. The defense will have to shuffle in the new crop of youngsters and hope the transition goes well, but with Dick LeBeau at the controls, one has to figure they will come out of this mess alright on that side of the ball.
On offense, Mike Wallace seems certain to set sail to other shores in free-agency. The franchise chose to go with Antonio Brown by signing him to a long-term contract last year for good or for ill. Now there is really no chance that the Steelers can retain Wallace and may not even be able to sign Emmanuel Sanders either. The team also appears prepared to completely overhaul the running back position and let all three free agents walk this offseason. The offensive line dealt with a lot of injuries last year and a player like Willie Colon may prove to be too expensive to keep as well.
Questions abound in regards to the Pittsburgh Steelers and there are whispers that even Roethlisberger may be settling into a decline thanks to his injury history and a strange relationship with his offensive coordinator, Todd Haley. The team has shared that they will administer a zone-blocking run scheme in the mold of Mike Shanahan and Gary Kubiak next season which leaves one to wonder if a new foil to their offense will keep defenses on guard, or add to the confusion.
This franchise has calmed troubled waters in the past, but the tide is high and the waves are choppy this go around. It is a moment of great magnitude for the team and the city, and in order to sustain the glory that Pittsburgh has enjoyed for so long, one man, general manager Kevin Colbert, must steer it all in the right direction, lest those northern river people lose their minds.
Along the great lake of our own state, rests a team struggling to drag itself from the mat. The Cleveland Browns have started and restarted, built and rebuilt so many times that the construction site that is the organization appears nothing more than a muddy hole with dormant heavy machinery around its edges. This time, though, they have new personnel on every organizational level from ownership down to assistant coaches. A new day has dawned in Cleveland and the time seems ripe for better things to come.
Unlike Pittsburgh and Baltimore, the Browns are positively swimming in cap space and could afford the moon itself were it an unrestricted free agent. They have a young quarterback who they may not be completely sold no but had a respectable rookie season last year nonetheless. They have a gem of a running back in Trent Richardson who some think is made up of supremely high-grade material. They have some nice offensive linemen, including perhaps the best in the league, Joe Thomas, and they have yet another high draft pick with the sixth overall selection. Their defense also has some bright spots, but it seems like that's the side that needs the most attention.
Since money is no object, the team's biggest challenge is to convince free agents that they are serious this time. They're switching to a 3-4 defense and typically when a team makes a dramatic shift like that, some short-term stop gaps in free-agency are needed to serve as fill-ins until the drafted talent develops as needed. Rather than make any huge signings right away, I expect Cleveland to rack up a lot of second-tier guys in order to let the new scheme take shape, similar to how Marvin Lewis changed the Bengals into a 4-3 defense in 2003.
The Browns future is exciting because of the great potential they have created for themselves, coupled with the plethora of new faces within the building. The list of their current players don't necessarily leap off of the page, but there are a handful worth building around and with all that cap room, they could quickly grow in power within the division.
After thinking deeply about these other three AFC North teams, Marvin allows himself the slightest of grins. While other teams scramble to reduce or to add, the Bengals wish only to retain what they already have. Their core is in place and comes at a bargain price. They too have gobs of cap space and look to spend it on their own free agents-to-be, but also have the additional cash reserves to pick up an impulse buy or two should something alluring float their way. They have an extra second-round pick, sitting pretty at the 35th slot. They kept both coordinators despite each name often popping up on many teams' short list for head coaching jobs. Organizationally speaking, very little has gone wrong in Cincinnati in the past two-and-a-half seasons and they have positioned themselves in the divisional cat-birds seat for the future.
Marvin raises from his chair and erases the sketches of the other teams. They no longer matter. At this point each are desperate and shapeless and do not warrant specific roster changes in response to stopping them. The tables have seemingly turned and it pleases the man who stands at his drawing board. He is wise enough to know that resting and complacency leads to misery and eventually unemployment, but he also knows that he has finally taken the lead in the power race for the division. He flips the board over, back to the sketch of his own team. He will obsess over this side of the board and not worry about the other until May. He puts his hands in his pocket, nods at the black board and kicks it for good measure. He whistles softly as he flips the light switch off and closes the door. He won't return until after free-agency has ended. He will sleep well tonight.
Mojokong-there are many treasures locked in towers, but none greater than the one locked in yourself.